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Ventura or San Buenaventura? A Tale of 2 Names--and 1 City

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The official name of the city is San Buenaventura, but it’s just plain Ventura to most people.

The longer version of the city’s name came from Father Junipero Serra, who named the mission town in 1782 after the Italian St. Bonaventure.

The nickname, according to historians, has its origins in a decision made by the Southern Pacific Railroad about 100 years ago. It was easier to print Ventura on railroad tickets than San Buenaventura.

The debate over changing the city’s name has been replayed time and again between romantic die-hards who want to keep the older name and the pragmatists who want to discard it.

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Seventeen years ago, then-Ventura Chamber of Commerce President John McWherter decided the allegiance to San Buenaventura as the official name was not only useless but expensive.

The city was spending $200,000 to get tourists to come to the city of Ventura, so why not abandon the formal name, he asked. To his surprise, a chorus of opposition rose.

“I nearly got lynched. People came out of the woodwork to complain about that,” said McWherter, now a councilman. “That’s the last time anyone suggested we change the name to Ventura from San Buenaventura.”

There is little legal reason to do so, said City Atty. Peter Bulens. He said the city’s longer name must be used on every official document, from ordinances to lawsuits to decrees.

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An official change of name to Ventura would involve an amendment of the city charter, which would have to be approved by voters, he said.

In the absence of any official name change, city officials this week described Ventura as being much like the imaginary town of Brigadoon.

“There is no city by the name of Ventura. It doesn’t exist,” McWherter said. “A crime cannot be committed in the city of Ventura because there is no city by that name.”

If a poll were taken today, a majority of people would be ignorant about the city’s roots as a mission town, said Grant Heil, a historian and editor of the Ventura County Historical Society’s quarterly for 20 years.

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Ventura has outgrown its longer official name, he said.

“I like the name Ventura,” Heil said.

Ventura is not alone among California cities that have shortened their names for the sake of brevity.

The city of Carmel in Northern California, originally named San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo after the mission Serra founded, also opted for a shorter version. Further south, the city of San Diego was at one time San Diego de Alcala before city fathers changed its name.

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Local historians say Ventura was literally railroaded into the name change in 1887 by Southern Pacific Railroad Co., which was beginning to lay down tracks in town.

Train schedules bore the name San Buenaventura, then S.B. Ventura and then finally Ventura after railroad officials decided the name was too long to fit onto passenger tickets.

In another commonly told tale, the U.S. Postal Service began using the name Ventura in 1889, thus sealing the formal name’s fate.

By the 1960s, even though San Buenaventura remained the official name, city officials were using the shorter Ventura on city stationery and official documents.

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In 1968, the City Council decided to abandon the shortened version for the grander San Buenaventura on city stationery.

Lawyers then working for the city suggested the change to San Buenaventura for legal reasons and the council supported that thinking, but not without opposition from three members, including then-councilman Gordon Lindsay.

Since then the city has learned to live with its two names.

City Hall trumpets “San Buenaventura City Hall” to all who approach. Once inside, however, information brochures and forms bear the city’s two names.

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The signs for San Buenaventura are not as large nor as grand as the green and white signs that herald Ventura Highway and city of Ventura to passing motorists.

Only one part of the city, a six-square-block area in the historic downtown, alludes to “Old San Buenaventura” with brown and white signs that were erected there more than a dozen years ago, said John Rider, city traffic sign superintendent.

The two-name policy confuses some people, city officials said.

City Clerk Barbara Kam said government agencies also are confused. The U.S. Postal Service often delivers mail addressed to Ventura officials to San Bernardino, almost 100 miles away, while mail for San Bernardino arrives in Ventura.

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Business callers to the Ventura Chamber of Commerce are surprised when they discover that the seaside town has another name, said Jim Barroca, chamber executive vice president.

Barroca believes there is little of the “romantic die-hard” sentiment left in the city for the grander city name. He said he believes that the name may give way to modernists who want to simplify.

“If people don’t say ‘I live in San Buenaventura,’ then why do they want to keep it?” Barroca asked. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

Ventura Mayor Richard Francis prefers San Buenaventura over Ventura.

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“There’s a river of snobbery that goes with the name,” Francis said.

Paraphrasing a well-known patriotic tune, the mayor broke into song:

“It’s a grand old name, it’s a high-flying name, and forever in peace may it wave.”

As for any campaign to officially dump San Buenaventura as the legal name, city leaders took the position that there are more pressing issues now confronting them.

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“Other things are much more important than whether we’re called San Buenaventura or Ventura,” Lindsay said. The issue is “too minuscule. It’s too petty.”


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