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Magnet for Meditation and the Arts : Ojai: Surrounded by mountains, the little town has always attracted philosophers, artists and schools. It is also a pleasant place to live.

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There is “something” about Ojai, a spiritual quality, magic, a feeling of being home, say some residents of the bucolic, foothill town in northern Ventura County.

World-renowned potter Beatrice Wood, 97 years old and a resident since 1948, “felt it very strongly. . . . When I came to Ojai, my life changed. It became bearable.”

To explain the spiritual pull that Ojai (population 7,900) exerts on some residents, Wood noted that the area was the site of a sacred burying ground of the Chumash Indians and is the home of Meditation Mount, the Krotona Institute of Theosophy and a library housing works by the late philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, whose part-time presence from 1928 to his death in 1986 deepened Ojai’s reputation as a center for human enlightenment.

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Also nearby is the Happy Valley Foundation, on whose 600-acre grounds Wood now lives and works. The foundation was created in 1928 by Annie Besant, an English socialist who also was a leading advocate of India’s independence from the British.

Besant also was president of the Theosophical Society, which, in 1909, began supporting and training Krishnamurti at age 14 as a future spiritual leader.

Of Ojai, Krishnamurti wrote: “In the summer it would be unbearably hot but there was always beauty here. . . . And at night there would be extraordinary silence, rich and penetrating.”

Wood calls her view of rolling hills and mountains from her potting wheel “as near to heaven as anyone can get in this life.”

But while Wood claims that people in Ojai are concerned with what she calls “fine living,” or living away from war, her Indian manager, Ram Parvesh Singh, feels differently.

“All this mumbo jumbo about new consciousness,” he said, “I don’t feel that way. I don’t feel the blessing of the gods. I just feel at home here. (Ojai’s) the only place I feel comfortable other than India.”

That sense of home was felt by Scott Eckersley when he found Ojai 24 years ago. “The minute I drove into Ojai, I stayed,” he recalled. “It has a sense of place, a spirituality.”

But all that is changing for Eckersley, a contractor who calls himself “an artist with building materials.”

“Ojai’s certainly not what it used to be,” he said. “We’ve been looking to get out the last few years. We’ve looked all over--Oregon, Washington, Canada.”

He blames “cutesy boutiques,” traffic, smog, the rich and yuppies for driving up housing prices and driving out the artists and what he calls the “fringe dwellers” that gave Ojai its soul.

“It was one of the noblest places to live,” he said. “Now it’s lost that flavor. It’s been ‘boutiqued.’ The magic’s gone.”

For East Coast transplant Mary Weber, though, Ojai “is like Shangri-la.”

“In (New York City), you can’t look people in the eye because you get a lot of crazies following you home,” said Weber, the mother of a 4-month-old son. “Here you can actually look people in the eye.”

Weber and Matthew Gross, a builder from Cape Cod, Mass., who tired of “shoveling snow off wood,” recently bought a two-bedroom, one-bathroom home near downtown for $179,000.

Gross has fixed up the house, but he told Weber not to get too attached to it because he will sell it when the market is right, and buy another to fix up.

“But we’ll stay in the area,” Weber said. “It’s a wonderful place to have a family. I just wish it would snow on Christmas.”

Although winter snow on surrounding mountains is not unheard of, Ojai’s famous summer heat is the nearly unanimous vote for the area’s biggest drawback. Residents and visitors must drive 15 minutes the Ventura coastline to escape the summer swelter.

A natural phenomenon that enchants Ojai residents and tourists alike is the “Pink Moment,” when sundown finishes in a blaze of glory, turning the face of the 6,000-foot Topa Topa Bluffs a brilliant pink.

Ojai, surrounded by foothills, is usually referred to in a larger sense as the Ojai Valley, which has 35,000 people and includes the more modest unincorporated towns of Meiners Oaks, Mira Monte, Oak View and Casitas Springs. The valley is reached by California 33 north from Ventura or from California 150 east from Carpinteria or northwest from Santa Paula.

Besides natural beauty, spiritual forces and resident philosophical groups, Ojai is noted for prestigious private schools and cultural events.

The boarding and prep schools include Villanova, Ojai Valley School, Thatcher School and Happy Valley School, which was founded by writer Aldous Huxley and friends.

A highlight of the area’s cultural scene includes the Ojai Music Festival, which began in 1947 and draws world-class vocalists, orchestras and conductors.

The self-supporting Ojai Art Center is home to musical, fine arts, theater, literature, choral and dance groups.

The annual Bowl Full of Blues draws throngs of visitors to the 7 1/2-acre downtown Libbey Park, named for Edward D. Libbey, an early philanthropist who helped transform Ojai from what he called “a ramshackle Western village.”

About the time of Ojai’s incorporation in the early 1920s, Libbey developed The Arbolada, a tranquil and desirable residential area noted for its winding, stone-bordered lanes circling around one-acre lots. Gates and fences are few, while oaks and pepper trees abound.

The East End, with houses and estates tucked in massive orange groves, is another coveted place to live. The two-lane roads are lined with stone walls, and house styles vary greatly, with a sprawling ranch house built next to a beautifully restored Victorian mansion.

Surrounding the charming, low-key downtown area, with its shady storefront arcade, are modest wood-frame homes and an abundance of mature trees.

Dorothy Rail, who was born in Ojai 61 years ago, and her husband, Richard, bought an East End home in 1962 for $27,000, with payments of $163 a month. Rail has seen many changes in her decades in Ojai.

“The service stores in the arcade have been priced out and replaced by trendy boutiques who cater to out-of-town people,” she said. “You used to see the Edison Co., a shoe repair, a beauty parlor . . . and a drugstore on each end.”

Today, between the boutiques and eateries is an Ojai landmark, a clothing and variety store that first opened for business in 1901 as Sprague’s, a dry goods emporium. It’s been in continuous operation since, as Hickey Bros. from 1917 to 1969, and Rains, since it was bought by Alan Rains, a Hickey grandson.

Ojai home prices have changed, along with the arcade and the city.

The average home price in the valley is $372,000, with a low end of about $160,000. The most expensive property on the market recently was a 2-year-old, 6,000-square-foot home on 22 acres for nearly $4 million. For condominiums, the range is from $129,000 to $259,000 with the mid-range at $183,000. Three-bedroom houses rent for about $1,200 a month.

The Ojai Valley saw its share of development in the ‘80s with several planned communities, including Rancho Matilija, with homes from $800,000 to $3 million, and Saddle Mountain in Oak View, where price tags begin at $650,000.

According to 12-year resident Bruce Karst, an associate at Century 21 Hibberd Realtors in Ojai, buyers for the costlier homes tend to be writers, producers and musicians, often working in the Hollywood entertainment industry.

The more affordable homes are bought by Ojai’s middle class who commute to jobs in Ventura, Oxnard and Los Angeles. “People live here because they like Ojai,” he said.

In today’s market, “most of what’s selling (in the Ojai Valley) is in the range of $250,000 or less,” according to Therese Hartman, an associate at Century 21 Hibberd Realtors.

“There’s a huge inventory,” Hartman said. “People are wheeling and dealing. It’s not like it was a year and a half ago when you got full price and there were multiple offers.”

Proving that bargains can be found, Francie and Russell Nelson recently bought a 1,300-square-foot fixer-upper “not quite in the East End” for $150,000. The Nelsons moved from Costa Mesa in search of a rural area in which to raise their two young sons.

While the house was “totally in need of a new everything,” according to Francie Nelson, the home now exudes charm with an added deck, French doors to replace some windows and 450 square feet of added living space. And it’s not just the house that the family adores.

“We fell in love with Ojai,” Francie Nelson said. “It felt right, when we were looking for a place to live. There’s a lot offered for children and families in Ojai.”

AT A GLANCE Population

1990 estimate: 7,770

1980-90 change: 14.0%

Median age: 37.2 years

Annual income

Per capita: 17,591

Median household: 35,731

Household distribution

Less than $15,000: 20.0%

$15,000 - $30,000: 23.2%

$30,000 - $50,000: 25.8%

$50,000 - $75,000: 17.6%

$75,000 +: 13.5%


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