RESTAURATEURS BRUCE and Rebecca Marder are a classic Santa Monica couple having a classic Santa Monica argument. Young, smart, prominent members of the Armani crowd, the Marders are doting parents and business partners. But they are also opposites in that subtle way their hometown has of creating political chasms measured by the millimeter.
Bruce, surly, darkly handsome and wearing his starched white chef's coat, is taking a break to listen to his wife with a mixture of disapproval and respect. Rebecca is a gregarious beauty, a former dancer with a burst of copper hair, and perfectly faded jeans lashed onto her thin frame with a huge black belt. A big supporter of homeless programs, she's known around town for having a heart of gold.
The Marders were the first on their block in Santa Monica Canyon to turn their bungalow into a mini-mansion, with vaulted ceilings and an airy studio, and it's filled with important furnishings like a Chuck Arnoldi end table and a Frank Gehry corrugated-cardboard dining ensemble. But Rebecca, who knows the alcoholic homeless lady named Josephine who lives on the beach, donates food from their restaurants to the city's homeless, whom she calls "a truly wonderful bunch of people, really terrific."
She's been bugging Bruce for months to lower prices at their tres chic , artsy restaurants--Broadway Deli and DC-3 in Santa Monica, and Rebecca's and the West Beach Cafe just down the road in Venice--because she's worried about fueling Santa Monica's encroaching elitism with $6 fresh-squeezed melon drinks and the like. Bruce finds her ideals somewhat odd, even for Santa Monica.
Their discussion this evening goes like this:
Rebecca: "My dream is that prices are going to come down every month little by little. Bruce is finally working with me on that. I have this real hard time with elitism and the rich getting richer and the poor being excluded."
Bruce: "Rebecca's motivated by having more people come in to experience our restaurants, but I don't know whether pricing is the issue here."
Rebecca: "I just like things fair, and I feel that the more you give, the more you get. It's from my parents--the fairness and equanimity."
Bruce: "But, honey, for each dollar spent under cheaper pricing, you're doing more labor, more work, serving more food but not necessarily making more profit."
Rebecca: "It's embarrassing and uncomfortable for me to be associated with elitism. I told him I thought there was a trend in which fancy restaurants were not as acceptable. He saw a Wall Street Journal article on it and started to change because of that."
Bruce: "If everyone in town was only interested in low prices, there'd be no good food."
Santa Monica is struggling with its soul these days, and whether the Marders know it or not, they are articulating the core debate.
THE SIGNS OF ADVANCED HIPNESS ARE everywhere in this sun-washed David Hockney paintscape of a city. There are the region's hottest restaurants, from established spots such as Wolfgang Puck's Chinois-on-Main and Michael McCarty's eponymous, art-soaked Michael's, to the pretty pasta oases that make the city feel like a town on the Ligurian Coast. The art scene is roaring forth like 1970s Manhattan, evidenced in an estimated 75 galleries featuring works of national artists and local heroes such as Arnoldi, Alexis Smith, Robbie Conal and Laddie John Dill. Two of the nation's leading pop architects, Frank Gehry and Charles Moore, have bases here, and all across town, mod mini-malls and spectacular pallazzos are springing up, burying the dowdy shops and bungalows of what was once just another Southern California beach town. Last month, the city hosted its first international film festival and drew 9,000 film types and millions of dollars.
Residents such as Michelle Pfeiffer can be spotted poking at the tomatoes in grocery stores on Montana Avenue, and Jeff Bridges is embroiled in a battle off Ocean Avenue with a neighbor whose steel-girded monolith of a house sits unfinished, rusting and wrecking the view. Vocalists Wendy Wilson and Chynna Phillips, of Wilson Phillips, each recently bought themselves $550,000 ocean-view condos. In February, Sugar Ray Leonard spent $1.1 million on his condo.
"We are becoming the California center of glitz, glitter and long consultations with our yoga trainers," says Assemblyman Tom Hayden, the honorary governor of what used to be called the People's Republic of Santa Monica and the leading environmental conscience for its 87,000 people. "Beverly Hills and Bel-Air are passe when you can live at the beach and still get your canapes delivered and your Rolls-Royce buffed at shops just down the street."
Numerous studio executives and artists--Oliver Stone is one--are choosing Santa Monica over Bel-Air or Malibu as a place to hang their hats. And they fit beautifully into the Third Street Promenade, the glistening new heart of the city between Broadway and Wilshire. The old discount shoe stores and grubby-looking pharmacies are being squeezed out by newcomers such as the mod Italian restaurant Remi, the bohemian coffeehouse Congo Square (black attire only, please), 19 new movie screens and half a dozen independent bookstores. Everybody enjoys the Promenade--even Hayden, despite his fear that Los Angeles' dark and greedy side is bubbling over onto virginal Santa Monica like a pot of black tar.
The city's fabled liberal social activism also seems driven by a need to be at the crest of the latest trends. There are the quintessential Westside political voices: among others, the influential Heal the Bay and KCRW-FM radio, with its eclectic music and pithy commentary--albeit with a Bronx accent. Popular Municipal Court Judge David Finkel has been arrested for protesting at a nuclear test site, and City Atty. Robert M. Myers works as a volunteer for the homeless. It's hardly considered worthy of note that the mayor--sweat-shirt-wearing Judy Abdo--is a lesbian.
And yet, many believe that something is rotten in this Capital of Hip. Ask anyone window-shopping along pricey Montana Avenue or lining up for cafe au lait at the bustling Promenade whether Santa Monica is losing its small-town flavor and hard-won diversity and turning into Trend Central. Most will point out the proof of this death--or rebirth--depending on their political grounding. The terms of this debate are being played out across many affluent pockets of Southern California, but the issues are most advanced right here, by the shimmering, if foul, Pacific. In all of California, perhaps only the city of Berkeley has embraced the "we-travel-our-own-road" philosophy more completely than Santa Monica.
For an idea of the Angst on the coast, take a look at a typical midmorning on the Promenade: At the Soho-style, maroon-and-black-accented eatery known as the Broadway Deli, wine buyer John Penoff and two salesmen from France are sampling wines, then spitting the scarlet liquid rather ungraciously into the "dump bucket." This restaurant/deli/gourmet shop has become a focal point for the powerful and the fulfilled. From his perch, Penoff says Santa Monica is changing "a lot. I describe the Third Street Promenade as a movie set coming to life. There's a migration from Westwood going on here. We're giving people a taste of something pretty new to them."
For $250 here, one can buy five delicate hand-blown glass flasks filled with grappa , the crystal-clear Roman liqueur that is only now hitting the bars in Los Angeles. In the gourmet food shop, there's a tiny bottle of balsamic vinegar, aged 25 years, until the liquid is chestnut brown and as gooey as maple syrup. It's priced at $125 for 100 cubic centimeters, about the price of an ounce of Obsession perfume. "People in Santa Monica want things you can't find anywhere else," says the deli's food buyer.
Marvin Zeidler, the mustachioed general partner, is trying to make a point about how the deli is really for families, workers and kids--"not a white-tablecloth restaurant. It's like home here." But his point keeps getting flattened as various celebrities appear at the hostess stand and wait to be seated. On this particular day, Meryl Streep, who lives about a block outside the city in an exclusive wooded canyon, is the first one to appear--hair unbrushed, pregnant out to here, wearing leggings and a non-maternity T-shirt stretched over her stomach, looking decidedly unglamorous, but obviously feeling at home.
Tom Hayden, whose office is only about 100 feet away, saunters in for lunch. As a drizzle falls outside, the talk turns to Santa Monica's storm drains, which send plumes of bacterial pollutants into the bay whenever it rains--as it has done all spring. Business travelers from New York who check in at the pumpkin-colored Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel, hoping for a break from urban grime and crime, have been known to call the front desk to whine that Santa Monica is supposed to be pristine, yet they're seeing a Love Canal and panhandlers from their ocean-view windows.
A few days later, Dennis Hopper is sitting with his wife and tiny baby at Remi, and he's teasing Hayden for fretting that Santa Monica is heading in the wrong direction. Hopper comes across the border all the time, but he lives in Venice, a community facing similar developmental pressures but still filled with an almost jarring diversity of income, ages and interests--the very things Santa Monicans are trying to cling to.
"Yeah, sure, Tom. It's awful to be sitting here having great Italian food on a great sunny day with fountains and sculptures and happy people parading by," Hopper snorts, crinkling his eyes and shaking his head a bit. "We're all just really suffering here. Somebody better call somebody! Do something!"
BACK IN THE DARK AGES, BEFORE LIGHTER-than-air gnocchi and salmon carpaccio, Raymond Chandler got a lot of mileage by ridiculing a dingy, corrupt, mildewed burg that he called Bay City. "Sure, it's a nice town," he wrote in "Farewell, My Lovely." "It's probably no crookeder than Los Angeles." In "The Little Sister," Chandler painted a word picture of a boarding house in what sounds much like the Ocean Park district: "Number 449 had a shallow, paintless front porch on which five wood and cane rockers loafed dissolutely, held together with wire and the moisture of the beach air. The green shades over the lower windows of the house were two-thirds down and full of cracks."
The opening of the Santa Monica Freeway in the early 1960s changed everything, bringing in outsiders who saw commercial and residential investment potential in the city's tree-lined streets and cozy downtown. In those days, Main Street was a dilapidated stretch of thrift shops and woolly bars, where starving artists such as Richard Diebenkorn, James Turrell and Sam Francis worked in $60-a-month studios, and the rich lived inland in Holmby Hills and Hancock Park. Santa Monica was a town of solidly middle-class homeowners, a conservative place where you were either growing up, raising kids or retiring. The newly built freeway helped upend the Midwesternesque milieu, as thousands of apartments were erected and the city began moving toward being more than 70% renter-occupied. One of the most dramatic casualties in the freeway's path was a thriving working-class black community; it made up nearly 20% of the population, and it was wiped out.
The transformation of the city was accelerated by the formation in 1978 of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, a grass-roots group that challenged the old guard in fierce rent-control wars; by 1981, it had swept every open seat on the City Council. The renters set the tone for the '80s, but the group, fractionalized by the city's growth policies, has not been able to control the frenetic changes of the '90s. City fathers, most of them Renters' Rights members, were at first speechless and then embarrassed about the 1990 census, which showed a loss of 2,000 people and a 13% drop in the number of children--signs that working families are being squeezed out by professionals who demand plenty of square footage but have few kids. Only 4% of the city's residents are black, and the Latino population, which boomed elsewhere in California, saw anemic growth, edging up to 14%.
The signs of creeping Beverly Hills-ization are strange to see in a town that political pros say is home to eight or nine political factions--all except one bunched together on the left and accustomed to having their way over a small knot of utterly powerless Republicans who generally live north of Montana Avenue and try to stay out of the way. At least 25% of the registered voters, according to local pollster Richard Maullin, enjoy household incomes of $75,000 or more.
Westwood and Beverly Hills values are encroaching here and not simply in some twisted poetic sense. One Westwood fixture, Jean Pierre Hallet's African Arts etc., has moved to the Promenade, hoping to ride the stunning wave of 75 galleries that, city officials say, now claim Santa Monica addresses. Main Street, where eclectic boutiques have for years sold kites, health food, children's clothes and fresh muffins, is being overtaken by The Gap, Banana Republic and other chain stores.
"We've got a lot of celebrity money coming into the area," says one local real estate agent. "But most is from locals wanting to move up, or from East Coast relocatees. There is some Iranian money, and we're starting to get Saudi Arabian money. Families want to get into the Santa Monica schools for their children. Mostly, they want Santa Monica for the air."
The city's robust economy generates well above $1 billion in annual taxable sales; 2 million tourists help. The service sector is growing by leaps and bounds: Eating places are the leading type of business, followed by hospitals and doctors. In the past four years, annual sales of alcoholic beverages leaped from $11 million to $25 million, and meals from $62 million to $84 million, according to the Chamber of Commerce. Even during a real estate slump, the average price of Santa Monica homes last year was $589,000, according to DAMAR Real Estate Information Services--that for an average size home of 1,550 square feet.
Last winter, the Penguin coffee shop downtown, which catered to many retirees, closed down, and none but the regulars seemed to care. A funky hardware store, the Busy Bee on Santa Monica Boulevard, was razed, and an entire stretch of Ocean Boulevard near the Rand Corp., including the salty Chez Jay restaurant, will be wiped out if the think tank proceeds with its plans to double or triple in size. To really grasp whether wealth and speculation could run rampant here, consider that Mayor Abdo can afford her home only because she bought it with friends in the 1960s.
But wealth and homogenization are not inevitable, say most city fathers. Chamber of Commerce president Chris Harding openly backs slow-growth measures that would send his Los Angeles counterparts howling to court. "I don't think they would let me run things in any other town," says Harding, an attorney for developers. "Santa Monica is a unique place--L.A.'s test tube for land-use and rental regulations. Most of us are more comfortable living under certain restrictions--so long as it protects our diversity and works like it's supposed to."
Few Santa Monicans--and this has been confirmed by pollster Maullin--want the city to become a jammed-to-the-gills Westwood or a don't-drive-your-dented-Chevy-here Beverly Hills. The effervescent president of Santa Monica College, Richard Moore, calls Westwood "that horror across the 405" and says most Santa Monicans view anything east of Sepulveda Boulevard as "not necessary to life as we know it."
PERHAPS IT WAS FITTING THAT THE HOTtest fight so far over the soul of Santa Monica involved a luxury hotel. Slow-growth, pro-rent-control forces won that round last November when voters banned the construction of a beachside hotel and specified that 30% of all new housing developments be affordable, below-market rentals.
Sharon Gilpin is often at the center of the big development storms. She fought to save the pier many years ago when she was a waitress at Al's Kitchen. Now that she's a communications consultant, she wins far bigger battles. Gilpin was a key force in stopping a massive commercial complex at the municipal airport. And she helped lead the prototypically Santa Monica coalition, Save Our Beaches, which successfully fought the infamous proposal by celebrated restaurateur Michael McCarty to build a $250-a-night hotel on the beach. Urged on by hotel-hungry city officials, McCarty spent $3 million on the plans in the 1980s, only to have voters reject the idea resoundingly.
"I gotta tell you I loved beating 7-to-1 money," Gilpin says about how McCarty outspent her forces. She fiddles dreamily with her salad at I Cugini, yet another chic Italian restaurant, across the street from the Daybreak Day Center for schizophrenic and manic-depressive homeless women. Gilpin, a supercharged businesswoman with a smashing smile, picked I Cugini to show a visitor what sort of places the supposedly left-wing City Council allows to be built without an Environmental Impact Report. Classy developments are wooed and rules get bent--that's Gilpin's take on things. Fittingly, she says, when you call City Hall nowadays, instead of a person, you get "voice mail."
"Every time we lose another small-business establishment--barber, button store, hardware store, neighborhood grocery--we lose what used to make us different from L.A.," Gilpin says. "The city's politicians have rigged zoning to favor big business and chain stores. In that regard, we are losing our soul."
McCarty's hotel proposal was a seminal issue that exposed the deep fears and pangs of guilt residents had been quietly nursing--uncomfortable feelings about change and about elitism. Longtime friends remain enemies over the brouhaha, and McCarty's eyes still flash with anger when he's asked what happened.
Rebecca Marder says she understands why many Santa Monicans were aghast at McCarty's plan, "even though I think it was a beautiful idea, a real civic asset and a fantastic design." But Bruce Marder says flatly that the City Council cowardly decided to abandon McCarty by putting his hotel to a referendum once they saw how angry the public was. "Four years from now it will be $450, believe me, to stay on the beach, but Michael was just being honest about where the city is heading--whether you like it or not," Bruce Marder says. "His honesty is what shot him down."
The dashing McCarty is not a person one might think of as a social pariah. But in certain circles, it is not considered politically correct to say you like him. One recent day, at his serenely elegant flagship restaurant, Michael's, amid the fabulous artwork and Christofle silverware, a prominent Santa Monica artist asked not to be mentioned as having been there.
"Some of my friends wouldn't understand," the artist was saying. "This is a small town." Even so, the artist gave McCarty a big hug and showed off the restaurant's costly collection. "There's a Robert Graham, and there's a Jasper Johns, and there's a David Hockney. I once checked the Michelin guide for the most famous restaurants in world, and from Southern California there were just Michael's and Valentino's"--another stellar Italian spot. "And both are in Santa Monica. Interesting, isn't it?"
Now another development controversy is brewing. At its heart is Water Gardens, a hulking office complex, complete with a man-made lake, that was approved by the council during the mid-1980s when it was controlled by pro-growthers. Developed by the J. H. Snyder Co., Water Gardens managed to squeak beneath the city's rigorously applied six-story height limit but so sprawls over 17 acres that, if turned on one end, it would be seen for what it really is--a 50-story skyscraper lying seductively on its side. Hayden claims that the nearby Cloverfield Avenue intersection already offers drivers a stomach-wrenching half-hour backup on the freeway ramps--and Water Gardens hasn't even opened.
For all those reasons, Water Gardens is terrifically worrisome to Denny Zane--the Dick Cavett look-alike longtime mayor, now a councilman--and present mayor Abdo. They are "progressives" on a City Council that includes two hard-core anti-growth members on the far left, Zane and Abdo at middle-left, two council members at right-left and, all the way to the right, a middle-of-the-roader who would be described in any other town as a probable Republican.
Zane and Abdo are walking a tightrope, because 5 million square feet of commercial complexes are in the pipeline, and certain parts of town soon may resemble Condo Canyon on Wilshire Boulevard. And somebody is going to have to take the blame for it. The progressives, supposed defenders of renter's rights and affordable housing programs, were on the council when the big developments were approved. Zane and Abdo argue vehemently that the council was controlled by pro-growthers and then-City Manager John Alschuler in the mid-1980s, rendering the liberals powerless.
"I almost want to say we are the victims of the '80s, but that's not quite right," Zane says. "I think the fundamental thing to remember is that Santa Monica was descended upon by the speculative real estate market. We have struck a battle to hold our own against those forces and so far we have largely conceded. But you don't win every skirmish."
Abdo sees the city as misunderstood, and she's getting tired of repeating her contention that Santa Monica is actually remarkably diverse for a city sitting on a piece of choice coastal property that could have been and still might become, say, a Monte Carlo. There's nothing elitist about the Promenade, in her view, "unless you think it's trendy to go to the movies. Our point of view is, all of that is just fine within limits. We like the idea that the wealthy and the poor mix it up here. I mean, that's what it's all about."
ON ULTRA-CHIC MONTANA AVENUE, THE last surviving gas station has closed down and the Vons has been transformed into a costlier Pavilions. On weekend mornings, residents stroll with Airedales, pugs and poodles and jam into Il Fornaio, where even a homeless man regularly joins the 20-minute wait for a $2 cup of designer (Italian) coffee. The tone along Montana is getting a bit high and nasal, and some people in Santa Monica don't like the sound of it.
On a tour of the avenue, Hayden gulps down three strong espressos and takes a moment to hear out a resident concerned about pollution from the beachfront storm drains. A moment later, a portly bald man with two silky-coated dogs struts by. When a passerby asks what sort of dogs they are, the man raises an eyebrow and barks, "Bouvier!" --as if any fool should know.
Gilpin learned from other activists that three out of five people answering their doors at the $800,000-and-up homes north of Montana did not speak English. The activists are worried that these rich newcomers might not care if their little burg becomes a Cannes or a Miami Beach. "There has been in the last 10 years an incredible transformation north of Montana. And a lot of those folks are not connected to the city at all. They just live in the neighborhood by the beach off San Vicente that's on the way from Beverly Hills. We found that people don't know the city's southern boundary line. But they moved here for either the schools or some sanity. Thank God, they thought Santa Monica was beautiful and didn't want hotels on the beach."
On the southern edge of town, Sunset Park, once a place of simple little homes for teachers and McDonnell Douglas workers, now is attracting more and more celebrities. Hayden, after his divorce from Jane Fonda, was among the new buyers in a friendly looking area of $300,000-to-$800,000 bungalows and stuccoes. Across Lincoln is Ocean Park, much of it still bedraggled from its bohemian days. Some people now call it Add-On Heaven, a place where young professionals with a nice stake from their first movie production or first successful ad campaign decide to make a down payment on a first house, to which they add a vaulted ceiling and a hot tub.
Donna Deitch, director of the 1986 film, "Desert Hearts," has built a seven-foot-high fence around her old home here but says it's "more to keep me in than to keep anything out." Her theory about Santa Monica is that it is the farthest west the rich can move from the barrios and the ghettos. "Beverly Hills is just too accessible," she says, "so the crowd running from the poverty and the ugliness is running farther."
Yet, Santa Monica has its own poverty and its own troubles; 600 of its 9,000 public school children are believed to be active gang members. With hundreds of homeless residents bedding down at night on the sidewalks from Palisades Park to the alleys behind Main Street, the city has one of the highest per-capita homeless populations in California. Local officials say they serve about 4,500 homeless people a year, the second-largest number in the metropolitan area, after Skid Row downtown. Pollster Maullin says most residents strongly favor providing more city homeless shelters, with 75% saying the city is doing only a fair or a poor job of addressing the problem. Angry residents want city leaders to enforce codes against sleeping in the parks, and they want more police assigned to areas where the homeless congregate.
The increasingly common encounters between homeless people and their better-off neighbors have taken an almost surrealistic turn. The other day, at the upscale Fred Segal clothing store, a homeless man bought a $170 leather photo album--influenced, like the Joneses perhaps, by the sea of consumption in which he is barely treading water. Vivian Rothstein, executive director of Santa Monica's leading homeless-assistance service organization, the Ocean Park Community Center, sees the incident as a quintessential act in a city where complex relationships link the poor and the well-to-do.
"The owner is a friend of mine, a supporter of homeless programs; she knew he really didn't have (much) money, and maybe this wasn't the best way to spend it, but she wanted to respect him and let him buy what he wished. . . . So here she helped raise money for us, and she sees some of our clients in her own store. She made a profit off the sale from him, and here's this complicated relationship that goes on in this community, and we're all around to talk about it, which is very interesting."
Many of the private homeless programs are housed in city-donated buildings, like the Daybreak Day Center near the pier. On a warm day, two schizophrenic women sit on one of the day center's sofas, rocking silently, side to side. They look like middle-aged executive secretaries, with softly curled hair and button-fronted dresses. At night they bed down around the Sears store with a few others.
Every Monday morning, an outreach team from the Ocean Park Community Center visits the city jail to help arrestees identified by the City Attorney as needing "social assistance"--another term for the homeless. Most have been arrested for crimes such as urinating in public. The city has gained such a reputation for handling its homeless with a heart that the Culver City police are routinely blamed by Santa Monica officials for dropping homeless persons in Santa Monica.
Rothstein, Rebecca Marder and some other residents believe that the homeless are, in a strange sense, guardian angels who protect Santa Monicans from narcissism. "In some ways, the homeless crisis is keeping us in touch with our humanity," says Rothstein, whose programs draw 400 local volunteers. "I feel like what we do is help to maintain a moral tenor in this community, and that in some ways the services that we provide are as much a benefit to our volunteers as they are to the homeless."
SOMEONE ONCE SAID THAT A society in trouble should look to its artists to predict the future and help it avert destruction. In Santa Monica, artists, writers and educators are having as profound an effect on shaping the city today as the politicians and developers. Urged on by people like City Councilman-turned-Municipal Judge David Finkel, the city in the 1980s adopted an unusual land-use law that allows artists to take root in live-in studios almost anywhere they want to. Finkel's wife, city Arts Commissioner Bruria Finkel, a painter and sculptor, says Santa Monica is fast becoming the world center of the contemporary-arts movement.
For $100,000, the city installed as a gateway a giant metal comma, illuminated with fiber-optics arching over Wilshire Boulevard. People said it was ridiculous and demanded something flashy, but the city was awarded a number of prizes for its good taste.
Bruria Finkel believes that such raucous debates are good for the city. "If we as people don't engage in these conversations and don't engage in these issues, we end up losing altogether," she says. "We want the city to become the example of how contemporary art is used in public places to reflect on our times, and we want to be the example for all of California, the nation and even the world." Finkel claims that in European art circles, Santa Monica, with its blustery public-arts movement and galleries, is becoming an adjective for American art--and she says it with credible gusto.
Talk like this can stir up the old Venice-Santa Monica rivalry. Venice residents say that they personify the arts movement; Venetian critics even wonder if Santa Monica ever had a soul to lose. Bruce Marquardt, owner of the Marquardt Gallery in Venice, says that what's going on in Santa Monica is "something dramatic and I suspect political at its heart, but it's not a struggle of soul. The soul is in Venice; the artists, the community, is really in Venice. What is Santa Monica besides a lot of brand-new restaurants and galleries that have parent galleries in New York?"
Marquardt says widely known artists such as Laddie John Dill, Ed Ruscha and Robert Graham, now in their comfort years, are busy enjoying $50 dinners and romancing the social set. Marquardt doesn't see this as necessarily bad--a natural part of being successful, really--"but all the struggling artists see this as the gentrified, the aging, well, the sellouts."
Dill has indeed grown older and richer, as has Santa Monica. Today he is a civic pillar and landlord who gets to bed early; he's on the board of the private Crossroads School; he teaches at Santa Monica College, and he has a painting hanging in a lobby at Wilshire and Ocean that is priced at $250,000. His studio is in Venice, but he lives in Santa Monica, near the airport.
Twenty years ago, he was a long-haired artist who ran around Venice Beach with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. "We were real asses and thought we were the only people who understood the world. You wouldn't have wanted to know us," Dill offers. Today he sees art, good design and aesthetics as critical issues for the city of Santa Monica, and along with Bruria Finkel he's been instrumental in creating the city's new warehouse/art school for community college and high school students on Colorado Boulevard.
"I could paint an ugly picture, and I can paint a nice picture of what will happen to Santa Monica," Dill says, sitting in his studio, his shoes covered with the concrete slurp that he uses to build up the thicknesses of his big abstract canvases. "The ugly picture would be if the economy fails to the extent that, for its own economic survival, the city has to bend in a direction of development without aesthetics--the Water Gardens disaster or the Loews Hotel catastrophe. I see a split between those in the middle area of income, and the rich people saying back to them, 'We don't need you.' "
The picture he prefers, however, is one in which scores of citizens continue trekking to boisterous City Council meetings where issues of the day are hammered out in a healthy public forum.
The artists are reaching out to the city's youth, through the college warehouse/arts program and programs such as Bruria Finkel's special public school art classes designed for children considered at risk of joining gangs. The city's educators are struggling to teach social responsibility in a town where one child might be an impoverished gang member and his classmate the spoiled son of a millionaire.
At Santa Monica's posh private grammar and secondary school, Crossroads, two years of Latin are required of all students, and local artist Sam Francis has installed a full-fledged gallery. The school educates the children of Meryl Streep and Mel Gibson--but the rich pay a $10,000 yearly tuition to support an extensive financial-aid budget.
Two months ago, a grubby teen-ager showed up in the dean's office. A nephew of Cesar Chavez, he'd hitchhiked from Tehachapi after having heard about Crossroads' top-rated music and science programs. This young man begged to be saved from near-certain failure at his rural school. Impressed by his bravado, school administrators admitted him and found him a bed at an administrator's home.
"These students must, as a part of their curriculum, work with the homeless or visit senior citizens or teach music to kids who never had instruments before, and, of course, we provide the instruments," says Paul Cummins, Crossroads' enthusiastic, scholarly headmaster. "When our students leave Crossroads, they have a compelling sense of responsibility for the person standing next to them, for their impact on the world and its ecology, and I think far less interest in how to obtain a Ferrari for college."
Similarly, Santa Monica College President Richard Moore sees his campus as a key agent for change. Next to the RTD, which shuttles thousands of inner-city families to the beach all summer, Moore--through aggressive recruitment--is probably more responsible for drawing minorities to Santa Monica than anyone. The college's minority enrollment is escalating dramatically, and Santa Monica College is placing far more third-year students in the University of California system than any other two-year college.
Moore says it all has to do with making your own rules. One of his more unusual ones takes hold every Wednesday morning, when, from 10 to 10:30, the entire college shuts down. Outside callers cannot get anyone at the switchboard, gardeners stop mowing, janitors lay down their brooms, and the campus grows eerily silent. All the employees are busy-- reading. It's an idea Moore stole from a local grammar school as a way to set creative juices flowing. Unusual approaches also apply in class, where even the welding students are forced to write numerous essays.
Now Moore dreams, only half-jokingly, of having the City Council pass a resolution to get the entire city's population reading for half an hour every Wednesday.
CITY BOOSTERS SUCH AS Zane and Abdo believe Santa Monica's "go-it-alone" philosophy is the key to warding off the urban sprawl, gentrification and homogeneity that are spilling over from the greater Westside. But nobody really knows who will win.
Hayden and others fear that city leaders have taken a permanent turn toward pro-development to create the revenues to fund their favorite social causes. "Stop the high-rises! Stop the Manhattanization! That's always been the cry from Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, and people have always been looking for a government that would actually do that," Hayden says. "But from my office, I look down on three levels of civilization, and they're all malls. There's the old mall, there's Santa Monica Place, and now there's this new Promenade on top of the old mall. It's very pleasant for now, but I'm convinced it will make us the next Westwood."
Rebecca Marder sees Santa Monica surviving not only as a city-state but as a feeling of heart--as that moment when a fallen homeless man is helped up from the curb by a passing businessman, or when one spots the mayor and two councilmen folk-dancing on the pier on a balmy summer night. The life of the truly hip in the '90s, she and others seem to be saying, is a youthful synthesis of lifestyle, art and social consciousness, carved out in a self-analytical enclave removed from retrograde suburban values.
And one must be attuned to new possibilities. But if things do take that final turn for the worse, she says with a grin, turning to her husband, Bruce, "I see myself in the North Country, the wine country. That's where everybody is talking about moving now."