Time catches up with idyllic small-town life

Julian Phillips is a writer and journalist living in Santa Margarita. He worked for several years as editor of the Paso Robles Gazette newspaper.

Writer Mary McNamara seems to idealize small-town life, as compared with life in Los Angeles, in terms of how well residents know one another and of how various the opportunities are for meaningful interaction with fellow citizens (“Incidental Acts Ripple Far, Wide,” June 24).

As a resident of little Santa Margarita, population 1,258, for the past 30 years or so, I have to say I am glad to agree in part with that sentiment. But small-town California is changing fast, like the rest of the state, in ways both subtle and confounding.

Margarita (not to be confused with Rancho Santa Margarita, south of Orange County) is the town you drive past without a second thought on your way north after leaving San Luis Obispo on U.S. 101. Our claims to fame may include the huge Santa Margarita Ranch, a nearby lake, a few beer warehouses and the Los Padres National Forest 15 miles east. If you’re out of gas after driving the long, dusty route inland on California 58 from Bakersfield, or you need a snack for the drive north to Paso Robles and King City or beyond, this is the place.

As for opportunities for neighborly relations, my own life is a good example of McNamara’s contrast to big-city living. I attended classes at Santa Margarita Elementary School sometime in the ‘60s, and my son attended classes in the ‘80s at the school, which lies in the shadow of the Santa Margarita Cemetery, where my father is buried. Every morning I pick up the Los Angeles Times in town at the market run by a man I went to the very same elementary school with, and where I can chat with a woman behind the counter whom I have known since we were both 10.


The home I live in is rented from a wonderful senior couple in whose swimming pool I used to play during my teens, and my wife and I were married in the little chapel just a short walk down the tree-lined avenue. I am on speaking terms with local politicians, police chiefs and newspaper editors, and several of the faces I see around town regularly have known me since I was a child.

Santa Margarita is the kind of place where people just somehow “end up,” and I have left and returned more than once, but always with a sense of home when I found myself living here again.

If any of this inspires envy, there are many aspects of this small-town idyll that residents of Los Angeles might be more familiar with. The new century has not left Margarita behind in terms of all the fast-paced, impersonal, money-fueled and recklessly inconsiderate zoom-zoom lifestyle effects the big city is known for, something we locals deeply regret.

Our beloved ranchland, 13,000 acres of open space that surrounds the town, is now slated for the development of hundreds of homes few of us will ever be able to afford. There are at least 100 sexual offenders living in the north San Luis Obispo County area, according to police records. Lumbering SUVs, polished BMWs, sleek Porsches and long stretch limousines are now quite happy to run you off the two-lane roads connecting various places. A fleet of Learjets goes globe-hopping out of the once humble Paso Robles airport nearby, picking up celebrities from Los Angeles regularly. There are as many as 3,000 documented homeless people in the North County area (mostly women and children). And drugs, murder, erotic entertainment, gangs and government incompetence are something locals know about but seldom confess to outsiders.

All of this and more occurs in a small-scale, insulated community where the person you meet in line at the grocery store one day may have been known to you in the past as an employer, teacher, lover, pastor, coach, business associate or counselor. Or, perhaps, someone you met in the county jail or in court. Community, in this sense, is a double-edged sword, and if you owe someone money or have a family member in rehab, you can count on a few awkward moments as old friends smile and say hello, privately keeping track of your life.

The strong plus side of knowing a lot of people around town, including their problems and foibles, is that their ranks include a dedicated and determined army of volunteers who build parks, bridges and town halls, who protect homeless animals and feed homeless children, who clean the streets and plan the events, who dog the city council for improvements and who proudly want to keep things from becoming more and more like the big city.

As McNamara observes, “city life requires that our paths crisscross thousands of others every single day, and rarely without impact.” The same idea applies regionally and statewide. In my small town, when people in Los Angeles or San Francisco or Bakersfield have problems, we are often impacted. The school budget crisis in Los Angeles makes it harder for us to get state funds; gangs in Los Angeles have connections here; big-city car dealers show up in town with their wares for special parking lot sales, and our dealers cry foul; and on and on.

The point, of course, is that we really are all connected and interdependent, small town or big city. The lesson is for us to strive to make those connections as positive as they can be, wherever we may live in California.