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A stain that an idyllic town can’t wash away

SANTA BARBARA, with its fussy intellectual ways, has always been a weekend favorite of mine, a 90-mile ride that seems a thousand miles away from the deeper troubles of L.A.

It was, up until last week, a peaceful little town of sidewalk cafes, notable restaurants, a magnificent university, breathless ocean views and a special art museum. Locals rode bikes through the city and tourists strolled the shops that lined State Street. There was sunshine there and cool fog.

And now this.

Suddenly, and without warning, gangs clashed in broad daylight on the same thoroughfare with the same shops and the same restaurants that have for years lured visitors like me to their peaceful environs.

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A boy died from the thrust of multiple stab wounds and, like a murder in heaven, it announced the presence of hostile, deadly street gangs to a wonderland of tranquillity. It wasn’t supposed to happen there.

Not that there haven’t been struggles in small and beautiful Santa Barb, but not on the level of what happened a week ago. There have been battles of words and ideas, of maintaining the style of a city long noted for it, not turf wars or brutal confrontations for dominance fought with shiny steel blades.

I don’t mean to imply that all the elements that attracted visitors in the first place have disappeared. The ocean is still there and that little French restaurant around the corner, and the kids from UCSB continue to add a glow of youthful grace.

But the gang fight has altered the nature of the city. The place that existed a few days or even a few seconds before 15-year-old Luis Linares was killed is gone and it is not likely to return. Promises of action and increased police activity will pale in the face of growing gang membership and the blood that is likely to continue to spill within the limits of their village.

That’s a damned shame.

What’s happening to Santa Barbara happened to us down here in the meaner climate of thousands of thugs who have banded together to rule L.A. with guns and blades from one end of town to the other.

They’re downtown and in the Valley; they’re on the Westside to the ocean and on the Southside toward the airport. They’re in San Pedro and Venice, in Woodland Hills and Pasadena. They’re everywhere and will one day be in the places that once seemed untouchable.

Over the years, as our own gang wars have increased, leaving babies and old ladies dead in the streets, I have heard from others relative to the presence of gangs in the Northwest and the Midwest, as though to rule an entire nation is the gang members’ quest. And they’re getting younger. A 14-year-old is charged with the Santa Barbara murder. Participants in the State Street battle as young as 13 have been arrested.

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“It breaks my heart,” a local said.

When I came to L.A. 35 years ago, there was little of the gang activity that has spurred City Hall to again announce a mandate to rid the streets of the mindless thugs with automatic weapons who have brought rivers of tears to a town once so laid back that even earthquakes didn’t rattle us much. The presence of Pachucos in the 1940s should have been a warning of ethnic and racial clashes to come. The widespread merchandising of illegal drugs should have been foreseen as the new currency in the lower levels of our societies. We should have sensed that they would ultimately merge.

Like smog and traffic, gangs are now an integral part of large cities across the country, overwhelming our ability to control them, much less put them entirely out of business. There is a peculiar level of tolerance in the urban sectors of America that allows them to exist, as though they are a necessary stitch in the fabric that comprises a metropolis, except for brief periodic crackdowns that eventually dwindle off in platitudes.

Perhaps what may be called the Santa Barbara Syndrome will alert us to the influence of gang participation in the body politic and the dangers that result thereof. Here is the sweetest of all small cities at last stained with the blood of a kid who had hardly lived, brought down by an assailant hardly into adolescence. Gangs have hovered for years in the periphery of the city by the ocean, and now they’re breaking down the door.

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There is intellectual coalescence in Santa Barbara. One hopes that its citizens, now aware of the evil in their paradise, will use their considerable gifts to study the roots of what happened there on a bright winter afternoon when a young boy died in their arms.

Al Martinez’s column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be reached at al.martinez@latimes.com.


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