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Op-Ed: The Demise of Retail in SB Is about the Loss of Community as Well as Commerce

By Celeste Barber

On January 20, I was struck by a remark from Nick Welsh, during Newsmakers TV's journalist panel discussion, about the controversy over construction of housing on the current Macy's site at La Cumbre Plaza.

“But where can I buy pants?” Nick said.

The comment got a laugh, but it was more than a throwaway line, and I took the remark seriously; indeed, an entire episode -- or an in-depth series from the Independent -- could be put together around that one question.

We all ought to be distressed by the loss of community-based retail, both mom-and-pops and corporate, over the past 20 or 25 years. The distribution of wealth and economic prosperity has shifted from the many -- thousands of brick and mortar shops – to a single man, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Like many others, I first noticed this movement through books. My Santa Barbara City College students were no longer purchasing their English 110-111 texts from the on-campus bookstore. Instead, they began to order online through Amazon. In despair, in the first day course overview, I would include a plug for the campus bookstore, explaining why student support was necessary to sustaining its operation.

I lost that battle.

And then we lost bookstores everywhere: Crown at Five Points, B. Dalton Pickwick at La Cumbre, Downtown’s Earthling. Borders at Carrillo. Gone even is Barnes & Noble – all in a town that boasts three top-notch colleges.

How I would love to see Macy’s move into the old Nordstrom’s and, at the other end of Paseo Nuevo, a spacious Barnes & Noble where downtown Macy’s, the Broadway before it, were situated. Ah!

A loss of social engagement. I am troubled by our society’s removal of what used to be vibrant social engagement, now moved into the sphere of the home environment, a trend exacerbated by the pandemic.

Folks no longer want to dress for the workday, get into the car or bus, or on a bike, and commit to some hours among other people - all healthy social behavior.

Not healthy for human beings is the increasingly isolated place in which we now live -- isolated from each other, including those we don’t particularly agree with, or even like. There’s something to be said -- testing our ideas, toughening our skin, strengthening our character -- for having to work under a nasty boss, or with a disagreeable colleague.

Don’t you miss the coffee break over the water cooler? The company bowling league? Friends exclusive to work?

From where I sit, I can speak directly to SBCC’s reliance on online courses. Just recently, I was chatting with an old pal who teaches in the Math Department. He told me that students no longer want to attend classes, preferring online.

At a time in their lives when young people are expected to leave the nest and engage with peers socially, professionally, and academically, students no longer fledge. My friend and I shook our heads and agreed that online is not conducive for learning, especially in Math.

When online teaching was first introduced to City College about 20 years ago, the big selling point was that it was ideal for single moms. I couldn’t believe it! For many of those women, their lives are filled with chaos: poverty; overcrowded living conditions; the needs of young children; abusive partners.

The best thing that these women could experience is time away from the chaos, stepping inside a classroom with structure and the chance to engage with other adults who share a common interest. It’s no accident that online teaching has a high drop-out and fail rate.

Has our world become a more tolerant, compassionate place since the removal of oneself from the public to the private? It’s meaner. Colder. At times, cruel. We all have witnessed this shift in behavior. Some have experienced it.

Bottom line. So Nick’s worry about where to buy pants in Santa Barbara reveals some larger truths. As for me, I await the day when Newsmakers no longer comes wrapped to us inside individual Zoom boxes.

A day when the Gang of Four is seated around a table, coffee and condiments at its center. Maybe even a small studio audience to watch the recording and then to engage – Live and in Person!

Celeste Barber is an English Instructor at Santa Barbara City College who has been honored as a Santa Barbara County Woman of the Year.

Images: The ill-starred Macy's at La Cumbre Plaza (; Celeste Barber (courtesy photo)..

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