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Op-Ed: Why the Eastside's Ortega Park Murals Must Be Saved

By Mark Alvarado

Last Nov. 12, the city of Santa Barbara’s Parks and Recreation Department convened an online community meeting to review concepts for its $14 million redesign of Ortega Park.

During the meeting, I asked what efforts were being made to preserve the Chicano murals, many of which have been part of the fabric of the park for decades.

The murals could not be saved, a department representative responded, because of the construction of new buildings included in the redesign of the 90-year old Eastside neighborhood park.

Having emerged as a flashpoint in Santa Barbara's civic debate about homelessness, it seemed that Ortega Park also had become an ideal project for the City to "revitalize," or as some neighbors see it, "gentrify."

"The murals, which depict Chicano, Chumash, and Aztec imagery, as well as family and ocean themes, were first painted in 1979 during an official artists’ exchange with Santa Barbara sister city Puerto Vallarta and were part of a concerted effort to reclaim Ortega Park from the drug activity that prevailed there at the time. Other pieces by local artists, including globally recognized muralist Manuel Unzueta, have been slowly added over the years, one as recently as 2019."

Once I realized that the City had no intention to preserve the artwork, I contacted a few of the artists I personally know, including Manuel Unzueta and Armando Vallejo. Both asked me to help organize an effort to rescue the murals.

Arts consultant Anna Pihoefer and I began to research the City staff report scheduled for a Planning Commission hearing on November 19, just one week later. We found that the California Quality Environmental Act (CEQA) assessment of structures, required for the project, did not even include the murals.

CEQA provisions clearly ask if any assessed structures hold a social, cultural or political significance: the city's report stated that the structures had “insignificant impact”.

"Insignificant" for whom, we wondered.

We shared this information with the City Administrator's office, and asked that the murals be designated as "structures of merit," citing the California Preservation Arts Act, the state law that protects public art.

A political pivot. Swiftly, in an apparent attempt to avoid further public embarrassment, the city cancelled the scheduled Planning Commission hearing on the murals.

Parks and Recreation Director Jill Zachary abruptly pivoted, telling Noozhawk reporter Josh Molina that the city always intended preserve the murals - a direct contradiction of what her staff stated at the November 12 community meeting.

Around this time, I heard from Planning Commissioner Jay Higgins, who requested that I speak about the murals during the Nov. 19 meeting, even though the Ortega Park item had been deleted. He stated that it was odd for the city to cancel its own hearing within 48 hours.

At the meeting, I explained our policy findings -- and why the murals are so valuable to the history of the Eastside neighborhood.

As Tyler Hayden reported:

"Mark Alvarado, a former city staffer and now neighborhood advocate, complained that tearing down the murals with no attempt to preserve or even catalog them would mean erasing an important part of Santa Barbara’s cultural legacy.

"While Alvarado said he appreciated the city’s assurances there would be fresh opportunities for public art at a revamped Ortega Park ― which is expected to include a long list of new and updated amenities, including a swimming pool, water slide, skate park, sports courts, and synthetic turf field ― he found it unacceptable that the original pieces would simply be relegated to the dumpster.

"'If you don’t give acknowledgement to what was there before, you’re removing our history,' he said in an interview this week. 'How vibrant of a community are we, really, if we allow that kind of thing to happen?'"

Art historians speak. During the fight to save the murals, I also have been introduced to Dr. Holly Barnet-Sanchez, from the University of New Mexico, and Berkley arts scholar Dr. Tim Drescher. Together they published “Give Me Life: Iconography and Identity in East LA Murals.”

Dr. Drescher is a leading authority about the preservation of public murals in California. Both academics have offered their support and expertise for the preservation of this ethnic work.

They have said that the murals belong to a significant collection of public Chicano works from San Diego to San Francisco and that if you touch one, you touch them all. Hearing that, I recognized that all of the Ortega murals hold the same significance as the Sister Missions up and down the California coast.

I’ve also been contacted by Kiernan Graves, who was quickly hired by the City, after the fact, to assess the murals for their preservation. She stated that the blend of Chumash and Chicano themes are unique to Santa Barbara and stand alone in the state of California.

Our effort also has been supported by activist Michael Montenegro; photojournalist Barbara Parmet; Diana Cabral; Ann Hefferman; Tai Keppar; Freddie Janka; Dr. Dennis Bixler-Marquez; Gail Orsherenko; Sojourner Kincaid-Rolle, SB councilmember Alejandra Gutierrez; Healing Justice SB; Ethnic Studies Now and United Corazon. All of these folks have voiced opposition to the destruction of the murals and support the preservation of these important cultural works and their place in Santa Barbara’s history.

Meanwhile the city has postponed the hearing on the murals indefinitely. This story is not over.

Mark Alvarado is the Founder of the One Community Bridge Project.

Images: Murals painted by Armando Vallejo.

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