Thursday, May 29, 2014

A love letter to Isla Vista

I lived in Isla Vista for a couple of memorable years in the mid-1980’s. Most people just called it “IV”.

IV is a small, densely populated village next to the UCSB campus, isolated by geography, demographics and culture from the nearby cities of Goleta and Santa Barbara, and more importantly, from all the harsh realities of adult life.

Photo from Pinterest

My IV, in the ‘80s, was jam-packed with young, mostly happy, mostly healthy, very decent people.  And so many people. Three to a bedroom in apartments. Two or even three balanced on beach cruisers wobbling down Pardall Rd. Dudes carrying surfboards down Embarcadero del Mar. Crowds of people chatting and studying at Espresso Roma, or drinking beer at picnic tables at Pizza Bob’s. People everywhere, and always dressed as if we had just come back from the beach.

Jim and Andy at the flea market.

The IV fashion sense was a result of the nearby beaches, and the gentle weather, but also an expression of how safe we felt. Being in IV was not quite like being out in public. The whole place felt so comfortable, so intimate.

Mornings in IV were never rushed. Since most of our classes were a 5 minute bike ride away, we never had the stress of carpooling, or fighting for parking spaces on campus. We hopped on our crappy bikes and headed over to Roma for some coffee and maybe a cinnamon twist. And then to class, eventually. Maybe.

If mornings were slow and lovely, afternoons were quietly electric. Everyone walking or on bikes or skateboards. People laughed, flirted, made plans and scrounged for food. We were the world’s most relaxed people, getting even more relaxed as the sun settled down into the Pacific.

My Isla Vista was infused with an easy, subdued joy. You never had very far to go, and never had much to do. There was no Internet, no cell phones, no shopping mall, and no multiplex. We had the Magic Lantern movie theater, which showed art films and old classics. We had a couple of book stores, the world’s first Kinko’s, and Borsodi’s coffee house, which had live music and open-mic poetry in the evening. But mostly, we just hung out at home, in the yard, or on the patio. We talked, studied, played volleyball or hacky-sack, ate, drank, listened to music, obsessed over girls, and soaked up the gentle sunshine.

The Shells, an IV band, at Borsodi’s.

Isla Vista is an historic place. It had been a flash point for political activism in the late 60’s, culminating in riots and the torching of the Bank of America building in 1970. In a perfect expression of our generation’s happy complacency, the rebuilt Bank of America was decommissioned and converted into a dance club. It was actually a pretty fun place, for a while. Despite being big and crowded, there were few fights, no parading of high fashion, no rope lines or bottle service, and no raves. Just preppy/hippy college kids getting drunk on Long Island Ice Teas and dancing to the KROQ-inspired song list.

Truth be told, I was a terrible student in high school. I always took the easiest possible classes and still managed only a C average. Then in my Junior year, I attended UCSB's Summer Juniors Program, which lets about 200 high school students attend the six week summer session while living in Santa Cruz dorm (the one next to the beach).

Jim and Paul at UCSB, Summer of 1981.

After the summer session, I went back to high school motivated as hell to get into UCSB for real. I raised my GPA just enough to get accepted. I didn’t even apply anywhere else. It was going to be UCSB or nothing. As a new freshman, I moved into Santa Rosa dorm, my home for two fantastic years. Paul, my best friend from the Summer Juniors, also ended up in Santa Rosa, and we were roommates our second year.

And then in 1984, Paul and I moved to an apartment on El Greco with our across-the-hall neighbors and new friends Chris and Chuck.

Chuck, blowing bubbles from our apartment balcony on El Greco.

We all really blossomed in IV. There was something so insular and safe and encouraging about the place. Chuck and Chris both had cars, but we hardly ever drove anywhere. You could walk, bike or skateboard wherever you needed to go.

After graduation, I decided to stick around for one last Summer in Isla Vista. I rented a room in a house on Del Playa and bought a sky blue ‘66 VW Squareback. I got a job at a roadside produce stand on an organic farm in Goleta.

Jim's beloved '66 VW Squareback.

After work, my preferred activity was to grab a book and take a little inflatable life raft down to the beach, paddle out past the surf, tie a piece of kelp to one of the oar locks to keep from drifting, and read. I’d often fall asleep. Once, I woke to find my paperback copy of Anthony Trollope’s “The Spotted Dog and Other Stories” floating in the ocean just a few feet away. I fished it out of the water with an oar. I still have it. It is wrinkled and faded and stiff with dry sea water.

When I think of Isla Vista, the first thing I see is the quality of the light itself - quite literally the atmosphere of the place. In the morning, it was always somewhere between clear and cloudy, a high ceiling of less than fog and more than haze. When that lifted, what remained was “cool sunshine” if that's even a thing. Such contradictions are only possible in magic places.

My Isla Vista was a world unto itself. It was our place, and I loved it. It was calm, and sweet, and completely, utterly safe.

I hope it feels that way again someday.


  1. I lived in IV two decades later and not much changed except the names of the restaurants. This is lovely. Thank you.

  2. Thanks for summing it all up, Jim! Beautifully compelling piece of writing. I especially love the part about using the kelp to keep you in place while you read in the surf. Can life get any better than that?

  3. Thank you for this. I was a student at UCSB and lived in IV during the same years as you, and you sparked so many specific memories for me (sitting in class with hair still wet from surfing that morning, grabbing cheap noodles and cheaper beers from the International Food Market to go watch the IV All-Stars play in Yoko Ono Park, Serranito's for a chicken-broccoli flauta, Spike's on Hollister for beers around the world, seeing the Violent Femmes at Campbell Hall when the power went out, Walter Capps' Vietnam class, Rod Nash's pop culture class, coffee at the Arbor then back to the library, watching Bill Bruckner's World Series error from a couch in the UCEN, Rockpile Records in Goleta and Morninglory Records in IV, Pat's Grass Shack and Larry the bartender, La Super-Rica Taqueria and the Cajun Kitchen ...).

    The quality of the light is also a key part of my memories, and in my mind somehow is diffused, as if it comes from all directions at once if that makes sense. I also strongly associate Isla Vista with the air, its temperature, the humidity, how it felt - and that unique, combined smell of ocean tide and oil tar is still one of my favorite things in the world.

    I didn't appreciate how lucky we were to be living in such a golden moment - everyone was young, healthy, had time on their hands, and had the energy and creativity to find ways to fill it. IV was a student ghetto, but it was safe and welcoming. Crime was nearly non-existent, if you exclude bike theft and under-age drinking. It was a community with many sub-cultures but that had a lot in common, and nearly every door was wide open, all day. You make such a good point - imagine how different the mid-80s would have been in IV had there been cell phones, the internet, Playstation, etc!

  4. "I know those guys!" (UCSB, Summer program, 1982)
    Thanks for that, Jim. We all needed it.
    - ingrid

  5. As a current Isla Vista resident, and graduating senior, thank you endlessly for this incredible post. I've always wished with all of my heart to be able to go back in time and experience IV decades ago, which so many alumni have told me wonderful stories about.

    The chaos, violence, and tragedy that has ripped apart our community this past year has been devastating, and the resulting sadness has rippled across generations of Gauchos. But despite these events, your story rang true in varied ways, even for all of us here in Isla Vista now.

    Graduating in twelve days, I've been looking back over my four years here in a similar manner of nostalgia as you describe above. And what I find in my memory is not the IV portrayed in the news recently. It is the IV that has retained much of its sunshine and groove and love and surf and happiness and art and music that you seem to have also experienced in the 80's. The names of the places have changed--we get beer and pizza at Woodstocks, and coffee from Caje or Coffee Collaborative--but if you'd replaced those names in your letter with these, it would have been almost exactly the letter that I would write about IV today. We still bike through lazy sunny mornings on our rusted squeaky bikes, passing surfers and smiling people. We still gather at house parties to hear local bands get their groove on, still play volleyball at DS park in the sunset, still wake up early to hike Arlington Peak only to come back a few hours later to surf Sands in the late afternoon.

    Granted, there are things about IV that are unlike your 1980's version. But the Isla Vista that I've experienced is something that like you, I will never forget. Especially in the wake of our most recent catastrophe, Isla Vistans have pulled together in these past two weeks with more love, strength, and sense of community than I have ever experienced, and I feel blessed to be a part of it--even if it has been entirely bittersweet. (i.e., google "Isla Vista Memorial Paddle Out," if you haven't seen that already. A great example of the love that I'm talking about.)

    I guess what I'm trying to say is that in little pockets of Isla Vista, there still exists that unique, sunshine-filled magic that you carry with you from all those years ago. It's here, and it's vibrant, and many of us have found it, and will carry it with us as well.

    Thanks for your story. My heart swelled with happiness when I read it.

    Gauchos for life. <3

    - Lily

  6. dear jim,

    thank you from the bottom of my heart for this. isla vista has been my home, my learnings, my teachings, and my growings for almost 15 years, from when i was a freshman at UCSB in 1999 through now, as the general manager of the isla vista food co-op.

    thank you for this breath of fresh love and light, as well as for giving me a chance to again reflect on our moving forward as a community and what it will really take.

    i have much to say, but i'll leave it at that.
    thank you again.

  7. loved this! there really is something special about iv in the morning.

  8. Jim, This is perfect, in tone, in feeling, in timing, in truth, and in its recognition that love of the good is bigger than fear.

  9. Jim, this is an excellent account of my 4+ years in IV. Spent every school year & summer there from Fall 1979-Summer 1984. Yes, the 5 year plan was in full effect, and why would we want to leave. Countless nights I would sit on our beat up couch on the cliff over looking the Pacific and say to myself "it will never get better than this". Who on earth gets that at 21 years of age ? Paradise it was, and Paradise it will become again...because people care. Those who choose UCSB and IV care. Unfortunately that is not true of a few kids who arrive into our Paradise with alternate plans, and chaos ensues. I pray for those there and coming into IV for their short college years to take care of her, to love her as we did, and to stop those who don't.

  10. I was there with Kia, before your time, but the feeling was the same. It's a bit hard to recognize the IV I knew in the stories of Hell Night and the shootings.

    It was a privilage to live, love, play and learn there.

  11. When exactly were you at UCSB? I was there from 1983 to 1987. It was a wonderful place to live out one's college years...I wanted more than to live at home and commute to Cal Poly or the local JC, but didn't want the hassles of the big city (UCLA/USC) or to go someplace an airplane ride away...

    I wrote up some of my experiences at and (hope the links work...)

  12. Thanks for the pics and memories! I played piano and guitar and sang at Borsodi's Coffee House quite a few times in 1974 and 1975 while attending UCSB. It's so great to see an actual picture of the stage! I remember Robert and his wife (name?) well, and how they were quite the fascinating couple. The other two main attractions were the falafel place and the liquor store. :) Such amazingly fond memories...

  13. '82 - '85 here. Surfing, skin / scuba diving, getting provisions from the IV Food Coop, the best ... wet ... burrito ... ever ... at La Jicora. Plus all of the other things mentioned in the article and subsequent posts. Summers were epic. We would mess around with the antenna on our stereo and pick up 91X (XE... TRA ... Baja California ... Mejico) off of the marine layer bounce. EPIC!

  14. Thanks so much, that sure sums up what I.V. is all about. I grew up here and remembering at 5 1/2 years old toasting a marshmallow from across the street while the Bank of America was burning. My mother was a manager at DISCOfair then turned Two Guys Department Store, FedMart for a little while and now Kmart.


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