So at first blush this looks like one more column about Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens and the News-Press mess, but it’s about Santa Barbara.

Santa Barbara, above all else, is a community in love with itself. And our peculiar idiosyncrasies go beyond small town provinciality, California craziness, or the mañana mindset of the Southwest. We like us. We like how we do things, and we don’t like outsiders coming in and gumming up the status quo. And we especially like things to stay the same.

And that’s why we’re sad to see Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens close. Naturally, Jimmy’s regulars mourned the loss of their “meeting place” and the unique personalities – wild Willy pouring at the bar, owner Tommy Chung working over a wok in the kitchen, pretty Pearl Lee waiting on tables for 15 years.

But if you were not a regular, you still bemoan its closure. Because now, after nearly 60 years, Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens has changed from being a fixture on the local scene, to a fissure in our community traditions (for an interview with Tommy Chung read “FoodNOTES” on page 63). We treasure all our old buildings even more than our trees. And knowing that this particular venue on Canon Perdido was chock full of characters, history and unique tidbits is enough to want it to stay, even for infrequent habitués. We were happy knowing that it was there like a little treasure box to peek inside one day. So this is why, during the wild closing weekend that began on July 28, everyone wanted to come and pay their last respects.

Gary Young, a bartender for years in Santa Barbara, volunteered to play “door man” for the crowd, as a favor to his friend Tommy. “Being the bouncer here is the worst position to be in!“ he pleasantly grumbles. “Everyone coming up to me has a good story about why they should be in, and everybody has a personal connection.”

“My brother is the waiter here,” explains one female. A local Baby Boomer brags, “My family has been coming here since 1968 – our family booth is the second one in.“ A guy with a shaved head beams, “My best friend worked here all during the 1980s, man. His name is carved under the chair there.”

Three sisters have arrived separately over the hour, each wearing a Spanish dingle-ball hat from the 1960 Fiesta era, reciting the mantra, “I need to get in, my sister is waiting for me!” (I think the story was Jimmy Chung had given the hats as favors to the family when they were growing up.)

Inside the restaurant, everyone wanted to say they had been at Jimmy’s to eat the last meals served. Linda Williams and Christine Neuhauser got in a table to be among the last elite-to-eat. Donna and Marc Martinez, avid collectors of Santa Barbara historic memorabilia, were willing to wait an hour and a half. Jimmy’s is the place de irresistence for the local theatre crowd – the performers and producers, not just the after-show audience set. So no surprise to find SBCC theater department’s Tom and Judy Garey, and Sammy Lynaugh (known by every stage venue in town).

Because Tommy is a true Santa Barbara boy – three generations – he knew to give out “keepsakes.” Every restaurant patron received a copy of the menu and history and other bits. Santa Barbarans love to hold on to tangible mementos of any of its history. These will end up on eBay several years from now and will be collectible. Not to mention that Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens is the remaining link to our Chinese heritage.

(Hey City – Is it true that the building isn’t landmarked! The last visible vestige of our Cantonese community?)

At least Jimmy’s story is one for the ages and for our history books.

Independent Voices

Now that some of the dust has settled from the News-Press, folks are trying to figure out whether this was a Serious Thing or just another Santa Barbara thing.

Average Joe doesn’t really know all the details, but enough rumors and copies of the internal memos on the Internet, and a gag order point a finger at owner Wendy McCaw acting unreasonable and arbitrary. But these actions look more like lousy employer-employee relations. If she is intrusive and overbearing, it’s reason enough to resign, or stage an employee protest. But is this worthy of a riot by the community? By Santa Barbara standards, quite possibly – but for different reasons than usually given.

To put this in perspective, the biggest brouhaha before the Wendy Chronicles was back in the 1980s when the News-Press – get ready for this – went from “afternoon delivery” to a “morning paper.” Never in the history of local publishing was there such gnashing of teeth. To think of upsetting the evening ritual and nearly half-century tradition. An entire advertising and public relations campaign was launched to patiently prepare the public. But we would have none of it. Letters to the editor. Phone calls. Local radio harangues. And yes, threatened subscription cancellations.

But you see, Santa Barbara is never so in its element as when it makes a tremendous tumultuous tirade over something, which is – to the naked eye – rather insignificant.

So that brings us to Part 2 of the News-Press. Which part of “Journalistic Ethics” was actually destroyed? Was the publisher overstepping her bounds by deciding what stories could and could not be covered? Why? Does it really matter whether the editor makes that decision as opposed to the publisher? There’s no point waxing hysteria on the sacrosanct division of duties – sometimes one person is both editor and publisher. News-Press founder T.M. Storke wore both hats for 30 years, and more recently Jerry Roberts continued that tradition. The Journal’s Jim Buckley also did it for 10 years.

Oddly, the story about wanting to omit Travis Armstrong’s drunk driving incident also follows a local press tradition dating back some 94 years. In 1912, the publisher of one of the town’s two dailies was driving while intoxicated. In this case the outcome was deadly. He struck a woman out in a buggy and she died from her injuries. Not only did his own paper censor the story, but even his rival (the News-Press predecessor) suppressed all details behind the women’s death.

When folks from the same political position are leading the protests to put a wall up between editorial and publishing, Average Joe jumps back to reconsider what’s going on. Keeping one’s “personal opinions” out of reporting is a wonderful idea and worthy goal. Too bad it has never happened here! But the new turn on this tradition may simply be political.

The utter angst of all the activists is that the editorials have been attacking Democrat leaders – Mayor Marty Blum, Supervisor Susan Rose and especially Congresswoman Lois Capps. The question should be posed: Would these activists be just as upset if editorials and reporting were blatantly critical of a conservative congresswoman? Conveniently, we don’t have to wonder. We have a record of how the News-Press treated Republican Congresswoman Andrea Seastrand, or Supervisor Willie Chamberlin, etcetera, etcetera. And we have no record of rallies held at that time about “keeping personal opinion out of reporting.”

The bottom line is that regular criticism of Democratic office holders has never happened before in the recent history of the News-Press. Only Republican office holders were regularly subjected to hostile news coverage and blistering editorials.

Could this mean the News-Press is turning “conservative”? Well, local Republicans will be sorely disappointed. Wendy opposes Bush, Iraq and other policies. So now what? As one former journalist said, “You never know what side she’s going to be on.”

Exactly. And now comes the rub: If Wendy is not going to go soft on Democrats, and she won’t take up the Republican cause, and we can’t predict what she’s going to do, then could we say the Santa Barbara News-Press has truly gone “Independent.”