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Santa Barbara - South County

Ortega Park murals under evaluation ahead of massive redesign project

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Redesign plans for Ortega Park put a bullseye on part of Santa Barbara's past.

Nino del Maiz by Manuel and Annette Unzueta (Beth Farnsworth/KEYT)

Concerns are high among many local residents that culturally sensitive artwork, dating back to the 1970s, could be slated for demolition. Mark Alvarado, a community activist and head of One Community Bridge Project, has engaged city officials to take a second and more critical look at the issue.

"These murals are really, you know, the social well-being and the legacy of this neighborhood and this community, specifically the Chicano, Mexican-American community," said Alvarado.

Mark Alvarado in Ortega Park (Beth Farnsworth/KEYT)

The Santa Barbara resident spent much of his childhood in Ortega Park. Decades later, he's leading the charge to save dozens of the murals from the wrecking ball.

"These murals are protected by law and so I think the city really needs to explore ways to preserve and protect these murals," said Alvarado.

Jill Zachary, Director of Parks and Recreation, said COVID-19 may have stopped the in-person conversation but behind the scenes, the city is doing just that.

"The Master Plan calls for the development of a murals/public art plan in collaboration with community members," Zachary wrote in an email to NewsChannel 3. "This work was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic and the inability to host in-person community forums and discussions."

Alvarado said the paintings were first implemented as a way to add color and culture to an increasingly blighted area that became a big draw for "undesirables" during the 1970s. The murals showcase work by local and international artists, including icon and SBCC Chicano Studies Professor, Manuel Unzueta, as well as students artists.

Codex Cospi by John Russell (Beth Farnsworth/KEYT)

Chicano, Mexican, Aztec and Mayan customs and traditions are depicted in large-scale, bold colors on walls throughout the park area. 

"But also we have themes of children and family and ocean and, just being here in beautiful Santa Barbara. So, it just really represents our community in so many different ways," said Alvarado.

The nearly 100-year-old park is slated for a $14 million renewal project that includes new youth sports fields, a bigger and better pool for swimming and splash activities, a skatepark, a multi-generational zone and more. The much-needed renovation aims to turn the Eastside neighborhood park into a community destination. 

Ortega Park redesign rendering (City of SB)

The groundbreaking is expected to happen sometime next year.

Alvarado said he initially believed the city planned to demolish all of the structures. However, Zachary said the city always planned to engage the community about the art in the park and realized that now is the time to jumpstart the conversation.

"It is a great project and there has been lots of community engagement and design of the park," Zachary said in an email to NewsChannel. "The Master Plan calls for the development of a murals/public art plan in collaboration with community members."

Zachary said the city hosted a webinar last month that focused on art and murals. Alvarado also took part. Zachary said steps are now being taken to evaluate options "to preserve or relocate the murals."

"We will continue to work with the community on the proposed public art program for the renovated Ortega Park," Zachary continued. "The Department has a long history of promoting murals in City parks, including those in Ortega Park and throughout the City that have been developed through our Youth Arts Alliance Program."  

The hope is, the future design of the five acre park will include the artistic legacy of its past.

"Yes, it's very possible to preserve these murals -- it's done all over the world," said Alvarado. "You have to have the political will, you have to have the public will."

Click the following link for more information on the Ortega Park Renewal Project: https://www.santabarbaraca.gov/gov/depts/parksrec/keyinitiatives/currentprojs/ortegaparkproject.asp

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Beth Farnsworth

Beth Farnsworth is the evening anchor for KEYT NewsChannel 3. To learn more about Beth, click here

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