San Buenaventura and the Haunts of Perry Mason
One might wonder what Erle Stanley Gardner, destined to become the world’s best-selling mystery writer, saw in the place in 1921-a burgeoning village struggling to take advantage of an oil boom that marked and marred and desecrated much of Central and Southern California. What Gardner saw was the remnants of a village that, pre-oil-boom, had been gracefully growing to a small town: but suddenly, due to gooey hydrocarbons, became an excellent blossoming economy in which to establish a law practice.
It wasn’t until he was well established in that field that he turned his typewriter from briefs, contracts and agreements to novels.
At that time, prior to his birth as a novelist, if typical of other oil boom towns, the place smelled of hydrocarbons, of sweaty men in coveralls, of smoke billowing from diesel engines driving pumping units and trucks hauling the foulest kind of liquid gold, and of money. Not an altogether offensive smell to many, but as one ages and reflects on what makes a place truly desirable, what makes a place attractive to establish a real home, to raise a family, or merely to visit and enjoy, one looks for something more.
Have you never noticed how much smell affects your opinion of a person or place? There’s just something about a pleasant aroma than makes one both happy and comfortable. Let’s not consider the contrary.
Like a beautifully prepared meal, a place should gratify all the senses. What meal isn’t better if it’s a delight for the eye and olfactory even before becoming gratification for touch and finally, taste?
A place is much the same.
Standing at the east end of California Street, just below the historic City Hall, next to a large bronze of Father Junipero Serra, while inhaling a fresh ocean breeze that’s teased across a field of strawberries is the litmus test of the theory. And the theory holds true. Fresh scented air is the finest of perfumes.
Joining the good padre and gazing out across the tops of hundred foot tall palm trees, equally majestic eucalyptus; distant windward fields of berries, vegetables, citrus, and flowers; and across the red tile roofs of miraculously preserved, and oft times refurbished, homes, bungalows, and commercial structures gives one hope that all of what was one of the world’s most affable cultures was not allowed to totally wane. Not totally replaced by mans’ restless, inevitably destructive, need to move forward; what he at the time conceived as progress. And which more often than not proves the opposite, as is not often considered: what price is progress? Is growth, for growth’s sake, productive? Quality of life is often the first to fall to unconsidered progress, so odds are progress itself is often an oxymoron.
The bronze Father Serra’s view is across those trees and structures and encompasses what was there long before either-the largest ocean in the world, the Pacific. And across a small sliver of it, the Santa Barbara Channel, to what has been described as the Galapagos of the Northern Hemisphere: the Channel Islands, only twenty-some miles off the Central California coastline. Now, thanks to excellent, if hard fought, planning and preservation, the five islands-San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa, and Santa Barbara-are known Channel Island’s National Park, and like other parks, welcomes visitors.
Wandering down California Street to main, and up and down this boulevard of shops, restaurants, bookstores, and boutiques, is a pleasure to the eye, ear, nose, and if one stops in Darden’s for an Irish Guinness, the throat. The choice of bars, wine bars, and pubs is wide ranging-bring a pool cue or just deep pockets, the choice is yours.
A few meandering steps more toward the ocean and spacious white sand beaches, and you pass the historic Erle Stanley Gardner Building, where Gardner maintained an office and began a stellar writing career, becoming the world’s best-selling mystery writer under his name and several pseudonyms. Gardner wrote for the pulps: westerns, history, travel, and mysteries inventing a rogue’s gallery of characters, notably Lester Leith, the gentleman thief. In 1933 Gardner made his transition to full time writer and novelist when The Case of the Velvet Claws was published.
To Gardner’s credit he devoted thousands of hours to a project he called “the court of last resort.” The project reviewed, and in many instances sought to reverse, the convictions of convicts incarcerated due to poor legal representation or careless or illegal actions on the part of police and prosecutors, and often due to misinterpretation of medical or other forensic science evidence.
The character Perry Mason was portrayed in various Hollywood films and became a hit TV series starring Raymond Burr.
Gardner died in Temecula, California in 1970, wedded to his long time secretary Agnes Jean Bethell, the “real Della Street.”
Both Ventura and its neighboring canyon and mountain community of Ojai are current home to a bevy of writers of all types, particularly Hollywood writers, plying their trade to satisfy every genre of film.
A few steps more down California Street takes you to The Sportsman, an eatery seemingly stuck in the past, where one expects to see Gardner, or maybe his most famous character, Perry Mason, leaning on the bar. The food here, like Gardner’s novels, is consistently good, if out of the 40′s and 50′s, the film noir era.
But within three blocks of The Sportsman are a plethora of conventional and ethnic restaurants to satisfy the most discriminating palate. From some of the best burgers in the region. If open air is your ambience, the Top Hat is the place. It’s an eight foot by twenty foot eatery, all kitchen and service area. From it, a couple of blocks, to a totally refurbished and restored 1928 building housing a upscale restaurant and lounge, the W20, or Watermark On Main where a diner can enjoy both a view and a set of historic murals reflecting the best of early California impressionist art, in a room to equal any historic restoration of the era.
On Main Street a diner can fulfill his most disparate culinary craving.
If it’s recreation you’re after, try hiring kayaks at the harbor and paddling or sailing the keys, or catching a ride on Island Packers to either whale watch or explore Channel Islands National Park. Ventura backs up to the hard-sandstone-shouldered, oak and pine covered Santa Ynez Mountains, and the Los Padres National Forest, for some real rough country exploring and hiking-who knows, you may stumble on Olivas’ gold, said hidden there by bandits before they met their fate at the end of a Los Angeles hemp-line and its thirteen turns.
Beach front trails lead one from the Ventura River to the harbor for walkers, joggers, or bicyclers.
If it’s more sedate pastimes you seek, old town Ventura offers antique store after antique store, and thrift stores for those who’d rather dig into their musty mounds, or merely take a seat on an ocean front bench and enjoy unparalleled sunsets.
Speaking of the harbor, it, too, has its culinary delights. Of course seafood restaurants like Andria’s and Brophy Brothers offer mounds of fish or shrimp and chips, but both of those take it a step farther. Brophy’s with a full bar and elevated view of pleasure and commercial craft, and both it and Andrea’s with chowder and lobster which never disappoints. And Andria’s offers a fine fresh fish counter for those with cooking facilities; and I mean fresh as a fishing trawler is offloading steps away.
Mexican, French, and a renowned Greek restaurant where a belly dancer will distract you from your loukaniko, Greek sausage stuffed with peppers-and a pleasant, if possibly unsettling, distraction it is.
While at the harbor, don’t miss the Channel Island National Park visitor center, with its flora and fauna displays.
Having often sought refuge, solace, and moderate temperatures, Ventura was an annual pilgrimage. Knowing it had clawed its way from a pastoral Spanish and Mexican Californio agrarian mission village providing a voracious east coast on the verge of industrial revolution with hides, horns, and tallow, was a pleasant recollection of history studied; watching with furrowed brow as it transformed into a booming off and onshore oil town of pipe yards and machine shops was historical transformation gone wrong, if beauty and graciousness is right; but then watching it slowly, like a katydid whose development is restricted by hydrocarbons, metamorphose into an art and cultural center satisfied an inner need that only a place of respite and renewed and reinvigorated beauty can provide. San Buenaventura, its historic name, born again.
And what a gracious time Old California was; one that can be relived by visits to the mission and its manicured grounds, to the Ortega Adobe beautifully preserved and restored with period furnishings, to the Ortega Adobe near the mission, or to a dozen art galleries and museums.
Old California, a time when it was said, “It’s better to be on time than invited.” When you were never late for a meal, for one magically appeared on the table when you arrived. A time when a haciendado, a ranchero, would leave a bowl of coins near the front door so a traveler would never be short.
A different time indeed.
With every passing year it seems Ventura, San Buenaventura, is reclaiming her past while establishing herself as a destination resort town with unsurpassed restaurants, recreation, and climate.
Don’t wait. Better on time than invited.
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