“All-American” is one of those elastic terms that can be stretched or shrunk to fit the speaker’s mindset. But there’s no more fitting description of this year’s Fourth of July Street Fair in Downtown Ventura.
Art, music and food drawn from across the globe in this melting pot culture we enjoy, lots of red, white and blue worn by Americans of every color. Kids, dogs and families thronging a six-block long stretch of Main Street with 315 booths offering everything from indigenous people’s music to a chance to sign a petition against arbitrary arrests in Syria. Locals and visitors alike celebrating the blessings of liberty as local candidates made their rounds (I saw Hannah-Beth Jackson, Bob Roper and Das Williams engaging voters.)
The powerhouse who organizes this extravaganza each year, Special Events Coordinator Michelle Godoy, arrived at 3:15 am this morning to start the set up (along with her fiancé Regal Morales, who works for Ventura Water.) You don’t entertain 40,000 guests without an enormous effort. The cool weather put no damper on attendance. The sights, smells and crowds brought Ventura alive by 10 am, beginning with the huge participation in this year’s Pushem Pullem parade for the younger set and their parents. Lots of wagons and strollers bedecked with the Stars and Stripes.
All over America, of course, there are parades and festivities stretching into the night when traditional fireworks light up the sky. What makes Ventura special, besides the huge crowds all day, is the sense of place that comes from having an authentic, historic Downtown.
While our Downtown dates to 1782 with the construction of the original Mission San Buenaventura, it hasn’t always been vibrant. Like most American downtowns, it suffered as customers and businesses were drawn to newer suburban malls, shopping centers and business parks. It’s hard to imagine an All-American community Fourth of July at the regional mall. That hunger for authenticity and a place that felt like home is what motivated Venturans to revitalize the City’s historic heart.
While there may not have been a single turning point in Downtown’s decline, it’s hard not to mark the decision by the County to abandon its courthouse Downtown in 1978 to relocate to the expansive campus on Victoria Avenue. It not only meant the loss of Downtown’s biggest employers, but led to the disappearance of a constellation of supporting businesses from law offices to restaurants. While courageous, the City’s decision to save the building from the wrecking ball by purchasing it from the County for use as City Hall was not enough to turn things around. By the recession of the early Nineties, Downtown Ventura was filled with vacant storefronts and marginal businesses barely hanging on.
That twenty years later it is the thriving revitalized heart of our community is a triumph of the American spirit of working together. Dedicated merchants and property owners persuaded City government to commission a visionary “Downtown Specific Plan” that sketched out a strategy. But it was the hard work and gutsy investment of entrepreneurs who gradually drew customers back to the Downtown. Special events like the Fourth of July Street Fair, the Holiday Crafts Fair and Artwalk reintroduced Downtown to old timers and newcomers. The construction of the movie theater and parking structure added momentum. Then the 2006 emergence of the Downtown Ventura Organization and the 2007 adoption of an updated Downtown Specific Plan solidified the progress. Despite the recession and the early controversy over parking meters, new businesses have continued to open and business to grow.
Those efforts continue today. At the crossroads for the Street Fair, the Executive Director for the Downtown Ventura Organization, Kevin Clerici, was selling new “Water’s Edge” tee shirts combining the Pacific surf with our Two Trees hillside landmark to raise money for replacing the Christmas lights on the Norfolk pines next to the Mission. That event in December is the bookend to our All-American Fourth of July, with choirs and holiday revelers gathering in front of the historic Mission to see Santa Claus and cheer the annual tree lighting. That event too signifies the way in which our historic Downtown brings our community together as one.
Public leadership, private investment, volunteer dedication and civic pride have all contributed to the success of Downtown Ventura on display today. We are still recovering from the hard times of the past four years. But today is a day to count our blessings, appreciate our community and celebrate our nation’s freedoms — and the sacrifices it has taken to achieve, expand and safeguard them. It’s an All-American day in Ventura in our All-American Downtown.
Happy birthday, Lady Liberty!