Story by Nick Welsh
If Neal Graffy were quicksand, you’d want to fall in. Half-hour chats have a dangerously wonderful way of stretching into two-hour conversations when Graffy is given reign to riff on his favorite subject, Santa Barbara’s history
As Graffy hopscotches from one decade to the next—impregnating his digressions with asides and his asides with digressions—whiplash poses a decided risk for anyone within earshot.
For many, Santa Barbara’s much-admired historic character—overwhelming yet intangible—is a vehicle by which South Coast real estate values have grown inflated. But Graffy’s infatuation with the past transcends any necrotic boosterism. Instead, as he puts it, “It’s all about telling a story.”
In one sitting, Graffy might offhandedly mention how the original owner of Hazard’s Bike Shop—who was mistakenly believed to have been killed during the earthquake of 1925—kept a caged bear on the shop premises, which, for the right price, he’d allow customers to wrestle. In another, he might pull out a flawless edition of the short-lived Bugle, the weekly newspaper owned and operated by E.O. Hanson—Santa Barbara’s mercurial and megalomaniacal progressive mayor in 1935, who was forced to resign before completing his first term.
Ever alive to the reverberations of Santa Barbara’s historical echoes, Graffy notes with glee how his parents now live in the house once owned by Harvey T. Nielson, the incumbent mayor Hanson eagerly thrashed to get elected.
Over the years, Graffy has written three books on Santa Barbara’s history—and is now working on his fourth. For a while, he carved out a unique niche performing as perhaps the only stand-up historian in the United States. The gigs were tough and demanding to prepare for, but they proved exceptionally popular.
On stage, Graffy radiated a cheeky, playful enthusiasm that belied the depth of research involved. Honing his shtick, Graffy learned how to balance factual detail and anecdotal thrust. He learned to listen to his audience and how to work a crowd. He also learned to let his astonishing collection of historical photographs do much of the talking. Graffy’s historical slide-show monologues draw large numbers, but, unfortunately, they did not pay the bills. For that, Graffy relies on his self-taught skills as a computer software engineer and runs his own business.
Born in upstate New York, Graffy moved to Santa Barbara in 1962 at age nine, when his father—an accomplished test pilot—moved here for work. His mother, Jeanne Graffy, would throw herself into Santa Barbara’s civic life, eventually serving on both Santa Barbara City Council and County Board of Supervisors. As a student, Graffy was, at best, indifferent, much to the consternation and concern of his parents. Unlike his siblings—well known and accomplished in their own rights—he would not go to college. Instead, at age 14, Graffy found his calling while doing yard work for Leontine Phelan, whose home at 820 Santa Barbara St. was an intoxicating, overflowing mishmash of historical and archeological artifacts. Young Graffy was transfixed and has remained so ever since.
Graffy’s passion for local history has had a profound impact on Santa Barbara’s physical and cultural landscape. Throughout much of the 1980s, Santa Barbara Trust for Historical Preservation was pursuing plans to restore El Presidio in its entirety. To make this vision come true, however, the trust would have to obliterate the remains of Santa Barbara’s former Chinatown, its former Japanese neighborhood and other historical traditions. Throughout that period, Graffy played a major role, arguing on behalf of a more expansive and inclusive preservation agenda.
He and his allies ultimately succeeded in raising enough public concern to slow down the trust. Eventually, the trust itself would have second thoughts and, today, trust administrators have embraced the multi-faceted histories that sprung up at the site of the old Presidio, not just that of the original Spanish soldiers. Thanks in part to Neal Graffy, the self-taught historian, the neighborhood epicentered by Santa Barbara and Canon Perdido streets still remains one of Santa Barbara’s most vibrant and authentic.
For more information, visit elbarbareno.com.
Originally published in the Fall 2013 issue of Santa Barbara SEASONS Magazine.