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The north side of my town faced east and the east was facing south

Pete Townshend, The 'oo, "Substitute," 1966


Santa Cruz in 1990 was widely believed to be a state of mind, which was quite a shock to those residents who didn't share it. The progressive majority may not have been an oxymoron but it wasn't overwhelming either. The silent minority lived and had its representatives on the City Council; they did not understand quite how much of their frustration was shared by the leftist politicians they loved to attack.

It was a classic confusion between up wing and down wing – both left and right were likely to libel the city's eponymous atmosphere as flaky. The difference was that the left thought the flakes agreed with them and just weren't willing to do anything and the right thought the left were the flakes and all too willing to act. The right could (and loudly would) complain that Santa Cruz was the first city in the world to propose becoming a nuclear-free zone, back in the '70s, while the left moaned (and grumbled and kvetched) that no one ever got around to doing anything about it.* Hey, the place was laid-back, alright?

The place was also diverse. It may have routinely voted Democratic (and in primaries, as liberal as possible) but the local paper, fondly known to many of its readers as the Senile, had in 1990 reached its 133rd year without ever endorsing a Democratic candidate for President. The conservatives griped about the homeless, the homeless griped about the progressives, the progressives griped about each other and everyone stood shoulder to shoulder in agreement that they lived in the most wonderful place in the universe.

The climate was, and remains (doubtless thanks to the ban on local nukes), temperate. The annual heat wave falls conveniently after Labor Day, when tourism is beginning to drop off and the locals have a sporting chance at parking within jogging distance of the beach. Every decade or so it freezes hard enough to test the plumbing and possibly dust the beaches white at dawn. To keep everyone on their toes, mother nature sends in a catastrophe once a generation or so, in the form of fires, storms, floods or quakes. This has been going on at least since the middle of the nineteenth century, when the modern community began to grow, and with luck the effect is one of pruning. The flood of '55, for example, led to the downtown Pacific Garden Mall and its vivid street scene, which was getting a little tatty by the time it fell apart under the quake of '89. Of course it hurt at the time, but do rose bushes like to be cut back?

Some liked to blame the University of California campus that was founded in '65 for the town's tangential relationship to reality as defined in the rest of the Untied Stakes of 'Merka, but that was partly prejudice. Certainly the City on the Hill helped things along but there must have been something in the air already. It wasn't the students, or even the professors, who ensured that this Left Coast burgh faced South; East Cliff Drive not only bordered the Pacific, it was even slightly north of West Cliff. To isolate this idiosyncratic geography, the great eternal plan raised mountains to the north and east and covered them with redwoods. This made it harder for tourists to come in, which business folk regretted, and easier to hold off the sprawling growth of Silicon Valley in the '70s and '80s, which all right-thinking people sought to avoid. If San José ever finally overwhelms Los Gatos, the citizenry of Santa Cruz will be found at the summit, laying down each other's comfort to keep the affluent hordes at bay.

Heaven knows what the eighteenth-century inhabitants thought of the place, since hell surely holds the Catholics who built the Mission in 1791 and proceeded to treat the indigenous population as vermin. The market town that developed served north county agriculture over the next century, as Watsonville still serves the south, and achieved its next breakthrough as a weekend retreat for the increasingly prosperous masses of the city of San Francisco, a few hours by train to the north. By 1913 the municipal wharf and the Boardwalk were built and the first generation of pleasure seekers were aboard. The newspaper wars of the '30s helped popularize summer cabins in the redwoods up the San Lorenzo Valley, a few miles inland, as the San Francisco Examiner gave them away in contests. Explorers ventured to Hawaii and brought back longboards – ignorant blonds from southern California contest the claim but Santa Cruz is the original Surf City – which exploded in popularity in the '40s when the revered O'Neill invented the wetsuit and set up a store to finance his surfing jones. Meanwhile more of the city folks began to choose the seaside to loiter in through their declining years and part of the city began to doze.

It was in the Santa Cruz mountains that Garcia lost a finger fooling with an ax. A little later, his band the Warlocks, soon to Gratefully Die, supplied the soundtrack for the first of Kesey's Acid Tests, held in Santa Cruz county, just outside Soquel. (Ah, what Annie would have given to have known of that ahead of time!) And when the Haight got too heavy, the hippie diaspora (and yes, Annie was part of those muddled masses yearning to get it together in the country) sent its contingent south. Marin and Humboldt deservedly took pride of place but the smallholders of Santa Cruz brought their share of weed to market (and no, not Annie, a consumer rather than an entrepreneur).

By the early '70s this disparate conglomeration of surfers and pensioners, students and ex-hippie craftspeople, united only by their relatively relaxed approach to the necessities of life – if you want intensity, head north or south or east, young folk, there ain't enough here – was feeling the pressure of population growth. As Colorado discovered, and the Keys and every other magical spot, everyone wants to be the last one in. The old money, as usual, wanted to milk the opportunity for all it was worth, on the standard theory that what's good for business is good for the town, meaning of course the money. When the philistines tried to build a convention center on the headland overlooking the wharf, they provoked a reaction that actually overturned the city's political structure. Slow growth became the slogan of the day.

Social structures, stores and services naturally began to flourish in counterpoint. Organic food stores sprouted like weeds, put down roots and eventually turned into laid-back supermarkets. Therapists of every hue felt the space was right to practice and some of them even got good. The Resource Center for Nonviolence grew to gladden the hearts of Gandhians everywhere and act as lightning rod for an ever-changing cast of pissed-off opponents. In its own way, less funded and more focused, so eventually did the Lesbian and Gay (and later, after a screaming fight, Bisexual) Community Center. Seven independent movie screens competed with six in the city limits alone that were owned by the majors. Trad culture was represented every year by Shakespeare, Tandy Beal and the Cabrillo Music Festival, pop by the bands at the Catalyst and the free-floating pickup basketball game behind the Louden Nelson Community Center. This last was about the only place in town that was not apparently lily-white, aside from the Spanish-speaking ghetto in the shadow of the boardwalk.

And then there was the Booktent. Bookshop Santa Cruz was the soul of the town, a meeting place and landmark, with its rocking horse, its store cat and its floating staff of part-time artists and full-time bibliophiles. When the building fell in the earthquake, so many volunteers turned up to help salvage the stock and move it into the temporary pavilion that would hold the store for the next three years that people were being turned away by eight in the morning.

Even one per cent per annum does accumulate, however, and as the '80s moved into their eleventh year and the city had to figure out how to rebuild one more time, the pro-capitalist forces were trying to regroup. The spaces around and within the city were gradually being filled and a conflict loomed on the Greenbelt that had been voted in, but not bought, years before. Much of the tax base had collapsed (no pun), the Feds were too tightfisted to pay for rebuilding (no surprise), and the business interests were pushing again for growth at all costs (no shit). They slammed their opponents as anti-business, as socialist, as leftist, and as usual they missed the point. Since they valued and fought to preserve their own economic power, they automatically tagged anything they disliked as 'bad for business' and put that forward as an unassailable argument. Wrong, twice.

What cranked the engines of the painted and pierced, leather and cotton, shaved and shaggy, artsy-fartsy peacenik dammit different mob that confronted the self-righteous in and out of the council chamber were issues of a whole other nature. They wanted a civilian police review commission, as if it wasn't obvious that the cops were there to protect decent citizens and their property by any means necessary and they were doing a damned good job of it. They wanted to tell our President who art in Washington how he should conduct his foreign policy, which was nothing to do with the business of our town. They wanted to stop huge chain stores from expanding into residential neighborhoods where there was good money to be made, just because it would be mildly inconvenient to some of the folks who had to live there. Worst of all, they wanted some kind of anti-discrimination law that would make every business in town hire only fat junkies with green hair and pierced noses, thereby alienating ordinary people, among whom for some obscure reason were counted anorexic alcoholics with blue rinses and pierced ears. My mutilation is always better than yours.

A good Marxist who called for confiscatory taxes and socialized housing, now there was an enemy with issues the conservatives could understand and fight, and expect the same in return. This kooky stuff about inalienable rights, it was all too mushy to take seriously. What did they think the point was, the pursuit of happiness?

Oh come on, don't be so literal minded.

Really, that's absurd.


But that was what put the town on the national, sometimes even the global, map.

What made Santa Cruz so, well, Santa Cruz, was the insistence of a goodly portion of the residents on the value of serious folly and the over-riding importance of the personal.

Stay cool, dude.


*In 1992, the municipality did finally become the one hundred and ninety-first nuclear-free city.