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[whitespace] Part 1: The Progressive Years

If you really want to understand the debate over the proposed conference center project, you have to go all the way back to the beginning of the battles over development and direction in Santa Cruz. The first part of our series on how this city was reimagined and then rebuilt takes you there.

By Mike Connor


'Redesigning Santa Cruz' is a Metro Santa Cruz monthly series for 2005 on how Santa Cruz has been politically and physically reshaped since the dawning of the progressive movement and the establishment of UCSC--which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year--through the earthquake and into the challenges of the 21st century.

Last year, the Redevelopment Agency announced plans to build a West Side conference center where the Coast Hotel now stands. It would be the largest development project undertaken in the city since UC-Santa Cruz, which opened its doors exactly 40 years ago.

Individually, the conference center and the university have little in common. But as historical bookends, the two towering projects enclose between them a four-decade-long experiment with what has come to be known as "progressive" politics in Santa Cruz.

Contrary to popular belief, the progressive movement didn't just magically spring out of the university. Granted, UCSC did wind up being a bit of a jack-in-the-box for many conservatives, some of whom still haven't recovered from the shock of getting a college without a football team. Many Santa Cruzans would rather have seen a business or engineering school cranking out the next generation of the best and the brightest, rather than a bunch of community studies students bouncing around town practicing grassroots activism as part of their course work, popping up on residents' doorsteps manifesting irony like crazy, smiling manifestations of Dean McHenry's alternative vision for higher education.

But McHenry's vision is only part of the story, because the '60s and '70s abounded with people who had alternative visions of how things should be. The civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the environmental movement, the labor movement, the gay and lesbian community, the youth counterculture, the radical left wing--all of them had their agendas, many of which were manifested in Santa Cruz and given a voice in a single, gargantuan dissertation published in 1991 called "Class, Populism and Progressive Politics: Santa Cruz, California 1970-1982," written by Mayor Mike Rotkin.

To say that Rotkin wrote the book on progressive politics in Santa Cruz is literally true, but figuratively speaking, it overstates the case--he never claimed to be the ultimate authority on the matter. Even still, the book that Rotkin wrote details many of the political battles that transformed (or preserved) the landscape and character of this city. Not included in the book are the stories of the developers and business owners whose projects were blocked, nor the story of how those struggles transformed a would-be motorcycle mechanic and socialist hero of the left into "the conservative member of the council."

We met on a recent Sunday afternoon to discuss his book and his experiences in politics over the years. When I set on the couch the 472-page volume, which I had filled from cover to cover with little Post-It notes, Rotkin picked it up and looked at it from all angles, handling like a stuffed animal somehow rescued from a distant childhood.

Progressive Roots

Given the range of disparate ideals that somehow came together under the "progressive" banner in Santa Cruz, it's a wonder that the group has accomplished anything at all. Sentinel editorialists still enjoy rattling off simple-minded critiques of progressives, just last week writing that "Santa Cruz has a long tradition of fighting development, of putting the brakes on progress. That tradition goes back to the early '70s, when the forbears of what became known as a progressive movement learned that stopping development was a most popular political stance to take."

Such stupefying rhetoric is not surprising, given the Sentinel's historically prickly relationship with the progressive movement--a movement which began as a decidedly pan-ideological, populist movement of diverse interests trying to wrest control from a small conservative network of political power.

Rotkin writes, "In a number of informal interviews, members of the business elite during the period 1950-1970 provide accounts as to how members of their social group, including the owners of the largest financial and commercial enterprises, leaders of the Chamber of Commerce, and the town's only daily paper, met to select candidates to run for office and receive the Sentinel's endorsement. The candidates so selected invariably were elected."

"Things used to go fairly well in Santa Cruz," says downtown property owner and Santa Cruz native Louis Rittenhouse. "In the early days, we had a little bit more business-oriented City Council that had the best interest of the community at heart. Back in the '50s, your City Council was made up of business people, people that were actually creating jobs in the city, and things ran well." Certainly things ran smoothly, but this reified system of capitalist social and economic relations was precisely what some of the more socialist-minded revolutionaries were questioning. In the free-thinking climate of the '60s, hippies galore were trying to realize their own neo-utopias that came in a range of flavors--including, but not limited to anarchistic, vegetarian, Aquarian, authoritarian and just plain crazy hoohah. But there were also more disciplined academic-types, like Rotkin, who were revisiting critiques of capitalism and looking to implement their ideas for democratic socialism at the grassroots level.

The New City Planning: Not 'For' People, But 'With' People

Meanwhile, the environmental movement was gaining steam. In 1961, the county hired Bert Muhly, who worked as the county planning director for nine years, during which time he employed fancy book learning from Berkeley to create the county's first General Plan. Most counties throughout the state were engaged in the same process (certain state funds required counties to do so), but Muhly distinguished himself from the old guard--planners who believed that their profession had nothing to do with the misty realm of social and economic development--by involving large committees of concerned citizens working in parallel with the technically skilled planners, often on environmental issues.

"There were a hell of a lot of ideas coming from people coming right from the grassroots," recalls Muhly, "and this whole idea of planning for people, it's a bunch of bullshit. You can plan with 'em."

Among the concerned citizens were self-interested "not in my backyard" types, who Muhly was careful to appoint to committees not dealing with their backyard. But there were others on the committees who cared about what was increasingly referred to as "the environment." In 1969, a giant oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara focused California's attention on the potential threat posed by industry and development concerns if left unchecked. In Santa Cruz, a slew of hugely ambitious proposals for development--housing for 30,000 people up the coast in the area now known as Wilder Ranch; a conference center on lighthouse field; a freeway either above Mission Street or through Pogonip, across UCSC and down through Wilder; a nuclear power plant in Davenport; and high-rise apartments on Frederick Street--demanded the attention of local residents. All of the proposals were eventually defeated.

Celia Scott, a brand-spanking-new resident with a city planning degree from MIT, immediately got involved with the Coastal Coalition, a group dedicated to protecting the coast from development. She also formed a new group, Save the Coast, that is now credited for circulating the first environmental petition in Santa Cruz. Ralph Sanson and Phil Harry and Gary Patton (who later authored the slow-growth Measure J) rode the wave of environmental concerns into slots on the county Board of Supervisors, where they fought to shift the political debate towards environmental issues.

Muhly resigned from his post in 1969 to pursue fundamental changes in the planning process in a role that would "require that I be free of the restraints on political activity that go with government employment." Notably, his bold letter of resignation was published in its entirety in the American Institute of Planners newsletter. He went on to pursue a career in teaching and, with the help of his students and the citizen committees with whom he worked as a planner, developed a body of evidence for the state legislature that showed that counties up and down the California coast were allowing their coasts to be degraded by private development. His efforts contributed significantly to the adoption of the California Coastal Act passed in 1972.

In 1973, an environmental slate consisting of Muhly, Sally DiGirolamo and Virginia Sharp won seats on the council, despite opposition from the Sentinel, about which Rotkin writes, "In several editorials, the Sentinel itself joined the Mayor in calling for locals to turn out in large numbers to defend their interests in local developments."

Same as it ever was, except these days the Sentinel's condescension towards opposing viewpoints is even more glaring: "As for the traffic and economic argument by the opponents," reads last week's editorial on the conference center proposal, "we're amused that people are throwing out those comments, because they're self-canceling. Which is it? Will the new conference center and hotel be too successful (traffic) or will it be an economic failure (no traffic)." We like jokes. But it seems fair to ask what's amusing or self-canceling about an increase in traffic or a $30 million economic failure, because we may be heading into a situation where we're going to get one or the other.

Rotkin Unleashed

Over on the West Side in the late '70s, the Santa Cruz Chapter of the New American Movement (NAM), including founding member Rotkin, was busily conducting an experiment in democratic socialism, its aim being "to establish working-class control of the enormous productive capacity of American industry ... Such a society will strive for decentralization of decision making, an end to bureaucratic rule, and participation of all people in shaping their own lives and the direction of society."

In light of later developments in Rotkin's political career, the mission statement might be considered rich with irony. Nevertheless, the achievements of NAM should not be ignored. Using community-organizing techniques developed by Saul Alinsky and Cesar Chavez, they succeeded in helping the Westside Neighbors band together, define goals for themselves (keeping the Garfield Library and the medical clinic on Mission Street open) and ultimately achieve their goals through collective initiative and confrontation.

Through his involvement with community organizations, Rotkin garnered enough community support to win a seat on the City Council in 1979, running as a socialist/feminist along with Bruce Van Allen. Measure O, the greenbelt initiative, was also passed. The issue of rent control drew record turnouts to the polls, but was defeated by increasing margins in 1978 and 1979 and again in 1981, when Mardi Wormhoudt and John Laird joined them on the council, establishing the first progressive majority.

The council worked immediately at involving the public in city decisions that previously had been made by the city administration, but they were also hamstrung by Proposition 13, which allowed the state to take over property taxes and limit their growth to no more than 1 percent a year.

"Every year in June--1978 was the last year this happened--the City Council would meet for its budget," says Rotkin. "It would figure out what did they want to spend money on, how much expenses did they want to have, and they figured out what property tax rate do they have to set in the city to gather enough revenue to pay to do those things ... We get some property tax, but it was at one point the vast majority of our resources for the city--way over half. And now it's down to about a quarter or a third in property tax."

Even before Prop. 13, nonprofits were contorting into a Community Coalition in an effort to pool talent and resources, speaking with a unified voice that helped them finagle a participatory role in the county budgeting process. Still, the when the progressive majority council was voted in, it increased funding for human services and the arts by more than $20,000. Sure the roads suffered, but fewer people did, and Rotkin still considers the increased funding of social services--which topped out at $1.7 million--as the council's crowning achievement.

"The progressive movement didn't care a whole lot about government revenues and economic issues before the earthquake," says Rotkin. "We were getting enough to do what we needed, we expanded social services, we shifted some resources from one area to another."

Put another way, prior to the earthquake the progressives could afford to nurture social services and protect the environment. These days, people calling themselves "progressive" have been divided by development projects sold as boons to the city coffers--and thus to social services--but at the expense of environmental concerns.

Rotkin blames the split for the decline in the relevance of the Santa Cruz Action Network (SCAN) endorsements.

"SCAN--for a while it was the key progressive group," says Rotkin. "Everyone they nominated won, and everyone they didn't, didn't. It was almost as absolute as that. But it got kinda captured by the green side of the red-green coalition, which was against revenue-producing possibilities."

Not that he's become anti-environment; in fact, Rotkin claims he isn't certainly whistling a significantly different tune than he was 35 years ago.

"When we took over in '81," says Rotkin, "I gave a talk in front of the Chamber of Commerce that year ... I described myself as a 'seat-of-the-pants socialist.' I said, 'I'm a pragmatic person, I have a vision of a society where people have more control over their resources than a bunch of big corporations running everything, but the fact of the matter is, I'm going to try to make this town run well, and I'm going to work with everybody that's necessary to make that happen.' So that hasn't really changed that dramatically as kind of a concept." Rotkin chalks up his approvals of big box store and chain store developments (Costco, Gateway Plaza) to a cost/benefit analysis where the benefits far outweighed the costs.

"My basic values haven't changed," says Rotkin, "What's funny is that people will joke, well, Rotkin is the conservative member of the council. I still consider myself a socialist and a feminist, I'm happy and comfortable with those terms. My view of the way business should be organized hasn't changed in any dramatic way. I just think if you're serious about doing the job you're doing, you gotta figure out, how does it work? You can't stay in power in the city of Santa Cruz if you don't provide people the services they want."

But longtime community activist Ralph Myberg accuses the city of crying "poor" to manipulate social service proponents into supporting development projects that would adversely affect the quality of life in Santa Cruz, arguing that progressives would support--and have supported--more creative, progressive-minded development such as the new Depot Park, for which $3 million was secured from the California Coastal Conservancy.

Celia Scott, meanwhile, doesn't believe that progressives have to make a choice between social services and the environment, but she doesn't deny that the split exists.

"That happened kind of gradually over time," says Celia Scott of the split. "I think that people who are now called 'progressives' in those days were very environmentally oriented. I think a division occurred somewhere around the time of the earthquake."

Tectonic Shift

On Oct. 17, 1989, at 5:04pm, a fissure far deeper than the most divisive of political rifts shook Santa Cruz to its very foundations: 59,800 feet below the Forest of Nisene Marks, the North American Wall and the Pacific Wall slipped against one another, releasing a half-megaton of seismic energy into the ground. The ocean shivered, roads split, houses slid off their foundations, and in a matter of 15 seconds, 21 buildings on the Pacific Garden Mall crumbled to the ground. Six people in Santa Cruz died. The physical landscape of Santa Cruz was forever altered by the Loma Prieta earthquake. The political landscape would not be far behind.

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From the January 26-February 2, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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