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Photograph by Stephen Laufer

The Offbeaten Path

Do your part to keep Santa Cruz weird by checking out some of the stranger sights of Santa Cruz this summer on our Weird Downtown Walking Tour

By Sarah Phelan

A quaint-looking California coastal town with a history of being anything but quaint. A place renowned for its progressive politics, where rednecks rule the waves. A downtown famous for its bohemian edge, where the bohemians are constantly being edged out of town.

Welcome to Santa Cruz, where housing is so expensive that even the homeowners rent out their homes and live on boats, so they can remain in this paradoxical paradise. Some call the Cruz unrepentantly offbeat, others says it's being inexorably Carmelized, but whatever way you look at it, it's clearly a place that's hard to pin down.

But many believe the local weirdness to be under siege, which of course is what prompted the current "Keep Santa Cruz Weird" campaign. As part of our own little effort to keep things funky and odd, Metro Santa Cruz presents our Weird Downtown Walking Tour, seven points of weirdness that you may observe at your leisure (i.e., Santa Cruz style) this summer.

1. Weird Fashion. Or Lack of It.

In case you're worrying what to wear to tour downtown, let it be known that Santa Cruz is a fashion vortex into which anyone who's lived here for over a year has already slipped. Never mind what's going on in London, Paris, Rome. In the Cruz, board shorts and sweatshirts rule the daywear scene, with wet suits, fleece and pajamas rocking the nightclub circuit. And while pretty much anything goes on the streets around here, never wear a suit unless you want to get hit up by every panhandler in town. And never sport dreadlocks and a backpack unless you want to get the bum's rush (see weirdity No. 7).

2. Weird History on Cooper Street

While the Cruz's street life is definitely funky, it's in a constant state of flux, making it hard to predict just who you're gonna see getting busted on any given day. But high above the street lurk much more permanent oddities, beginning with the Leonard Building at 115 Cooper St., which is, by the way, where Metro Santa Cruz lives.

Standing on Front Street, looking up, you'll notice that the cupola on this 110-year-old building is decorated with a grapevine. Insiders tell us that the grapes were part of a secret code, back in the Prohibition era, to let people know there was a speakeasy saloon in the basement. You can't currently access that basement, but at least the grapes give you something to look at and dream about.

3. Weird Public Art

Sculptors tell us that behind every great statue lies an even greater story. The bronze statue of Tom Scribner that currently resides at 1520 Pacific Ave. is no exception. Old-timers remember Scribner as an ancient and beloved saw player who used to talk politics at the long gone Tea Cup cafe in between dishing out the tunes.

But while his music was magical, his membership in the Communist Party must have ruffled some of the city's conservative feathers. How else to explain why his statue was originally placed off-mall in the park next to Glass Roots at 2015 Pacific (a park which used to be a gas station, apparently), where it remained until the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, at which point the city finally saw fit to relocate it to its current spot, which is where Scribner played every day until he died.

Another statue to visit is E. A. Chase's Collateral Damage, which finally found a home at the Town Clock Plaza after years of being deemed too political, and which seems all the more poignant since the Peace Park of which it would have become a part ironically got canceled during post-Sept. 11 bickering.

Also worth checking out is Testimony, a collection of experiences at the Vets Hall at 846 Front St. Coordinated by Sean Monaghan, this eclectic objet d'art includes a World Trade Center panel, thus connecting you, meditationally at least, with our East Coast brethren. And the statue's inscription--"In order to remember the past, monuments need constant rebuilding"-- is manna for thought.

4. Weird Echo Spots

There are several echo spots in town, but by far the most accessible is located outside Jamba Juice at 1550 Pacific. Stand inside the circular planter and try clapping your hands until you locate the echo spot, although if you act too weird you might get removed long before you hit gold. Useful things to say while clapping could include "Focus is genius" or "Timing is everything" or "Show me the heart of Santa Cruz and I'll show you a burnt burrito"--all of which, we swear to God, were overheard while researching this tour.

5. Weird Holes in the Ground

With the 14th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake rapidly approaching, most holes in the ground have been redeveloped, with two notable exceptions: the Courtyard Commons at 1545 Pacific, and the Rittenhouse lot at the corner of Church and Pacific.

Without getting into the reasons why these two spots are undeveloped, we can make the observation that the Courtyard Commons site has taken on an almost shrinelike quality, reflecting the city's hippie vibe with cool murals and artwork, including a hand-painted sign that says, "Our words are powerful. Live your word."

By contrast, the Rittenhouse lot has become a junk-strewn, weed-filled shrine to feral cats, which is especially bizarre given that the Rittenhouse lot is the most expensive piece of real estate on the mall of a town in which feng shui holds serious sway. So while open space is cool in the Pogonip, the lot offers a meditation in oddness midway along the most dynamic and creative street in a city of 60,000 people.

6. Weird Shrines to President Bush

Ram Dass tells us that he has placed a photo of George WMD Bush on his altar, presumably in an effort to meditate on his feelings toward the man for whom Iraq was a spelling mistake. Here in Santa Cruz, you can find a public altar to Bush within the doors of Chocolate at 1522 Pacific, which contains pix, quotes and even Dubya's résumé, which begins with "Attacked and took over two countries" and ends several pages later with "entered office with the strongest economy in the U.S. history and in less than two years turned every single economic category heading straight down."

7. Weird Planters

As you tire of cruisin' the mall on your weird walking tour, beware of another weirdity: Parking your butt--or foot--against one of the many planters that line the sidewalk could earn you a ticket, though a lot seems to depend on how you look (see weirdity No. 1).

In particular, the planter at 1224 Pacific has become a hotbed of ticket activity, and in recent weeks has had the indignity of being architecturally altered at a cost of thousands of dollars so it can no longer accommodate the average American bottom (though if said bottom is attached to a laptop, suit or latte, it's probably exempt).

This planter's expensive disfigurement appears to have been carried out to deter the ever-shifting "Hippie Corner" from permanently settling their butts there, but the effect of having to look over your shoulder for police every time you lean your butt or foot against a planter is thought by some to be a conspiracy to keep the town's huge massage therapist population in business.

Our advice? Keep the Weirdness Factor flowing, or we'll all be run out of town.

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From the June 25-July 2, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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