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[whitespace] Pacific Ave.
Photograph by Stephen Laufer

Pacific Edge

Putting some overdue perspective on the controversy over safety in downtown Santa Cruz

By Sarah Phelan

RECENTLY, THERE'S BEEN a lot of talk about Pacific Avenue, most of it about how drugs, nudity, harassment and hackeysack are reputedly making downtown dangerous and frightening.

Okay, so there has been a shooting, a stabbing and a fatal overdose in the past two months. But hold on a minute here, weren't these isolated incidents shocking precisely because downtown generally feels so safe?

If you want to compare it to, say, Mister Rogers' neighborhood, then yes, downtown is downright terrifying. But come on, this ain't west Oakland. And, yes, we did see the girl with duct tape over her areolas, but like most gypsy kids, she was soon gone again, and we haven't seen a bare breast since. Damn it.

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Downtown Unchained: Another myth--that Santa Cruz has lost its funkiness to the mall-chain mentality--bites the dust.

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Though it was originally meant to call attention to some specific problems, all this downtown scare talk has escalated unchecked into a kind of widespread panic attack many downtown merchants say is scaring off shoppers--and that can be just as dangerous to our local business community. The question is: is it all really necessary?

History provides some much-needed perspective. Yes, there are difficult issues facing downtown, but there always have been. At least since the mid-1970s, when the average age on the mall plummeted from 44 to 29 years, and the newspapers were suddenly full of articles about rampant panhandling, purse snatching, fistfights, drunkenness, verbal assaults and vandalism. In 1977, landowner and outspoken local conservative Louis Rittenhouse Jr. was quoted as saying that many of the "straight" members of the community "don't come here because they don't feel they want to put up with the transients, the bums, the people from New York with their lives on their backs." Sound familiar?

So, now it's 2002, the economy is in a bad way and businesses are suffering. How much this pervasive feeling about a downtown safety problem has contributed can't be measured, but many are looking for concrete answers and action. The City Council responded to this outcry by forming a committee, headed by Ed Porter and Emily Reilly, that promises to identify issues and make recommendations, reportedly by July 9. Some have even proposed adopting a batch of new ordinances that seem to range from Big Brotherish to downright redundant.

The bottom line is that we need to put the kibosh on the panic factor before it does any more unnecessary damage, and start talking sensibly about how to get people feeling good about downtown again.

People, it's time for a reality check.

But don't just take our word for it. Who better to provide some real perspective than the people who live, work and shop in and represent downtown, most of whom have been completely left out of the media coverage of the debate thus far? We talked to dozens of members of the downtown community, and got a range of opinions far more complex than has thus far been acknowledged. Take a look and you'll find many different concerns, no sign of Armageddon.

Lisa Towns, Co-Owner Of Velvet Underground

"It's so seldom anything happens in downtown Santa Cruz, when it does, it's a big deal. I don't consider downtown dangerous. Drugs are a part of all downtowns, but if you've not involved, you don't see them. As for kids hanging out on the street, everybody knows Santa Cruz is a tolerant, mellow community where you won't be given a hard time. I don't have issues about people being around, but a whole block of them can be intimidating. But look at Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue. Some things come with the territory. I've rented retail space at both ends of Pacific, and our current location attracts shoppers who say they wouldn't venture to the 'other end,' but our business is aimed at college kids. Having worked downtown since before the earthquake, I feel things are going a really positive way."

Glenn Rogers, Owner of Star Nine

"Downtown isn't dangerous, but it's not comfortable. Tourists tell me the homelessness is out of hand, and I avoid walking along Pacific Avenue, because I don't want to get hit up for money all the time. The panhandlers know they are not supposed to ask for money, but should just keep signs out, but they bend the rules. But I don't mind the street performers, and I'm used to the street scene. My clientele is younger and not as offended by it as seniors and people with families. There are tons of reasons why people are on the street--to get money, to people-watch, to sell drugs--and I see it from both sides. As a business owner, it irritates me that businesses have to suffer because a few people are too aggressive, but I can understand that people want to hang out in a place that's social and pleasant."

Cosmic Chris
Photograph by Stephen Laufer

Cosmic Chris

Cosmic Chris, Street Performer

"I've been playing guitar on Pacific Avenue for five years, and downtown is definitely not more dangerous than L.A. But freedom brings with it a certain element of danger. I'd prefer to be at risk than not be free. And there are different kinds of danger. As a street performer, I'm in danger of being accused of breaking some law, and our civil liberties are rapidly being trod upon. It's a bad idea to allow a few merchants to use the downtown police force as if it were some kind of hunting dog to be set upon people who don't support their capitalistic, profiteering dream. I'm concerned the city is going to form a committee that will cater to the needs of the few, because it's only a small group of merchants that opposes street performers. Most tourists and shoppers prefer street color, and most street artists aren't into profit, but into elevating and beautifying the environment, or at least making an attempt. As for drugs on the street, people have been shooting up heroin since Vietnam, but I don't think it's escalated."

Khalid Raz, Manager Of Graffix Pleasures

"Downtown isn't violent, but there are a lot of homeless. I've worked this end of the mall since 1994, and I've seen little improvement. There are more police, more homeless, more runaways, more gypsy kids and less drug deals. The gypsy kids hang outside the bus station for a couple of weeks, then disappear, then more come through. The shooting six weeks ago was a coincidence. Outsiders came and put that image on our town."

Charles Marshall, Senior And Downtown Resident

"I love the mall the way it is. The council is responding to the misplaced fears of a few frightened people. Young people have the right to make music, have long hair and not bathe regularly."

Teri Chambers, Owner of The Hat Co.

"I get afraid when I talk to the media that they'll make it look like the retailers are against everyone downtown, but it's the community that's asking for help--the tourists, students, employees, grandmas and seniors, not just the merchants. I love Mr. Twister, the street performers and the youth, provided they're not harassing anyone. Downtown is the city's tax base from which all the money to take care of the city's social problems comes."

Dana Talaber
Photograph by Stephen Laufer

Dana Talaber

Dana Talaber, Owner of Ample Annie

"Downtown has gotten worse since 1984. There weren't so many grungy-looking kids on the streets, some with babies and dogs. I live in a senior residence downtown and every day I have to walk past kids sitting outside the bus station asking for money. My store isn't considered to be in a good neighborhood, because it's close to the bars where UCSC students drink and leave their cigarette buts on the sidewalk. I was almost glad when someone got stabbed outside Borders. Not really, but if it happened here, they'd brush it off as another South Pacific incident."

Candy Jackson, Co-Owner of Jackson's Shoes

"Downtown runs through phases, but this one is particularly challenging. Yes, I signed a petition asking City Council to consider toughening ordinances. My purpose was to get a dialogue going. The fact that businesses are having to close bathrooms to their own customers speaks for itself."

Amy Marshall, Co-Owner of Volume

"Downtown doesn't feel dangerous. It's more a matter of how many people I should ignore or report each day for doing illicit stuff. South of Cathcart is seen as the grody, seedy end of the mall, an image that appeals to college kids, who are our customers, the 18-to-30-year-olds who come here because of the bars, tobacco stores, tattoo parlors, vintage and thrift stores. Part of us doesn't mind that designation, but we contribute to the local economy and want to be taken care of, like the rest of Pacific ... Ultimately it's an enforcement issue. We don't need more ordinances. All the laws are already in place, but I don't feel the police are clear about what to enforce. And though we're encouraged to call them, it takes a while for officers to show up."

Sheri Conable, Downtown Resident

"I see selective enforcement downtown based on people's appearance, and I fear public policy will be based on fear and misconception. I hope the committee will address that."

Suzette Crowe, Manager of Borders Books

"The area outside Borders is a popular draw for the hanging out scene. We anticipated the kids would move over here, once the planters went in outside New Leaf. What we didn't expect was a stabbing outside our doors. I was the first on the scene and it was horrendous, shocking, apparently in retaliation for a drug deal that got someone else killed. We've also seen our store vandalized by water hosers, tagged by crews and ripped off by shoplifters since we opened two years ago. So, now we're considering installing an ATM that would limit loitering to a distance of 50 feet, but we can't just come up with band-aid solutions, we can't just get rid of the kids--they need to be somewhere."

Daniel Hopkins, Homeless Senior, Full-Time Worker

"Santa Cruz is the safest place I've ever lived. I know a lot of seniors and none of them are afraid of being attacked or hurt. But a small group of business owners are taking two isolated incidents--a shooting and a stabbing--and hyping them up, blowing out of all proportion, and trying to get the transients, the homeless, the panhandlers, the mentally ill off the streets, but if they succeed they may end up destroying themselves. I moved here because this was an interesting place and a lot of people visit because we're different, unlike downtown San Joe, which has zero happening."

John Bonnet, Street Musician

"I'd rather play indoors with a small amplifier, but there are no places left and there's selective enforcement outdoors. I was playing guitar outside Zoccoli's, when two police women came along, watched from the other side of street, then crossed, and asked if anyone was having a problem, and when one guy said it was a bit loud, they said there's been a complaint."

Nathan Kennedy, Street Provocateur

"I've got four tickets for violating section 9.20.010 of municipal code which prohibits chalking the sidewalk throughout the city, and then they throw me in county jail for three days According to this law, they could arrest you for being a repeat hopscotch offender. That's a violation of our rights. Personally, I'd be less insulted seeing cops burning the flag in our streets, than getting ticketed for sidewalk chalk."

Beth Abendroth
Photograph by Stephen Laufer

Beth Abendroth

Betsy Abendroth, Manager of Curiosa

"The plot opposite us is considered the after-hours parking place where shady deals go down and cars get broken into, but I haven't seen a lot of harassment, and the panhandlers aren't so aggressive on this stretch. If I see something illegal, I go out with my cell phone and call the police, who are awesome, when they come down, but this area isn't watched that much. We tend to get overlooked, but we're tough at this end of the mall."

Brendon, Homeless

"Downtown is only dangerous if you're a criminal or homeless. Regular people aren't in danger. But if you're living on the street, it's easy to get taken advantage of. Lots of drugs are coming in from the Beach Flats. The kids on the corner aren't selling heroin or speed, but where else can you get homegrown sinsemilla? But you get criminals with hardcore gangster attitude coming out of Beach Flats, and starting fights to see who is tough. If you fight back, they leave you alone. If not, they'll keep giving it to you."

Estéhan Fox, Poet

"I got a ticket for sitting on a planter outside Borders. So, maybe we need a 20-foot-high wall around downtown, more electronic surveillance, the screening of minds and a military takeover of downtown."

Karin Karlsson, Senior and Former Downtown Host

"The big deal downtown isn't the homeless, it's safety. If everyone was smoking marijuana, then we'd have no problems downtown. But you've got schizophrenics going off, a stabbing in front of Borders, a guy pumping eight bullets from a .45 into a van full of seven teenagers from the Beach Flats in broad daylight. It's alcohol, heroin and crack that's deadly. As for the graffiti, it's not the homeless who are putting that up. The security element should be alert, but friendly and diplomatic, even to poor people."

Mardi Wormhoudt, County Supervisor

"People love to go to extremes over very little and have enormous debates. In the case of downtown problems, they ebb and flow. It used to depend on the Grateful Dead schedule. Usually the merchants plan a campaign just before Thanksgiving, but this year it's earlier, maybe because of the economic downturn, and they are passing the buck to City Council. But the truth is the public isn't interested in what the City Council has to say about downtown, or anything else. What they care about are outcomes."

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From the July 3-10, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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