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Squash Pit: Downtown shoppers troll for fresh vegetables at the Farmers' Market.

Drum Beat

Farmers' Market lifestyle controversy raises questions about character of downtown Santa Cruz

By Andrea Perkins

WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON at the Farmers' Market in downtown Santa Cruz, two farmers in straw hats stand under a striped awning discussing their common enemy: the gopher. Shoppers pick and poke tomatoes and peaches.

Nearby, a group of young men and women, some of whom cradle bongo drums, look nervously over their shoulders. For them, the market is a meeting place, a spiritual forum of sorts. But in recent weeks, the market has clamped down on drum circles and their supposed evils: blocking walkways and intimidating customers.

For many, the Farmers' Market is more than just a place to buy food. "It's a deep and abiding Santa Cruz institution," says Santa Cruz Councilmember Christopher Krohn. "It represents the reasons many of us came to Santa Cruz: a nurturing community, people who value organic growers, eclectic music, Mr. Twister and good bread."

Lately, the very popularity of the market--along with the drumming, dogs and unauthorized selling of merchandise--has raised the ire of other downtown establishments. As the market goes before the Santa Cruz City Council to request permits for next year (on July 10, after Metro Santa Cruz's deadline), it is asking itself, and the city, some difficult questions. How much longer can downtown businesses continue to tolerate the market's quirkiness? Is downtown destined to become another sanitized shopping destination, like Santa Monica's Third Street?

"Most cities are proud of their farmers markets," says Janet Blaser, interim manager of the market. "It's very ironic that here in the center of an agricultural county, the hotbed of the organic movement, it's a constant struggle for us to keep in existence."

'IT HAS GOTTEN to the point where anyone who is a hippie can't sit down," complains a young unsmiling man called Smilesalot. He and friends squat precariously on the edge of a cement curb. "See this?" he says, pointing to an orange mesh fence circling a few feet of dirt around a tree. "This is because of us."

Natt Kell shakes her head. "We came down from Canada to hang out in Santa Cruz because we heard it was a cool scene, but when we got here they turned the sprinklers on us." Another out-of-towner says he heard about the market in an Internet chat group, which identified it as a good place to meet people and find a drum circle.

Not today. The only instruments in sight are a few didgeridoos, and nobody dares play one. A girl shaves her legs by first moistening them with a crumpled dahlia, then pouts, "They just want to have the same kind of people come here."

"Two weeks ago, they started saying, 'No loitering,' but everybody here is loitering to some extent," figures Rowan Millar. "He gestures towards two women with baby strollers who are having an animated conversation. "If you have expensive clothes on, you aren't harassed."

Farmer Chris Ruzicka thinks the hippie gatherings at the market are "a symptom of Santa Cruz's classic problem of the huge lack of public space." Ruzicka says that the denizens of "Patchouli Row" don't understand that "we [the farmers] are working our butts off to make this happen."

The Santa Cruz Farmers' Market was started by the Downtown Association in 1990 in an attempt to bring people back downtown after the Loma Prieta earthquake.

"It worked," says Nancy Gammons of Four Sisters Farms. Gammons, who sits on the market's board of directors and has been involved with the market since its inception in Ford's parking lot. From there, the market did a stint on North Pacific Avenue, where Gammons remembers "having issues" with Food Not Bombs.

"There were some incidents," Gammons recalls. "Someone threw a brick through Cat and Canary's window." The upshot was that the Downtown Association decided to cancel its sponsorship of the market. In 1996, the farmers themselves turned the market into a nonprofit organization.

Gammons, who also manages the Watsonville Farmers' Market, says that the Santa Cruz City Council is supportive ... verbally. She points out that Watsonville gives its market a $12,000 grant and that the city's Public Works puts up the market's signs and mails out advertisements.

Not so in Santa Cruz, where the market, classified as both a special event and a business, pays thousand of dollars in annual fees. "We're also often made out to be the scapegoat for downtown 'problems,' " Gammons claims.

Since the police can't stop the drummers unless there's a formal complaint, Gammons says that the market has decided, along with David Fulsome-Jones, president of the board of directors of Calvary Episcopal Church, to start filing complaints if the gatherings persist. Located across the street from the market, the church routinely accommodates hippie overflow.

"The drum circles have always been an issue," she continues, adding, however, that she has never minded them. "But is has become such a sore point with some merchants and police. They feel that if the market were to go away, so would the problems. We want the market to stay there, so we may have to control the number of people who come. It's a hard call. We want a market that is a real open friendly place, but it's true that it does get full of activity that is counterproductive to the market itself. We're asking people not to kill the host."

'WE CAN'T FIGHT the fight for the freedom to drum in public. I won't have the Farmers' Market be the sacrificial lamb for this issue," says Blaser, who plans to get an entertainment permit so that the market can host sanctioned acoustic music.

Some suggest that one reason why the "hippie problem" has flared up lately is because instability in the market's administration meant no one was available to deal with the issue. Two months ago, the market's previous manager, Lea Goodman, was fired by the board of directors after managing the market for three and a half years.

According to Gammons, Goodman's predecessor was successful in creating a "symbiotic relationship" with the drummers, so that when asked to move it along, they generally would. Goodman, on the other hand, "had a hard time with confrontation."

Yet when Goodman left, Ruzicka says everything fell apart. During the week the market was without a manager, people were selling things like bonsai plants out of their cars. Drum circle devotees numbered in the hundreds. Though she says she's not at liberty to discuss the details, Goodman claims that she was fired without full board consent.

"It came as a complete surprise," says Goodman, adding that she had planned on leaving in December anyway. "I'm very unhappy about it. I feel the market hasn't benefited at all from my absence. It's a mess. People are unhappy. There's no direction."

Blaser, a former board member, alleges Goodman was let go because the board was "unhappy with her performance."

Goodman says that before she got fired, she was in the process of ironing out old wrinkles between the market and the Downtown Association, a group, she says, that would prefer that the market not be located on its turf. Blaser agrees that the market is a thorn in the DTA's side. "We would love to be part of the downtown fabric," she says, "but the DTA has consistently refused to let us be members. They won't even link to us on their website."

Pete Eberle, president of the DTA, would rather not talk about it. "We don't do anything against them or anything for them," he says, adding that downtown businesses don't tend to see an increase in sales during the Farmers' Market even though "Wednesday is supposed to be the strongest retail day."

What he does want to talk about is his own vision of a street market that would include not only farmers but all downtown businesses. Before coming to Santa Cruz, Eberle managed a San Luis Obispo's Farmers' Market that featured arts, crafts, barbecued ribs, puppet shows and a bear mascot named Downtown Brown in addition to produce.

"Imagine a street closure from the top of Pacific Avenue to Cathcart Street," says Eberle, "with produce vendors only between Walnut and Cathcart. At every intersection, live music ... downtown businesses and restaurants setting up booths in the street. ... In the long run, it would be more beneficial, more equitable, for everyone. It would be fun, and it would solve a lot of the issues that a town like ours has." To be a part of such an expensive event, Eberle says farmers would pay a percentage of their daily sales, rather then the fixed fees they pay now.

Although Eberle adds that his vision of a street fair/farmers' market is not being formally discussed at this time, he does admit, "It's a possibility." Until then, the Farmers' Market plans to continue scouting for a location that will discourage people from congregating.

"We've looked at locations on Front Street, by the post office and on Church Street in front of the Civic Center," Blaser says. "There just aren't that many suitable places downtown, and it's really important for us that we stay downtown."

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From the July 11-18, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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