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Photographs by Stephen Laufer

Reality Check 2003

One year after this town's cruel summer, we let Santa Cruz shout out about the state of downtown

By Sarah Phelan

Last summer, when other local and even national papers were calling downtown Santa Cruz a "powder keg" and doing everything in their sensationalist powers to make it look like this town was dangerous and deranged, Metro Santa Cruz took a long hard look at what was really going on around here. We called it the "Reality Check Issue" because we quickly discovered that--just as we suspected--all the hype was not only overblown, it was actually making things worse.

Yes, there were increased reports of open drug dealing, aggressive panhandling, sexual harassment and rampant hackeysack playing, plus a couple of random acts of violence--one stabbing, one shooting--and one girl who insisted on baring most of her breasts for a week, then up and left town and hasn't been seen since. But beyond that, Santa Cruz was its usual weirdly weird self--in short, nothing for Oakland to get nervous about.

We couldn't help but wonder if some factions were fueling the fire to advance their own political agendas, especially after a proposed set of downtown "crackdown" ordinances was subsequently passed. Perhaps others simply love to jump on stories that allow them to characterize a famously progressive place like Santa Cruz as "out of control." Whatever. The truth was that downtown was hurting, with the post-Sept.11 fallout having chopped the legs off tourism and the economy hopelessly in the tank--and the bad press wasn't helping.

It's been a year since we last tried to give a little perspective on downtown, and by many accounts, things are looking up. There's a growing sense among merchants that things are getting better this year, with most reporting increased foot traffic and an upswing in sales. And with new businesses filling up the ID building and the Cooper House, it seems investors are looking at Pacific Avenue with fresh eyes.

Less obvious is the fallout from the ordinances that were introduced last year. Hurriedly hammered out in the heat of last summer, these new rules have had a reportedly chilling effect on street performers and political tablers. Neither group was a source of major concern last year, but both are now subject to restrictions on when and where they can operate (if they are collecting money), and both claim to have seen a rise in police surveillance of their activities (including videotaping of performances). Furthermore, many who've received warnings from police say there remains a general confusion about the new rules among both law enforcement and the general public.

Meanwhile, the familiar paper signs along Pacific Avenue ("Need a bus ticket to Oregon," "Give me money or marijuana," "Anything helps, even a smile," "Will work for piano lessons," etc.) reveal that panhandling continues, the "curbies" still hang out on Pacific Avenue benches, and though the mainstream media may have moved on, some locals say Santa Cruz is no closer to solving the real problems that have long plagued it, from homelessness to the heroin trade, than it was a year ago.

Most merchants do laud the increased police presence for bringing balance back to the street. Others complain they need to be doing more, while others feel they're keeping people away. It just goes to show that there are as many opinions about downtown as people on its streets. And in another attempt to provide a useful survey of those opinions on the state of our beloved downtown, we humbly present a reality check for 2003.

Frank Lima, a.k.a. the Great Morgani, accordion player:
"I have three words for downtown: fun, confusion, interpretation. I'm still having a lot of fun making little kids smile, but I also feel great confusion about the ordinances. Depending on who you talk to--store owners, councilmembers, performers, police and hosts--each has a different interpretation of what these new laws mean. 'Stand 10 feet away.' 'No, it's 14 feet.' 'Pat your head and scratch your tummy while you play.' What's crazy is you can't have amplified music on the street, but motorcycles make way more noise than all the street performers put together. And after sitting through six months of meetings last year, I'm wondering when and where the city decided about permits and alcove permission agreements, which feel like a warmup for the next soap opera, coming to town this fall."

Neal Coonerty, owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz:
"Pacific Avenue is a public street and therefore is different from a shopping mall, which is part of its strength and weakness. Over the past 25 years, it's been hard to tell which has caused downtown more damage--the earthquake or the Sentinel with its constant announcements that progressive politics are failing, and therefore downtown is a failure. And then there are the tireless activists, beating the same message into the ground with zero results. Yes, our main street is about more than exchange of money for goods, but to be a community place with health, political dialogue and celebrations, it has to work as a marketplace, too. I've always been an advocate of street performers, and it's not the street scene per se, but the kids who are rude that cause the friction. I don't agree with the new railings around the planter boxes. The planters were a nice amenity used by many, but I understand people's frustration. I have rocks in my office which were thrown through my store window at various times. People in Santa Cruz generally don't support that kind of activity, but it's hard when you are stuck inside your store and have to deal with people outside being obnoxious and theatrical. And while I personally admire Food Not Bombs for feeding people, I disagree with their approach of putting poverty on display before hungry people get to eat."

Chris Krohn, former mayor of Santa Cruz:
"It seems to me that downtown is the same as ever. Street culture has always been a hot topic for the council, as the town goes through booms and busts, but seems to be tolerated more during an economic boom."

Leigh Meyers, agent provocateur:
"I'm from Brooklyn, and this is not a dangerous place. Try getting the NYPD to show up to take on a skateboarder. The only violence here is guys cat-calling at girls. But unlike New York, you can still get in front of the City Council, which is why I love Santa Cruz."

Angela Marie, street performer and marimba band member:
"It doesn't make sense for performers to stand near the curb with their backs to the road, and customers to stand with their backs to stores, which is why the 10 feet rule was and still is a bad idea. We want the city to explore letting us be away from the curb, which is where we were last year before all the ordinances came in. And performers shouldn't have to get permits to play downtown, nor should they have to pay. Other times of the year, the city pays us to play downtown, so the permit idea doesn't make sense at all, and would exclude people who are traveling through town or aren't legal citizens. It infringes on our First Amendment rights and is a slippery path."

Patti Ruggiero, manager of Graphfix:
"The scene in general is somewhat improved. The large crowd that was threatening seniors last year is gone, though there are still three or four panhandlers on every block, some of them in the same position every day, like this one girl who sets up each day at 9am and is more on time than some of my employees. It would be good to see an ordinance restricting the number of panhandlers on each block. We're paying top dollar rent, and we don't want this place to be a ghost town, but a place where families and their kids don't feel threatened."

Kuo, street person:
"They passed a bunch of new laws that suck because they give cops more reasons to screw with people."

Mike Jackson, general manager of Borders:
"We were the first Borders in the nation to close our bathrooms, and though international visitors understand, people from other parts of California don't. But we don't have plumbing that will accommodate the whole mall, so now we just have tokens for cafe users and emergencies, but we still get more requests for public bathrooms each day than for books and music. So far this year, we've only had two incidents outside our store--a guy on amphetamines driving a truck in a relatively low-speed chase, and one of the street people hitting another with a long stick, which led to him, bloodied and out of his mind, throwing a bicycle around. Overall, business has been better, maybe because of the ordinances, maybe because tourism is up and the locals are back out and about.

We don't blame anyone in the city for the violence, harassment and the drug dealing that goes on. We're all trying to work out a solution, rather than taking a militant approach and trying to legislate everything. The police here are very skilled. We don't see them bullying anyone unnecessarily, and generally they are very tolerant. And then there's the high frequency of mental health issues, which account for many of the problems."

Boomer, street person:
"Compared to Oakland, which is the West Coast's Brooklyn, Santa Cruz is really chill and what goes down is all petty shit. But there are so many underage kids on the mall who are irresponsible and don't respect people. From that perspective, 2003 sucks."

Kamala Franseth, owner of new store Best of Everything:
"I've worked in Juno, Arcata, Santa Fe, and a plaza in Humboldt, where we got a lot more scary people than I've ever seen here. I'm not threatened by these people. They do their own thing. So far, business has been great, better than what I expected, and I've had a great response from the community."

Tyler, street youth:
"There's lots of misconceptions about who we are, but as long as we're being chill, and not drinking or being dirty, the cops are helpful, depending on their mood. They don't try to get us off the street, because they know we want to be here, but they worry about the tourists, who on the one hand like us being here because we have a laid-back aura, but are also afraid of us because of how we look. I guess some people are selling pot, but the scene's calmed down a lot. And they'll never be able to make Santa Cruz like anywhere else."

June Hoffman, co-owner of Hoffman's Bakery:
"I think it's gotten better. Things in front of New Leaf got cleared up, but now there's a problem in front of Borders. There's less panhandlers and people sitting on the sidewalk, so I think people have gotten the message about the rules, but it's not great, not perfect. The other day, we had a guy annoying our customers by talking about Jesus Christ and swearing, but when the police showed up, he left."

Howard Skerry, deputy chief of police, Santa Cruz Police Department:
"Whether downtown is safer or not is a public perception, but just because it's a perception doesn't mean it isn't an issue. Even with the city's current budget crisis, we're on our summer schedule, which means we're fully staffed downtown, with extra teams on weekends. I hate to say complaints are down, because some people don't call them in, but changes downtown have made a definite impact. Yes, a lot of the issues downtown are alcohol related, or to do with drug dealing, loud stereos, be they in cars or buildings. The general feedback we get is that we're doing a great job and there's a lot of improvements, but there are still some who say we should be doing more. And then there's the fact that the scene shifts seasonally."

Glenn Rogers, owner of Star Nine:
"When I go to lunch, I see police officers on each block. Some people say it feels like a police state, but I don't feel that way. Their increased visibility helps keeps crime down and there's a lot less panhandling this year. As a business owner, I have a different perspective from my customers. We're here every day, so of course we see more problems. There's a difference between keeping things weird and keeping them from changing for the worse. We're known as a care-giver city, so people think they can come here and we'll look after them."

Stacie Willoughby, waitress at the Saturn Cafe:
"The new ordinances didn't affect us much, because people don't hang outside our store and if they do they do it out the back. And we still get the same problems. Since we're open until 3 or 4 in the morning, people come here to do drugs, pass out, have sex in our bathrooms, and we're seeing a lot more traffic. I just hate seeing so many cops patrolling downtown when there are so many other areas that need their attention. It's silly and a waste of money."

David Pavlovich, professional harp player:
"I no longer perform downtown after the police ticketed me last summer for selling CDs. I play in hospitals, at weddings and corporate events and I feel that typically people who have CDs are gonna be professional, so if you prohibit people from selling CDs, you are gonna eliminate the professionals, and when police do that they justify their own existence, saying, 'Look how bad the mall has become.' The police make judgment calls all day, so at least make good ones. I just hope the mall becomes more fun for performers and that people understand that homelessness and street performers are two different things."

Dana Talaber, owner of Ample Annie's:
"I walk up and down Pacific Avenue every day, because I live at El Centro, and it always bothers me to see so many kids sitting out there. Maybe they can't get any help, but there must be some other way than begging. Last year, people were objecting to the kids playing ball games aggressively, not people doing magic, blowing bubbles, telling fortunes or playing the violin, so I think it's dumb that we've gone and restricted performers. Right now, I'm trying to sell my store or turn it into a collective, because I've been doing this for 16 years, I'm tired and this neighborhood is something of a problem, but I can't afford the rent north of Laurel, where it more than doubles. My business is right next to a bar, so I see the same behavior, which mostly involves guys standing outside smoking and making remarks about women. Some people are intimidated or made uncomfortable by this scene, but it's not dangerous."

Joe Williams, street performer and political tabler:
"Performers and tablers accounted for less than 1 percent of the problems last year, and if you look at the most recent police statistics, you see that most of the problems are to do with drinking and bikes. But since the introduction of the new ordinances, performers and tablers have experienced a chilling effect because of increased and unwanted attention from downtown hosts and police officers. The fact that we aren't being cited doesn't mean we're not being contacted. And instead of freeing up the dolphins in the tuna net, as the street performers and political tablers have been described, it looks like there's a bunch of new hoops for us to leap through, what with new suggested permits procedures, which sound like triple bureaucracy in place of voluntary guidelines. Why are they throwing all these roadblocks in the way, if, like the council says, they want a more "robust" atmosphere? We don't know how to deal with the council, we don't know what the police, business owners and residents want. We would like a stockholder forum to hash these issues out, be it through the Downtown Commission, or another group. It's very advantageous to have an ongoing dialogue. The hosts now have the ability to issue warnings and call the police, so that now they are perceived, rightly or wrongly, as snitches. I think the police do realize that service calls related to alcohol are the biggest problem downtown, but I find it inappropriate for councilmembers to take sides. Why not mediate, instead?"

Sheila Coonerty, Downtown Commission member:
"The council was supposed to revisit the downtown ordinances and exemption zones by July, but with the budget crisis, it makes sense that it hasn't been able to. I'm assuming that in September this will be one of the issues that the Downtown Commission and the City Council will be working on. There's a danger these issues could remain off the table, and it's important that they don't. At a time when people are losing everything else, street performers and the quality of life become even more important, and the city needs to make sure we are doing everything we can on the cheap. What does it really cost to support street performers?"

Cassandra Brown, Coalition for Community Commons:
"The scene downtown doesn't seem any different. Maybe there are more people in general, but fewer musicians. The new ordinances didn't help anything. Their point seemed to be to move the homeless along, but they will always be a part of our town. It's not an issue of restricting space, but opening more up and filling it with all this great artistic community has to give. I'm really excited about the Coalition's Tuesday Nights Out, because they give all this talent a chance to vent and for us to witness them. In an economic downturn, it's community that saves people."

Keith Holtaway, executive director of the Downtown Association:
"I get the sense that the merchants feel the trending downtown is positive. My understanding is that sales were firmer by the end of July and that the ordinances have definitely helped. The street performers' guidelines were only voluntary for the performers, because the merchants are stuck inside their stores, so let's just codify moving acts along after one hour and leave it at that. Compared to other cities, which have designated spaces and demand picture IDs of their performers, it's still like the Wild Wild West here. I'm in favor of anything that brings positive foot traffic downtown. Past experience suggests that when you close downtown streets, it turns into more of a scene than anyone wanted, but I know the Coalition for Community Commons is trying to bring the community back to downtown, and I wish them luck because I know they've worked very hard to make this happen."

Lisa Towns, co-owner of Velvet Underground:
"Ever since April, sales have been booming, so I'm excited. From my perspective, merchants, shoppers and performers want the same thing--for everyone to be down here and feeling comfortable. I recommend participating in the community Night Outs, which have been really positive experiences all around.

Tom 'Bubble Man' Noddy:
"I and the other street performers love this community, proving that we are faithful lovers despite out-of-the-blue nastiness last year, which wasn't based on complaints about street performers, and which violated the street performers' voluntary guidelines. But my sense right now is that the fever has broken, a sense I got when the council clarified that juggling is indeed legal. Last year, one of the downtown merchants, Neal Coonerty, went out of his way to sell "Keep Santa Cruz Weird" T-shirts and to plunk down over $3,000 in a bank account, some of which will be used on Sept. 5 and 6 to highlight the talents of current and former street performers in a show that will take place downtown, but onstage in the Louden Nelson community with lights and sound, to remind everybody what a positive thing street performers are. It's time to set aside the fight and put on a sweet show, with the Flying Karamazov Brothers and others headlining. Downtown was built to exclude really good acts, but a plaza could accommodate the headliners without blocking the sidewalk. If we had that, top class acts would come to town and draw in the crowds. The Karamazov Brothers are really stunning like that. They built an act which ended on such a high note, with four of them taking off their hats and running into the crowd to take donations, so that people didn't even have time to check what they were giving. They just wanted to become members."

Carol Scurich of the Parks and Recreation Department:
"People don't need permits to perform downtown unless they need a space bigger than 4 feet by 6 feet, or it takes them longer than 20 minutes to set up. In those instances, you need to get a permit [which is free], which can cover multiple performances. And if there's amplified sound involved, you can only play in alleys and there's a $33 application fee. Otherwise, all you need to do is follow the downtown ordinances."

Emily Reilly, mayor of Santa Cruz:
This summer's been really active downtown and pedestrians really rule, which is great. But we can do a better job of making the performers feel appreciated and safe. We have a brochure in the works which will be really helpful, and I'm hoping people will be able to get free permits if they are willing to say they can follow the basic rules, which only apply to those with display devices anyway. I'd like to figure out a way to assure performers that we really want them here, and that they can be confident of what's expected of them. I don't want anyone to feel intimidated, and I invite the whole community to come and see how great downtown is these days.

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From the August 13-20, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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