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Village Voices

[whitespace] playing soccer Expansion Horizons: Some residents fear that open space, like this grassy spot on the corner of Beach and Third streets, will have to give way to make room for a bigger, better Boardwalk.

The city says it has tried to include the residents of Beach Flats in its plans to 'revitalize' the area. But many still feel left out.

By Mary Spicuzza

Photos by Robert Scheer

'IS IT TRUE that they might take people out?" Magdalena Chavez asks, her eyes widening anxiously. "I've heard they're going to take some of us out of Beach Flats, but that certain people are going to be helped. I've heard they will help those of us willing to leave. But I'm scared. It's so difficult to find housing. I don't know where we'll go."

Chavez welcomes us into her home. Though she insists she can't help with an article because she knows little about redevelopment plans, she speaks openly about her experiences living in Beach Flats. A recent immigrant from the state of Nayarit in Mexico, she moved to Beach Flats with her husband in 1996. But because she is undocumented, she chooses to withhold her real name and asks us not to take photographs.

Beach Flats is quickly becoming one of the hottest political battlegrounds in town, with activists debating the City Council over who's really representing the best interests of the people. But somewhere between the flurry of planning activity and political wrangling, there are voices that seem to be getting lost in the mix--people who are spoken for, but whose voices are rarely heard.

These are the people whose lives will be affected most directly by redevelopment of the area: the 1,200 residents within the nine-acre area of the city of Santa Cruz known as Beach Flats.

In dozens of interviews over the past two months, often accompanied by a native Spanish speaker, I visited with young and old, recent arrivals and long-term residents, Latinos and non-Latinos, renters and property owners. These residents repeatedly told me they couldn't answer questions adequately because they didn't know much about the proposed plans.

Beach Area redevelopment has been on the City Council's agenda since long before the Loma Prieta earthquake--plans available in the library date back to 1979. Yet many residents, even long-term residents, say they first heard about redevelopment plans less than a year ago.

The majority of residents also said they don't believe anyone is truly representing their interests in the redevelopment process.

As we sit in the one-bedroom apartment where Magdalena Chavez lives with her husband, Alberto, their youngest daughter falls while playing outside. Magdalena excuses herself to comfort the toddler. Waiting for her to return, I flip through my notes, coming across passages copied from the Beach Area--South of Laurel Comprehensive Draft Plan. "Rebuilding livable neighborhoods requires cooperative action involving public and private resources and community participation," the plan reads. "It is the role of government to put in place these programs which encourage citizens to feel confident of their ability to create safe and livable neighborhoods."

Buzzwords like "community renewal" and "physical renaissance" punctuate the document, which was created for the city by the East Coast-based Phipps Group. The plans claim that rejuvenating the community is its main goal.

The nearly 400-page-long comprehensive plan begins: "The Beach and South of Laurel area is a priceless resource for the City of Santa Cruz." It goes on to paint a utopian vision for the future of the neighborhood, shaped by commercial growth and accompanied by residential improvements. It also states a commitment to community involvement in the planning process for the Beach Area, a neighborhood it describes as "the jewel in the crown of Santa Cruz."

This latest draft of the Beach Area plan has been available for public review since December. Written copies can be found at locations around town: the library's central branch, the Planning Department and the Beach Flats Community Center.

No copies are available in Spanish.


More Perspectives:

Beach Flats landlord blames drugs--and years of neglect by the city--for problems.

A Beach Flats homeowner wannabe sees traffic and gentrification in the neighborhood's future.

At 23, Felipe Cruz works with at-risk teenagers, shows movies for kids and explains the city's plans to his neighbors.

Student/volunteer Lidia Montesinos takes pride in her family--and her neighborhood.

Maria Gutierrez says she's too busy to 'chase down planning meetings,' but she'd still like to know what's going on.

'Grandma' Sue Wilson is hopeful about plans to redevelop the neighborhood where she has lived for more than 25 years.


Language Barriers

SOME COMMUNITY members have criticized the fact that the plan has not been translated. The plan itself estimates that 78 percent of the population is Latino and that many are Spanish-speakers. The city has recorded readings from the plans in Spanish on audio-tape and placed them at the library and the Beach Flats Community Center, located on Raymond Street.

From hundreds of pages of planning documents, several two-page Spanish fact sheets have also been printed, as well as a 22-page summary of the three-volume, thousand-page draft environmental impact report.

Planning Director Eileen Fogarty says, "This is the most inclusive plan I've ever seen." Fogarty points out that the department has hired professional interpreters to attend meetings over the past several months.

"We've had a total of 15 meetings in the past two months, and there's one in Spanish tentatively scheduled for early May," she says. "We mail out and post fliers for our meetings and have even gone door to door to inform the community so residents can better understand the relocation process."

But many residents say that planning meetings scheduled in the middle of the day make it difficult for working people to participate in the redevelopment process. Long-time resident and property owner Maria Gutierrez feels strongly that people living in Beach Flats are largely unaware of proposed changes because of a lack of accessible information in their native language.

Communication Breakdown

IT'S AS DIFFICULT to pin down a root cause of the information void in Beach Flats as it is to trace the origin of rumors spreading through the neighborhood--especially the common one that the entire neighborhood is going to be leveled and people will be living in the street.

"Scare tactics are being used, making it difficult to separate fact from fiction," Fogarty says. "We end up spending a lot of time at meetings having to address misinformation."

Yet, as Mayor Celia Scott said at an April 7 planning committee meeting, "Rumors flourish where there is poor communication and ambiguity."

Beach Flats is the most talked-about but least-understood area in Santa Cruz. Those who live there don't deny that the place has more than its share of problems, but they also insist that the neighborhood they call home contains a real community.

Lidia Montesinos, 19, points out that most articles written about Beach Flats are negative, about either drugs, prostitutes or gangs. A Santa Cruz County Sentinel article from Aug. 14, 1979, for example, describes Beach Flats as "a pocket of urban decay" full of "decrepit little houses."

On Jan. 19, 1998, the Sentinel wrote: "[Beach Flats] is now in such a state that 69 percent of the neighborhood's 1,200 residents said in a recent survey that they would live elsewhere in the city if housing were available."

This statistic is used repeatedly throughout the draft plans and in just about any discourse about Beach Flats. It is actually derived from a 1994 "Chatauqua" conducted by the Beach Area Outlook Conference, in which seven high school students spoke to 61 residents of Beach Flats and Lower Ocean. The survey actually concluded, "69 percent of those responding ... said if they could live in an affordable housing complex like Neary Lagoon or Via San Carlos at the same rent as they pay now, they would move from the Beach Flats area."

"It's an improper usage of survey results derived from a study with serious methodological flaws," says Skip Spitzer, who teaches sociology at Gavilan College. "Many of the questions are poorly worded. There is no description of the students' training, and there is no acceptable sampling method used. It makes it seem people are dying to get out of Beach Flats."

Twenty-year resident Jane Baer, who with her husband, Phil, has formed the Beach Flats Neighborhood Association, sees class politics as a factor that prevents neighborhoods like Beach Flats from having the privilege of being considered a community.

"They act like Beach Flats is something awful we need to get rid of, not a treasure to be preserved," she says. "My house is from 1865, and we have a lot of historic buildings here. Anything that will take away from less-wealthy people to amuse the wealthy--well, I don't find amusing."

Claudio Sandoval
Memory Lane: Claudio Sandoval is happy that he and his family will be moving into a new downtown apartment, but says he will miss the Beach Flats community.

Moving On

WHEN I MEET the Sandoval family, they are packing up a van to move to the Sycamore Apartments. Claudio Sandoval says he feels lucky that he and his family were accepted into the low-income complex.

He and his father-in-law, Emilio, talk about changes they've seen during their eight years living in Beach Flats. Although Sandoval says drugs are hurting the neighborhood, he says that for the most part, he likes all of his neighbors. But with a new baby on the way, the Sandovals need more space. The Raymond Street house also has a lot of structural problems-- a leaking ceiling, broken toilet and no heater--and Sandoval says his landlord drags his feet making any repairs.

As drops of rain start to fall once again, Sandoval pauses to survey the neighborhood. "I've liked living here, and I've never had any problems," he says. "After eight years, it's going to be hard to leave the community."

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From the April 30-May 6, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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