An Insider's View of the Diversity on Santa Cruz CA's Pacific Avenue
Santa Cruz, CA is a seaside town of under 60,000. It is a tourist destination because of the world-class surfing, the Beach Boardwalk and the ideal climate. To the rest of the US, California is a den of commie, pinko freaks and the birthplace of the hippie, while to Californians, Santa Cruz is quirky.
Pacific Avenue is the heart of Santa Cruz, where no one finds it the least bit odd that UCSC's mascot is the banana slug. It suits us just fine.
What follows is a, sort of, ode to my community.
Steamer Lane, Sammy and the Boardwalk
Nothing is more iconic of Santa Cruz than Pacific Avenue. Not Steamer Lane. Not Sammy the Slug. Not even the Boardwalk. Santa Cruz self-identifies and is known as a laid back, tolerant and progressive neighborhood with a penchant for social and political activism. The short stretch of The Avenue from the Town Clock to Spruce Street showcases the community's embrace of a diversity of lifestyles.
Here, one might find a panhandler soliciting a clique of yuppies as a same-sex couple sashays by, hand in hand, followed by a flock of fluttering Hare Krishnas fervently chanting the Maha Mantra. A little ways down the promenade, a weather-beaten gentleman strums a guitar and sings for nickels and dimes, while a bit farther along a more elaborate performance is underway. The Great Morgani [www.thegreatmorgani.com] has gathered a crowd and is regaling them with his one man show. Anemic words like finery and regalia cannot do justice to the extravagant outfit that adorns him from head to toe and beyond. Even his accordion and portable stage are in costume. The spectacle must be experienced first hand to be fully appreciated.
The Great Morgani
Meanwhile, on the street, a leather-clad gang thunders on their Harley Davidsons, each vying to be the one who sets off the most car alarms by the roar of an engine. The winner gets a free round. Their lattes and cappuccinos will serve to wash down the dust fed to them by the skate rat and juggling unicyclist racing past them. Motorcycles are clearly meant for the open road, yet Pacific has become a mecca for these machines.
Is that a Keep Santa Cruz Weird bumper sticker on one of those hogs?
The Pink Umbrella Man might be gone, but not forgotten. He used to live in my building (on The Avenue), so I happen to know that he's no longer racing banana slugs on Pacific because he managed to get himself evicted. And, by the way, once P.U. Man gets "off stage" he walks just like a man in a skirt. I have heard from credible sources that in his previous incarnation P.U. Man was Garbage Bag Man. I cannot confirm this because whenever I came across G.B. Man on The Avenue he would be on a bench concealed by some sort of garbage bag tent. As I walked past G.B. Man, he would peekaboo and softly squeal "#@&% you" to me. His presidential campaign was in full swing at the time, so this must have been his stump speech.
I can picture Robert now in his cocoon: biding his time, grinning inwardly, allowing the metamorphosis to run its course. All in good time.
Continuing our virtual tour, we cannot help but notice the abundance of gypsies. Many of these 21st century hippies are itinerant artists and artisans plying their wares. Others are just plain hustling. They are present in all sizes, ages and shapes, but for the most part they tend to be young and traveling in small, spirited bands. They assert their bohemian culture to the point of flamboyance and reject such conventions as wage labor, hierarchy and, of course, personal hygiene. Some people call them bums and vagrants...and worse, but the truth is they add a dash of color, effervescence and character. Pacific Avenue would not be The Avenue without them.
Do not confuse these vagabonds with the displaced homeless. While most gypsies may go through life without a permanent address, they do so as a consequence of their chosen lifestyle, whereas most of the exiled on Pacific would much rather have a roof over their heads. It's here that many of the dispossessed eke out a living by their wits. They beg. They barter their arts, crafts and services. They borrow. They entertain. They might even steal. Among other things, Pacific Avenue is a refugee camp.
On the other end of the social spectrum, we find the tourists and students.
UCSC students constitute the predominant subculture. They are everywhere, infusing the scene with their energy and youthful exuberance. Much of downtown is tailored towards them, and they seem well aware of this. According to a 2002 survey of UCSC freshmen by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute, the median household income for their families of origin was about 87.5% above the national average. Pacific Avenue is their oyster, especially at night when they get the run of the place. Their hoots and hollers can be heard from blocks away, but they spice things up with more than just their joie de vivre. In a city that is over 90% white (2009 U.S. Census), the above mentioned survey also reported that at least 40%of the students self-identified as other than white. The same survey revealed that, politically speaking, 59% considered themselves either liberal or far left, 34% straddled the fence, while only 8% fessed up to being conservative or far right.
What do you suppose these crazy kids will grow up to be?
Tourists. Pretty much everything that was just asserted about the students applies to our esteemed visitors—with some qualification. Tourists are ex-students that have grown wiser and calmer and have accumulated more wealth. It follows that they are more invested in the status quo and may have amended their ideologies accordingly. Please note that most UCSC students are on an extended visit to fair Santa Cruz. Like the budding version of themselves, tourists add variety to the landscape even as they bask in their privilege, and, like the students, tourists enjoy the warm embrace of the community.
Indeed, as we have seen, a potpourri of people with their attendant viewpoints seek out Pacific Avenue, because, here, they find self-expression and acceptance. The resulting panorama of contrast and diversity is a testament to the broad-minded openness and generosity of the fellowship of Santa Cruz.