Under the Boardwalk
A memoir of Santa Cruz.
This Longform Reprint is reprinted by permission of author.
Over the Hill
A few weeks ago, I drove for an hour and a half down the coast of California from San Francisco to Santa Cruz, where I was born and raised. Santa Cruz is a small city of about 60,000 people that maintains a unique identity due in part to its physical location. It’s not really a suburb of anything. A bay separates it from its nearest southern neighbor, Monterey; to the east, mountains offer a physical barrier against San Jose and the series of strip-mall towns and office-parks that bleed Silicon Valley into the Bay Area. To the north lies Devil’s Slide, a winding oceanside highway pass that makes access from San Francisco more of an adventurous undertaking than a practical one.
I’ve been driving that familiar stretch of coast since I was a teenager, but on this trip, I found it changed. Devil’s Slide was suddenly inaccessible—my car was detoured into a tunnel through the mountain that had been hotly debated and in process for so long I never expected it to actually be finished. I felt uncomfortable. My familiar landscape had changed before I had a chance for a cognizant last trip through it, to take its hairpin turns and clifftop railings as fast as possible one last time.
On the old Devil’s Slide pass, I had been able to smell the ocean three curves of the road before I saw it. In the new tunnel, flickering lights and oversized fans mediated the atmosphere. To make myself feel more at ease, I found an '80s radio station and sang along out the window as I took the tunnel's perfectly straight grade at 60 mph. At the end, I emerged out of the mountain above the Pacific like a surprise. The familiar glint of the spring blue ocean was still there, whispering in my peripheral vision, as reliable and far away as every recalled chorus I sung out the window.
One of those songs was “If This Is It,” from the 1983 Huey Lewis and the News album Sports. Last month, the album’s 30th anniversary was celebrated with a questionably necessary “deluxe” re-release. I was seven in 1983, too young for MTV (or TV at all, thanks to my hippie parents), but as soon I had to access that most coveted of cable networks (via friends' houses, usually), I memorized the images flickering across the station's playlists. The doo-woppy "If This Is It" wasn't as layered as “I Want a New Drug” or as popular as “The Heart of Rock and Roll,” but its video elevated its status from breakup ballad to full-fledged summer song. I knew every second of that video. Every kid in Santa Cruz knew it. We starred in it, or at least our town did.
Home to redwood-covered mountains, aging hippies, weed-infused college students, a cute downtown shopping district, and a disproportionately high number of excellent bakeries and cafes, Santa Cruz has many charms, but what draws the most visitors are its beaches. For more than a hundred years, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has been the primary tourist destination in a town largely supported by tourism. Complete with a Ferris wheel, arcade, and “The Giant Dipper”—a wooden roller coaster modeled after the Coney Island Cyclone—the Boardwalk, where "If This Is It" was filmed, is a colorful combination of pedestrian beach commerce and classic summertime fun.
In the video, the beach fronting the Boardwalk is packed with bodies; the camera lens feels sweaty. Huey and the band are pictured doing the usual things one does at the beach: They ogle the crowds, get their fortunes told, and lip-sync while buried up to their necks in light sand. Huey appears in a sequence of clichéd beach tableaux as a semi-dorky polo-shirt-wearing bro: He chases after thin, unavailable women in swimsuits; he plays carnival games and doesn’t win a stuffed animal. Through a clunky reversal effect, Huey emerges dry from the gentle surf wearing a sweater vest and a skinny tie and brandishing a tennis racket. The video’s action clouds the darker aspects of the song’s lyrics, in which Huey begs his paramour to own up to the uneven dynamics of their relationship or else set him free. Onscreen, the song’s message is distilled into something more like: Oooh, aaah, girls!
Even as a child, the sunshiney Santa Cruz of “If This Is It” looked more like a mythical California (specifically, Los Angeles) than the beaches I knew. Like all good pop artists and tourist destinations, Huey Lewis’ Santa Cruz existed within a version of the imagined self—of entertainment and fantasy—that anyone could access. This postcard version of Santa Cruz was a carnival of easygoing charm—a technically accurate portrayal, but it didn’t represent me. My friends and I generally ignored the Boardwalk unless we wanted to go there to flirt with older boys we’d never see again or, later, had to work there in the summertime selling junk food and trinkets for minimum wage. The beaches of MTV’s Santa Cruz were for tourists—“valleys,” as we locals called people from over the hill long before “silicon” became that area’s prefix.
In reality, if Huey Lewis had ever strayed from the beginner’s waves of Boardwalk-adjacent Cowells Beach, the local surfers would have run him and his tennis racket out of town faster than day-trippers run for the nearest sweatshirt stand when the fog rolls in. Other beaches in Santa Cruz have vague local names like “Its,” “Blacks,” and “The Spot.” The serious surfing waves are usually not at sandy beaches at all; instead, wetsuit-clad surfers access the break directly from the cliffs, surfboards bouncing off their rubber ankle leashes as they dive at just the right tidal moment. In Santa Cruz, surf spots are well-guarded territories. (While writing this essay, I texted my older brother, a lifelong surfer, about local beaches. He replied with the location of one of the sweetest surf spots in town and the admonition: “Localized—be careful writing about it.”)
The water in Santa Cruz is even less hospitable than the locals. It’s cold. The air can be cold, too—fog blusters in off the bay sometimes as early as 2 p.m. in the summer. On summer nights from sixth grade onward, my friends and I could be found huddling in hooded sweatshirts and beanies on the cliffs above the beach. We’d smoke clove cigarettes, drink stolen beers, drop acid, or just stare quietly out into the shivering expanse of the black Pacific. Down on the sand, at night, there were bonfires. And just up the hill, in the woods, there were vampires.
People Are Strange
A couple years after "If This Is It" made Santa Cruz TV-famous, all my older brother’s friends started talking about their older siblings being cast as extras in a real Hollywood movie called The Lost Boys. Directed by Joel Schumacher, the 1987 vampire flick—part vampire-hunting caper, part adolescent angst-fest—was filmed in and around Santa Cruz, with key scenes taking place at the Boardwalk. Despite its fantastical elements, The Lost Boys offered a darker, more nuanced celluloid vision of this idyllic coastal town: bonfire flames licked the foggy skies at night; violence lingered in the shadows of the arcade; drifting gangs of teens cruised for trouble far from the attentions of well-meaning but flaky adults. People drank blood. People died. The film's soundtrack was influenced more by goth than tongue-in-cheek pop. The main theme—Gerard McCann’s “Cry Little Sister”—is a synthesizer vampire elegy packed with Biblical lyrics. But the song from the soundtrack that stuck around as the film’s anthem was Echo And The Bunnymen's cover of The Doors’ “People Are Strange.”
In The Lost Boys, Santa Cruz is veiled as “Santa Carla.” Early in the film, the brothers around whom the film centers (precocious Corey Haim and brooding, soon-to-be-undead Jason Patric) and their single mom (chirpy, working-class Dianne Wiest) drive into town. The boys are not excited to be there. They pass a roadside sign that displays a classic postcard graphic: “Welcome to Santa Carla!” As the kids listen to their mom tout the virtues of moving to a new town, their car passes the sign. The boys turn to see the back of the sign, which has a spraypainted addendum: “Murder Capital of the World.”
Santa Cruz really was considered the murder capital of the country, if not the world, in the 1970s. My parents, when asked, can recall several acquaintances on close terms with victims of the three serial killers who frequented the area during that decade. Even after the killers moved on, Santa Cruz has remained a place filled not only with chilly nights but with lost people. The cute downtown streets are punctuated with populations who appear to have nowhere else to go—burnouts, drifters, junkies, forgotten veterans, the chronically mentally ill, runaway kids.
It’s a local tradition to argue about the homeless and “panhandling,” but the shadowy aspects of the town are also a cause of civic pride. Along with the wanderers and the drug scene comes a culture that operates at a slower pace and encourages self-expression. My childhood experiences of downtown included the gut knowledge that some people on the street seemed like the kind I should stay away from, but most were fine; my dad often gave me the loose change from his pockets and let me toddle up to the open guitar cases of Pacific Avenue's buskers. Even the most uptight citizen would assert that Santa Cruz is a place where the strange are welcome. Otherwise, we’d be valleys.
People from Santa Cruz are fond of wearing our local pride on our hoodies in the form of logos of the town’s many successful surfing and skateboarding companies. Our cars and bicycles display bumper stickers advertising oddball local enterprises like The Mystery Spot. Sometime around 2003, Neal Coonerty, who founded Bookshop Santa Cruz in 1966, printed up a batch of stickers and t-shirts that said “Keep Santa Cruz Weird,” a concept appropriated from Austin, Texas. Coonerty wanted to show support for street musicians; at the time, an ordinance making the rounds in City Council would have banned buskers from standing near shops downtown. (Coonerty isn’t simply a local shop owner. He’s a current member of the Santa Cruz Board of Supervisors and a former City Council member and mayor, and his son has been mayor twice; I think of their family as sort of a Santa Cruz version of the Kennedys, if such a thing could exist). That specific legal battle passed, but the slogan stuck.
This Is It
Which celluloid Santa Cruz is real? Is the place where I grew up a sunny vacation town, clean and pastel-hued, the northern Los Angeles of surfer betties and bros? Or is it the dirty drifter hideout full of freaks and druggies, the bassline of “People Are Strange” blaring from our vintage cars as we circle around beach bonfires at night? In a struggle between hokey Huey Lewis and hot young Keifer Sutherland, I tend to root for the vampire. To me, his version of my hometown feels more genuine, less fabricated. Localized.
On my recent trip home, I stopped by the house of a childhood friend’s mom. She told me about a new debate dividing the town. In the past year or so, Santa Cruz has seen a notable increase in violence and the drug trade, mainly heroin and meth. It’s hard to say whether the rise is media-assisted or real, the result of the rest of the world's socioeconomic issues finally making their way over the hill. Anecdotally, locals do seem to hear about a lot more shootings, stabbings, and assaults. Last year one store owner was murdered in the middle of the day by a man who had been in and out of the state psychiatric prison system. My dad says people break into cars in his neighborhood now, so he’s started locking his doors. In February, the small health food grocery that serves as our corner store was robbed at gunpoint while it was filled with staff and customers. Later that month, two police officers were killed.
Santa Cruz had never seen a shooting like that before. A scale had been tipped. Local conservatives seized on Santa Cruz’s unofficial slogan as emblematic of a too-lackadaisical attitude toward the town’s less postcard-ready aspects. (This was, I suppose, an easier place to start than the labrynthine roots of poverty, violence, and addiction, not to mention social services in present-day California.) The shooter wasn’t homeless—he was a veteran—but he wasn’t really the point. A group calling itself Take Back Santa Cruz launched a PR campaign suggesting the city change its slogan, unofficial though it may be, from “Keep Santa Cruz Weird” to “Keep Santa Cruz Safe and Clean.”
Places change, but at what point do they stop becoming themselves? After I hung out with my friend’s mom, I stopped on West Cliff Drive on my way back to my dad’s house. I sat on a bench, shivering and watching the night surf. I thought about how loaded, how presumptive the idea of “taking back” a place is. Santa Cruz is freakshow and resort, sunshine and fog. All together. I did feel worried about Santa Cruz, but I also felt somehow validated, as though the sooty undercurrent I’d always rooted for was finally being exposed. It was a dark kind of validation. I don’t want there to be gun violence or a meth problem in Santa Cruz. But neither do I want to see its accessibility to lost people or the oddities of its character disappear beneath an influx of reactionary policies or new money from over the hill. I want vampires in the hills and I want my parents safe in their homes. But perhaps what I want most is for my own version of Santa Cruz, my particular and wholly subjective sense of what it means to be from this place, to make me feel safe whenever I feel like I’m not myself anymore.
When I was on the coast that day, driving south towards the Boardwalk I never visit, the winding highway pushed my car in and out of the thick marine layer of fog. I passed the sign that states Santa Cruz’s elevation and population and briefly yearned to spin it backwards into the sea, to dig beneath it and find the dirty roots of this weird place that shaped me. I wanted to be able to access all the hometowns of my past, the secret beaches and the famous ones, the soundtracks and the summer songs. I resented Santa Cruz for moving beyond my nostalgic vision of itself, and I treasured it, too, for still feeling like home despite the passage of eras. I turned up the music. As the clouds danced with the cliffs above the ocean, I had a distinct feeling of the ground moving beneath me, of geography changing, light and dark interplaying on my windshield in a constant negotiation between tempo and time.
Manjula Martin is a writer and editor.