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Voices of Lower Pacific

blog arenaEmployees at Lower Pacific Avenue businesses weigh in on what it is like to work in the area

Just a few blocks inland from Santa Cruz’s sought-after coastline, Downtown Santa Cruz boasts a wealth of offerings. Yet, the portion of this bustling city center that is nearest to the beach has, historically, been viewed as having the most troubles.

Today, the stretch—where Pacific Avenue and Laurel Street intersect—is a hotbed of change. The storefront next to Taco Bell, once a glass shop, is now vacant. The Asti’s new neighbor, KC’s Sports Bar and Lounge, is set to open Sunday, Feb. 23, replacing The Avenue Bar, which was forced to liquidate in 2012.

Then there are the city’s efforts to improve the area. The Kaiser Permanente Arena, which opened Dec. 23, 2012 with an inaugural Warriors basketball game, has brought added foot traffic to the tract. Future changes may stem from the city’s attempt to collaborate with nearby businesses to light the walkway along the San Lorenzo River levee, and the surveying of parking conditions in the lower downtown region to determine the zone’s need for a new parking structure. Despite the changes, crime remains a long-standing concern in the area.

All things considered, Good Times decided to check in with those who know the neighborhood best: employees of the businesses that border the Pacific Avenue and Laurel Street intersection. What are their observations of the locale, we wondered, and do they sense change afoot?

Brett Merriott has been working at Bonesio Liquor Store, at 801 Pacific Ave., for five months.

“It’s pretty gnarly working here,” says Merriott. “We have to deal with a lot of stuff. We get a lot of [homeless] people coming in here. A lot of regulars”—at that, he waves to a man who has just walked into the store and greets the customer by name.

About four people come in and out of the liquor store while I am speaking with Merriott, and he seems familiar and friendly with all of them.

“Some people are too drunk and I have to kick them out of the store,” he says. “Halloween was insane. New Years [Eve] was a little better.”

Since Merriott began working at the store, he says he has noticed “more crime and a lot more [homeless] people than usual.”

Merriott says he was initially scared to work at the store but has since grown comfortable with it, even though he says, “I’ve had to use pepper spray before because [a man] tried to attack me.”

Kitty-corner to Bonesio Liquor Store is Saturn Café, where Bridget Swift has worked as a server for one year.

We sit at a table with papers sprawled everywhere. I ask her if she’s studying and she laughs and nods.

I ask her what it is like to work at the popular vegetarian diner, which is open Friday and Saturday until 3 a.m., and Monday through Thursday until midnight.

“[It can be] scary sometimes,” she says. “When you [are] shift lead here, especially at night, you can be here as late as 4 a.m. One of the shift leads had their car broken into. [Another was] assaulted by people who hangout behind [Saturn].”

When basketball games are held at the arena, Swift says, “there are more crowds and it’s harder to find parking.”

But, despite the new influx of people, Swift says she notices only a small increase in business at Saturn on game nights. She chalks this up to Saturn’s niche as a vegetarian restaurant, concluding that the crowds may rather eat elsewhere. (However, Saturn does market directly to Warriors fans with game stub specials on game day. A free half order of nachos, garlic fries, or onion rings, with a purchase of an entrée is nothing to sneeze at.)

Over at Surf Dog, which opened in July of 2011, Karsten Holst says he has been dishing up hot dogs for four months.

Holst echoes what Merriott, at Bonesio’s, says.

“It gets kind of busy sometimes, but you see a lot of the same people around,” he says.

Holst says that he hasn’t noticed any changes to the area, but, like Merriott, he brings up Halloween as one of the defining experiences of working on Lower Pacific Avenue.

“Halloween is one of the busiest nights of the year and this place is packed—all of downtown is packed,” he says. “You really kind of see the flavor and the culture of Santa Cruz.”

And this flavor and culture Holst speaks of, is it a good thing? Is it a bad thing?

“It’s a great thing,” he says with a smile. “I mean, there are a lot of drug addicts and a lot of drinkers—but those people are everywhere.

“On Halloween, we actually had to call the cops because someone had a fight over there,” he adds, motioning to a corner of Surf Dog. “And someone was passed out in the back, but that’s just Halloween, that doesn’t happen all the time.”

Down the street from Surf Dog, I hear from Sam Raz of Graffix Pleasure, a store specializing in body piercings and smoking paraphernalia. Raz has worked at the store for four years—his family owns Graffix Pleasure, Surf Dog, and Kabul Palace, a restaurant across the street from Graffix Pleasure.

“The area has a bad reputation,” says Raz, adding that he doesn’t think that this reputation affects the amount of business that lower downtown receives.

Raz’s main concern with the Lower Pacific area is lighting—he feels that there are not enough streetlights.

“People around here already can’t drive,” he says. “ We need LED lights around here.”

Comments (1)Add Comment
Flaneur
written by Pete Jussel, February 05, 2014
The corner of Laurel and Pacific is similar to the intersection where the town clock is, i.e., there's always traffic. It is also just as safe and just as dangerous. Laurel & Pacific has had a bad reputation for decades but things have been morphing, albeit slower than slowly, away from fleabag bars and cheap seats to something that looks attractive from the windows of a passing car. That's about as far as any redevelopment attitude has reached. What is needed now is an entrepreneur who has the daring to open a business appealing to those with discretionary income. More than anything, lower Pacific needs venues where moneyed peoples can congregate and thereby take back the street from nonproductive lollers who have been given fifty miles of elbow room.

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