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Mar 29th
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‘I’ve been living here since …’

tom_honig_sI wanted to be the first to write about the upcoming 20th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake, but then I read these words from Dan Gillmor, former tech guru at the San Jose Mercury News and the author of “We the People,” a call-to-arms for citizen journalism.

Writing in his blog, Mediactive, Gillmor talks of 11 things he would do if he ran a news organization (No. 11 is: no more Top 10 lists.)

No. 1: “We would not run anniversary stories and commentary except in the rarest of circumstances. They are a refuge for lazy and unimaginative journalists.”

OK. Point taken. Nevertheless, there is an important aspect of the 20th anniversary of that quake on Oct. 17, 1989. It’s just another signpost in the ultimate Santa Cruz game “Are you a local?”

Living through the Loma Prieta quake—20 years ago—is a pretty good marker of being a local. And that’s an important characteristic of Santa Cruz.

If you doubt it, go down to the next controversial Santa Cruz City Council meeting and listen carefully to the public comment portion of the meeting. Chances are that most comments will start out this way:

“I’ve been living in Santa Cruz since 1966, and I think …”

Or (in an apologetic tone): “I’ve only been living here since November, but in that time I’ve grown to realize …”

Obviously, living here holds some cachet. And living here a long time really scores points.

The earthquake is merely the most recent marker. There are others: the tragic storms and mudslides from the storm of 1982, the mass murders of the early 1970s, and even the big storm and floods of 1955.

Obviously, the tragedy and loss of life from those events remain in our memory; those killed in any of those disasters are still mourned by their survivors. For the rest of us, the stories of those days still mark our conversation—and, indeed, mark us as Santa Cruzans.

Yet even while locals wear the brand with pride, there are those among us worried about the “brand” and think it needs changing. Some in the business community and some younger go-getters talk about changing the image of a pot-smoking, anti-business, anti-change town. Others are quite happy with the way it is.

What is it that makes people so proud that they stake a claim to life here?

In the late ’90s, newspaper designer Bill Ostendorf, a resident of rural Massachusetts, arrived here to begin a redesign of the Santa Cruz Sentinel. His first task: get to know the town and decide whether the newspaper needed a rebranding. Should the name “Santa Cruz” stay in the masthead or would a generic “Sentinel” appeal to more people.

It wasn’t even close. “Santa Cruz is a place that people think of longingly, even if they’ve never been here,” Ostendorf said recently by phone. “Some wish they lived here. Even if they didn’t, they thought it was cool.”

Ostendorf’s first task was to drive around the area and get an overall impression. “It was old tourism, kind of worn down. It was hippie-like, with a lot of homeless people and stores that sold incense and there were places to buy ’70s clothing. But there was new money and new wealth moving in.”

“To this day,” said Ostendorf, “when I tell people I redesigned the paper in Santa Cruz, they say: ‘Oh, that’s cool.’”

Maybe that’s the image we’re looking for. “Santa Cruz—That’s Cool.” Not sure the Chamber of Commerce will embrace it. But then again—it’s not bad.

For the record, I came to Santa Cruz in 1971. I can talk with authority about the bar at Castagnola’s, the old Catalyst, the Cooper House or the grilled-cheese sandwiches at the old Horsesnyder’s Pharmacy.

But that doesn’t qualify me, alas, for local-dom. Too many natives get that shake of the head when they talk about the real glory days. My friend Mel Bowen talks about playing baseball on Capitola Avenue and a car coming by only every 20 minutes. Or another friend—you know who you are—who as a teenager had to chase an errant keg of beer down an empty Soquel Avenue hill when it careened out of a bouncing pickup truck.

A lot of the real old-timer Santa Cruzans ultimately left town when it got too damn crowded for them. Maybe those are the ultimate locals—the ones who saw the invasion, packed up their things and left.

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