Into the 1960s

Part 2 – Into the 1960s

By Edward G. Brooks

Not just then remote areas like Santa Cruz, all of California was dragged into the 20th Century. Early years, a lot of California was remote. California was remote. Look at some old maps. Towns you don’t hardly know the names of today are prominent on those maps. Like Williams, California. The big stop on the highway north. It wasn’t even the equal of those small county seats in the South, but that’s all there was. California came late. California still retained some of its original far west remoteness, which subtracted that much more from the pace of assimilation into the Century of its fringes.

To give some perspective, Santa Cruz shared its geographic remoteness with coastal San Mateo County, which hardly made it into mainstream California until World War II. Even more than Santa Cruz County, it was hard to get to. You could find other remote places in the State, but what makes coastal places like San Mateo and Santa Cruz unique is their proximity to urban Northern California juxtaposed to their remoteness. Highway 1 was put through from Santa Cruz County to San Francisco County well into the last (20th) Century, passing through coastal San Mateo County. Before that there was an attempt at a railroad, that eventually failed, in the early Century (1907-1920 or so). The coast stayed hard to get to into the 50’s, held back by the lack of transportation.

Hard to get to was fine with the people who were there. People who were in Santa Cruz County in the 50’s were happy to be there, as though being there was to share a secret. They didn’t want other people crowding them. They had the magic of the place and they didn’t want it spoiled by outsiders.

People did come, but as visitors. The crowds in their cars from San Jose and beyond would stream down off Highway 17 onto Ocean Street in the mid day and afternoon on Saturday in the warm season, creating the one Santa Cruz traffic jam. They would stream back out on Sunday afternoon. The Boardwalk and Casino were accessible all year round then. If you were the moody sort you could stroll down the Boardwalk in the Winter and have it all to yourself. Or you could join the crowds in the Summer and move in the bustle of the swim suit clad visitors from the Valley areas. Modesto seemed to contribute more than its share. The Central Valley folks were something of a mystery to me. I had the notion that they came to Santa Cruz to find release from the arid land and bleak surroundings of what I imagined their Central Valley homes to be like.

In the late ’60’s Winfield Way in Rio Del Mar offered a tidy two bedroom cottage rental house for $135.00 a month. The area was and maybe still is known as the Rio Del Mar Flats. The prosperous folks who’ve lived there for some decades since probably wouldn’t like the name. The place has changed some, but not as much as you might expect. A student could afford to live there then.

In the mid 20th Century Santa Cruz County was certainly not the Carmel Valley of the North-East Monterey Bay. To get a glimpse back at pre-gentrified Santa Cruz you can look at the Southwestern or Southeastern immigrants to the area, then called Okies. These were people who came to California from the South and Southwest in the 30’s. Nowadays you don’t hear Okies as a label very much, except in old movies or maybe modern period pieces set in Los Angeles in the 30’s. It’s politically incorrect, I guess. An Okie was from Oklahoma. An Arkie (not heard much about), was from Arkansas. Texans, Louisianans, Missourians, and the rest were just lumped in together, by their accents, and life styles. They imported a rural outlook of their own into California. Some of them reputedly anticipated the later hippie speed freaks with their use of Benzedrine.

These Southerners were a presence in Santa Cruz County in the 50’s and 60’s. I met one in a small frame house in the Mid-County area in those days. He was sitting at the table in the kitchen. Two boys sat with him. They were about 10 or 12. The man and the boys were smoking and drinking coffee. Their father told me that he had taught his sons to drink coffee and smoke cigarettes so they could keep him company.

I lived for a little while with the mother and her live-in of a boy I knew from Santa Cruz High School. My schoolmate was now a Christian missionary living in Mexico who lived in his off time with his mother in her house with her male companion. He was from the Southeast. He operated a wrecking yard on the mother’s land in the Mid-County area. He brought his stock of wrecked cars over from another yard he had operated on a girl friend’s land by the Highway Patrol Station on Soquel Drive, after he fell out with her.

60’s Santa Cruz was an easy commute from Salinas, which at that time had a district called “Soledad Street.” It was no more than the short street that the district got its name from, one of the original old Salinas streets. It had storefront buildings with second stories and balconies. Unless you were ready for trouble, it was said you didn’t get out of your car on Soledad Street in the daytime. You didn’t go there at night at all.

In Stockton in about 1985, some 25 years later, I was surprised, but a little pleased, to find Soledad Street again. It was an urban district that was more than a slum. A slum you die in slowly. This was a place you could die in fast. It was south of Lafayette Street, around American Street. The City took it out a little later.

Another hideout gone, Laurel Curve and Highway 17 sanitized, the levee along Front Street put up, the wet plushness of the dangerous San Lorenzo River excised from the memories of the new residents, the cleansing complete and the flood of 1955 out of memory.

But now it was about 1960. Santa Cruz was still a small town of retired folks, tourists, and businesses living off of them. Santa Cruz High School was still the only high school in the County, not counting Watsonville High. But Watsonville hardly entered the consciousness of Santa Cruzans. It was out of mind and out of place, identified with Monterey County, across the Pajaro River, a place it was geographically more a part of.

This was the time of free higher education in California. Junior Colleges were springing up. Cabrillo College was established in Watsonville around 1960 in temporary quarters. Soon it moved to Aptos. Cabrillo brought teachers and students and hangers-on to the County who before had no place or reason to stay there. They were scattered within a few miles of Rio Del Mar Beach at a campus on a prominence with a view of Monterey Bay from the Student Union. The University of California soon arrived. Santa Cruz had leapt onto the radar screen. People were coming in from the East and from urban California.

I met one couple from the East in Rio Del Mar, when they became next door neighbors. It was around February. We had some beautiful days that time of year. The male side had an introverted intense persona conspicuous and foreign to Californians. He told us about talking on the phone to his relations in Connecticut, how they were up to their butts in freezing snow and slush, and how guilty he felt being in Rio Del Mar where the sun was shining in 70 degree weather. With that glimpse into his other world, I felt confirmed in my sense of well being in the simple physical magic of Santa Cruz.

School started in 1964 at Cabrillo, not long after it was built. Cabrillo was a point of focus for many of the locals who were part of or on the fringe of the hippie movement. These would be mainly Santa Cruz High grads (or drop outs). Watsonville High contributed some of course. I doubt that most of the people who were recognizable as part of the hip movement in Santa Cruz were students or (originally) locals. But I do recall that Ron Bevirt had a local connection, a cabin on Cathedral Drive in Aptos, perhaps his family’s. Most just dropped into the community and assumed the role of movers in the hip movement. The locals probably never really joined this, or knew what it was. They related more to physical symbols of Santa Cruz, Pleasure Point and the Cove, De Laveaga Park, Steamer Lane, and the other traditional local haunts. But there was enough of a congruence between the outsiders and the laid back locals to create some affinity.

There were locals who used drugs. The Okies were said to use speed. Marijuana was part of the scene. Then the hippies came to town and declared liberation. What they did have was LSD. And a lot of white powder which in minute quantities could change your whole attitude and keep you awake for days. Not new, perhaps, but more plentiful and available. With the new curiosity about drugs, speed, which as far as I could tell had been mainly an Okie thing, was broadened to include students and others. I never got close to LSD. I’ve seen and met people who took it, and even have a relative or two who are casualties of it. Speed then did what it still does. But LSD was another story. You saw the 1000-yard stare in the eyes of the persons who fixed Volkswagens or such. There was a profile of a LSD head, a person who put a lot of focus into a small area.

There was a burn-out self-employed Volkswagen mechanic in Windsor, Sonoma County, about 1978. I don’t recall if he had any particular actual connection with Santa Cruz, but he was emblematic of a type. He had invested in a line-boring machine. This machine would restore the main bearing beds on the VW aluminum alloy case halves to concentricity. In the world of LSD burned-out Volkswagen mechanics, this made him a prince.

Santa Cruz County did and still does have its full complement of self-employed persons with The Stare. By the way, that is why they are self-employed. Not to say they are necessarily using LSD — that is a little passe. But comparing life on the Edge with life in the Valley was enough to make someone’s eyes glaze over. A little drugs was only natural. A little, or a lot, of LSD just made the experience, well, more permanent.

As far as I could pick up on, interest in drugs before the hippie movement had been concentrated in sub-cultures like rural truck drivers who stayed up all night driving on little white pills, musicians of course, night club habitues, and outright criminal elements. But with the late 50’s and into the 60’s and beyond drugs became the recreational high of quite a few college students, like some of those at Cabrillo. Drug use and the hip life were not necessarily the same, of course.

The Beatniks appeared in San Francisco in the mid-50’s and provided a kind of basis for the hippies of the next decade. Some of the Beatniks actually made it to the Santa Cruz scene, like Eric Nord who I recall at The Barn in Scotts Valley. Eric Nord was a tall, large man with an interest in food. He was at the Barn a time or two when I was there. I recall somebody telling me that he had made up his name as a super-goy substitute for his real one, whatever it was. Nord was a fringe presence in Santa Cruz. His real connections were in San Francisco where he had co-owned the original Hungry I with Enrico Banducci but sold out. Some of the other Beatniks or ex-Beatniks passed through Santa Cruz on their pilgrimages to Big Sur to see Henry Miller or connect with their friends down that way. Others came to visit. The local community of writers and some academics were a more permanent connection to some of the Beatniks.

Santa Cruz was a waypoint on the hippie archipelago which included places like (of course) San Francisco, but also Berkeley, Big Sur, Venice, East Oakland ….EAST OAKLAND! Well, okay, I was in East Oakland in 1960 and yes, we had at least a Beatnik or two at Oakland City College then, though there were a lot more political types like Bobby Seale and Huey Newton at that College than there were bohemians, who lived more up Shattuck Avenue across the Berkeley line. Oakland did receive a certain glow from across the Bay, where admittedly the real action was.

There was a mainly student bohemian intellectual underground, unorganized, formed around people like, naturally, Kerouac, but the darker Burroughs (Naked Lunch — dedicated to showing every reader what was on the end of his fork), and other seminal writers read by the college sophomoric intelligentsia like Camus (The Stranger), and Hesse (Steppenwolf), writers with appeal to students because they write in the bildungsroman genre or include elements of it.

Before Cabrillo and UCSC appeared on the Santa Cruz Scene there was little focus for bohemian–student–hippie culture in the County. In 1959 Santa Cruz High on the north end of the central business district offered the basics of small town America high school student culture with no particular pretensions otherwise. We had academic honor societies, shop classes, competitive athletics, cheerleaders and pom poms, and such-like. Cabrillo was only a lurking presence in its temporary quarters in Watsonville in the invisible South County area, past the barrancas of La Selva Beach, below Rio Del Mar and Aptos, in the crops with the Braceros, beyond and out of sight of anything that mattered to the retired or tourist supported rest of us.

But just a few years later, about 62, the Cabrillo campus buildings appeared on a hill near Aptos, keynoted by the Student Union which included a lounge area at the bay side of the main floor with a dramatic view of the Monterey Bay. If I had to pick a spot, I would say this was where the magic began. The buildings were modern ersatz Adobe brick type, low, blending with the surroundings, set up on the slope, each with its own view out to the bay from their surrounding verandas. But the best and most privileged point on the entire campus was the lounge at the student union, where anyone “18 years or older able to profit from instruction” as the law read had a right to be for nothing but the price of his textbooks. Community college education was completely free.

The architect had, as is not always the case, given the students the best seat in the house. What a sense of privilege, what magic it was to stroll up to that elevated platform, relax in one of the upholstered chairs, and view the sweep of the smooth blue bay reaching across to the Monterey Peninsula. I was there just lately. The lounge platform area is used for storage. There is no way into it and no way to see out of it. On the other side of the walls, armed police patrol. The price to come in is by the semester hour. Staying outside under the view of the police in the parking lot costs folding money.

But then in 64 the stage was set for change in the life of the mind in the County. Students at Cabrillo, some local and some not, followed closely by those at UCSC, mostly from elsewhere, increased by a non-student complement of intellectuals, academics, writers, artists, floaters, travelers, poseurs, hoboes and bums, would test, enrich, coarsen, take from, and add to, the pristine world of the isolated coastal community.

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