This October has been extraordinary for Downtown Santa Cruz. As the executive director for the Downtown Association, I have had the privilege to host a series of events to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. The occasion was certainly a somber remembrance of the community’s losses; lost buildings, many lost businesses, lost jobs and, most tragically, loss of life. It was also, however, an undeniable time for celebration.
As I have been reliving downtown’s devastation of ’89, I have heard hundreds of stories of near misses and irony, stories of awe and adrenaline. Perhaps my favorite recount is of the 4-year- old girl watching Sesame Street, looking up for just a moment to respond to the frightened beckoning of her mother through the falling books and shaking furniture “But mom, I didn’t do it!” And while everyone has their own memory to share, the theme that continues to be retold is the one we all remember of the selfless service that the whole town seemed to gravitate toward. As people assessed the damages to buildings, the displaced businesses, with the very future of downtown in question, a remarkable community united around the idea of helping. Soon the question everyone was asking themselves, and each other, was, “What can I do?”
It wasn’t a time to wait to see how the government would respond. People needed help now and so many people showed up and began asking, “What can I do?” We learned what to do quickly and we continued to ask that question for many years. There were many victories. By Thanksgiving weekend, 45 displaced businesses opened in their temporary homes in the famous pavilions and countless employees returned to their jobs downtown. Hundreds of people showed up to support the businesses and make certain Downtown Santa Cruz would remain the heart of Santa Cruz.
Twenty years later, Downtown Santa Cruz is a national model for mixed-use districts. Through unusually challenging economic times, downtown businesses are surviving and thriving. The streets host a mix of locals and tourists enjoying the unique shops, restaurants and entertainment venues, and more professionals are locating their offices downtown every day. Earlier this month I had a couple of opportunities to walk through the streets of downtown with Bay Area reporters as they put together their version of the story. Each was more impressed than the last at what our downtown has become. As we passed the many unique sights that I pass every day, seeing them with fresh eyes, it became very clear what makes downtown the jewel that it is. The shops, the restaurants, the neighbors, the professional offices, the trees, the buildings, all important elements, and yet there’s something else. Shortly after the earthquake, Mardi Wormhoudt was quoted as saying, “Downtown isn’t the heart of Santa Cruz, its people are.”
Like any successful mixed-use district, downtown has its share of challenges. Every day, conversations are taking place with people dedicated and committed to managing those challenges, working together to keep downtown clean, safe and vibrant. In the last two years, the city council, working closely with the business community and the area neighbors, has continued to take tremendous steps toward the ongoing management of downtown.
What dug our downtown out of the ashes of Oct. 17, 20 years ago, was not merely what the city council accomplished. What made it possible for downtown to recover was not only the miraculous feat of the temporary pavilions. What made downtown successful was the extraordinary community that came down through the plywood sidewalks and chain link to support the many local businesses, which were committed to reinvesting in downtown and dedicated to rebuilding.
The necessity to plan for the future was never more apparent than it was in the quake’s aftermath. The vision that has informed the community that we live in today was born, first from the question “What do we want?” and finally, “What can I do?”
Now we have an opportunity to build an even stronger downtown. Today’s rebuilding is no longer about building heights and sidewalk widths. Today the planning must be about us. What do we, as a community, want from our downtown? How will downtown affect the way we interact with each other? In what ways can the culture of downtown educate the way we live our lives every day? In this moment we have all of the elements to create a vision for the next 20 years that will nurture our children, protect the environment, stimulate creativity, assist the troubled and inspire the world, but it will not happen only by asking what someone else can do. Ask yourself, “What can I do?”