Photojournalist
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Surf City

Santa Cruz

surf culture: blurring the lines between community and dissonance.


Surf culture began as a force of counterculture—a sport for outlaws. It belonged to the other side.

But over time, the sport became so intrinsically—and economically—tied to some communities that it became mainstream; the face of surfing changed. Such is the case with Santa Cruz: “Surf City, USA.”

Popularity of the sport and lifestyle surged as leisure time increased in the middle class. Surfers were no longer shunned, but celebrated.

However, a new hierarchy will always form, and with it a new fringe society emerges. Santa Cruz is no exception.

The starkly obvious contrast of the modern fringe society appears on every strand of beach houses, every surf break, every high-end boutique shop corner: a high population of transient, homeless, drug-addicted, and mentally ill have come to call Santa Cruz home—and at what cost? Or perhaps what value? What calls them here? Were they disillusioned by the once underground surf culture that showed Santa Cruz as the idyllic town to scrape by? Recent city legislature bans sleeping in vehicles in Santa Cruz these days. Surf bums live meagerly by choice and have typically adapted in spite of regulations; those on the true fringe operate out of strikingly more necessity. Is it the result of gentrification? Certainly Santa Cruz has followed the national trend. Homelessness is not a unique problem to Santa Cruz. Yet on a per capita basis, it stands out strikingly amongst its metropolitan California neighbors.

It seems worth considering the economic opportunities beyond the surf and tourism industry: outside the city limits in either direction along the coast you’ll find a significant source of seasonal employment—agriculture—to be thriving, hosting a variety of seasonal and manual labor jobs. Farms, pastures and ranches line the coast, developing homogenous relationships with the surf and cycling communities, sharing private and public coastal access with little quarrel along dirt roads and paths that blend ranches and state-operated preserves. In many ways, this feels like the area’s best contribution: a replicable model of mutual management that could ease many of the rural land-rights issues that divide the American West today…

Santa Cruz is diverse—perhaps not so ethnically, more so economically, morally and culturally. It’s a mix of surf bums, old money, college students, new-age organic farmers, athletes, entrepreneurs and hippies. West Cliffs is older, East Cliffs hosts wealthier young families, Seabright shelters an artsy, budding middle class—and that’s simply the typecast of a few of the larger neighborhoods.

It’s a colorful city. Not without its problems; nowhere is, if you dig deep enough. Stereotypes are built for marketing; they’ll never tell the whole story. Santa Cruz is a melting pot of personalties and values, a collision of economic opportunity and disparity, a city grappling with its identity. Surfing blurs those lines. It transcends economic privilege and cultural upbringing. Sure, localism bares its teeth in glassy, double-overhead conditions—but mostly, the sport brings people together.

Let me tell you about Mike: If you’ve surfed between The Hook and Pleasure Point, you’ve probably seen Mike. He’s there religiously, usually Tecaté in hand (or bag, as it were), sun up till sun down. He keeps to himself unless approached, then he’s a real chatterbox. He surfed for decades here and there, up and down the coast; he’s driven to breaks in Baja and Central America, scoring waves at famed spots when they were relative unknowns—showed me a bunch in the surf travel magazines he carries around. He doesn’t drive anymore though—he’s blind in his left eye. Got punched, knuckle to the eye, something about a girl. He’s been homeless for four years, chuckles about how he’s gotten pretty good at it, told me last night got real cold. Told me his socks were just about finished—gave him a woolen pair of mine, seemed to cheer him up.

He also told me about when his van got towed, how that sent him to the streets because, in impound, an extra hundred dollars a day is basically a death sentence—couldn’t procure it quickly enough before it got out of hand. He seemed less bummed about losing the van, more bummed about thousands of photos that were inside—film, slides and all his belongings were auctioned off anonymously, disappeared with the van, as best he knows.

We watched the surf for a bit, but it was a flat morning. He’s one of those guys who’s not just a hot meal and a pair of socks away from turning it around—one of thousands in Santa Cruz. He cracks another beer, pours it into an old orange juice bottle. It’s eight o’clock in the morning. He‘s an alcoholic. Says some off-kilter things. Generally an amiable guy. Lot of locals here wouldn’t bother to start a conversation with me, I’m an outsider. He told me his life story. Most of Santa Cruz doesn’t know he exists; if they do, they act like they don’t. We seem to share that in common. Saw him the other day at his usual standby, pouring another beer into a nondescript bottle. Called his name before I walked down the stairs to surf. Looked up and threw me a Shaka; I smirked and did the same. He watches, he knows I’m terrible. Doesn’t matter. It’s nice when someone knows your name.