TO hear Mayor Neal Coonerty tell it, the great Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 changed the face of Santa Cruz forever, while putting the town back together has mended its soul.
``For the first time, this town's opposing sides have had to reconcile with one another,'' says Mr. Coonerty, a three-decade resident who came to town when what he calls ``New Age, progressive liberals'' were wresting local political power from business-ethic conservatives in the counterculture 1960s.
``Politics have been highly contentious for years,'' Coonerty says. ``But the battle for reconstruction has tempered them ... and people have grown to the point where this is a very different place to be around.''
Coonerty was a first-year city council member when an Oct. 17, 1989, temblor leveled 22 buildings within a half-mile radius, killing three and severely damaging public infrastructure from sewers to sidewalks, plumbing, telephone, and power lines.
The quake, perhaps best known as a San Francisco disaster after partly paralyzing that city, was centered seven miles south and two miles east of Santa Cruz. The wavelike, 7.1 earthquake sent dozens of hillside homes sliding, knocked townhouses off foundations, and devastated the historic downtown.
With the loss of buildings - many of them gems of Victorian architecture built between 1850 and 1910 - went one of the biggest magnets to this tourist-dependent seaside resort of about 50,000 residents: the area's listing on the state historic register.
Walking a visitor around a newly constructed downtown, Coonerty points out a large, first-floor meeting room. The room became the town's crucible for argument, introspection, and community values, beginning about two days after the quake.
Through heated debates, conservative business owners realized that controlling growth, protecting the town's unique flavor, and opposing such problems as offshore drilling might actually preserve the very nature that attracts the town's No. 1 consumers - tourists.
Liberals were faced with a destroyed business district and no assurance the town could ever recover economically without a bedrock of viable commerce. Their images of wide open parks and green spaces had to mesh with the simple necessity of more stores.
``Nobody got completely what they wanted,'' says Mardi Wormhoudt, Santa Cruz's former three-term Democratic mayor, who describes herself as a liberal progressive. ``There is a healthy, dynamic tension between groups, but there has been something of an acknowledgment that both perspectives need to be considered if the city is to be successful.''
The county passed a half-cent sales tax to raise most of the $20 million needed to rebuild and rehab. State, county, and federal aid helped pay some bills, and the largess of nearby towns and counties, in the form of continued business patronage, kept Santa Cruz's retail stores afloat as they temporarily operated out of makeshift tents.
Now, after four years of plans, refinements, work on such nitpicking details as sidewalk width and street-light wattage - and finally, construction - the town has risen like a phoenix from ashes.
For the first time in four years, summer visitors were greeted with postcard-perfect streets of Victorian-era Europe: brass-topped kiosks, iron-gated and raised gardens, ubiquitous public sculptures, carriage lampposts, stained-oak benches, and street musicians.
A downtown with widened streets and sidewalks and new or freshly painted storefronts has buzzed with shopping activity since a formal reopening in April.
``We haven't had tourists in years, but they seem to be flocking back faster than we hoped,'' says Jacqueline Capra, owner of an Indonesian goods store known as Tengarra. For three years, Ms. Capra's was one of 400 businesses that had to relocate. Hers was among the dozens of downtown retail outlets moved to a pavilion-sized tent structure raised on a nearby parking lot.
Meanwhile, several of the remaining historic structures have been retrofitted with steel skeletons and crossbeams. Some, like the Santa Cruz National Bank, have retained old facades while the insides have been gutted for new retail and office space. Another structure, the block-long St. George Building, has a Mediterranean/Mission style replica of what stood in its place before.
With plenty of head shops, record stores, herb and vitamin outlets, there is still a feeling of bohemian, age-of-Aquarius counterculture here, despite the makeover. Next to a fading Datsun with ``Free Tibet'' and ``Give Peace a Chance'' bumper stickers, a lone guitarist wails forlornly: ``There's a hole in my bucket. There's a HOLE in my bucket.''
All along this mile-long main drag known as Pacific Avenue, there are building-sized holes in the ground as well. At a half-dozen sites, dirt and fences mark off the final quarter to one-third of rebuilding work still needed to erase the effects of the quake.
A more complete return to business-as-usual is still five years away, says Joe Hall, assistant director of the town's redevelopment agency. Half of the downtown's total loss of 500,000 square feet in commercial space still needs finishing as do portions of 160 residential units.
``This town is process-oriented to a fault, but we made it,'' says John Lisher, vice chairman of the group known as Vision Santa Cruz, which he affectionately labels ``the gang of 36.''
``You still can't find underwear, table cloths, or napkins anywhere downtown,'' Mr. Lisher says. ``But for the most part, the town is back in business.''
Pat Calvert, director of the Santa Cruz Downtown Association, likens the experience to meeting neighbors for the first time during a blackout.
``Suddenly you are depending on strangers for essentials,'' she says. ``It forces you together in ways that open you up to new ideas and ways of doing things ... and what's really important.''
One lesson of Santa Cruz, say residents and business owners over and over here, is ``don't have a major disaster during recession.'' Before the earthquake, California banks lent 90 percent of equity for building construction with only 10 percent equity down and evidence of one major tenant. As statewide recession worsened, banks wanted 40 percent down, and a majority of signed leases for the remaining 60 percent equity.
Those policy changes have slowed recovery, and they continue to stall several projects that leave the downtown spotted with vacant lots.
Another lesson, locals say, is that crisis brings opportunity as well.
Besides a more cohesive feel to the town with more uniform medians and trees, new parking structures have been built to augment more on-street parking. Pacific Avenue, once serpentine and one-way, is now straight, occasionally two-way, and provides less-obstructed views of town and shops. An old county jail has been converted into an Art History Center and museum.
``All these things lend themselves to more movement, and more enjoyment of the town's public space,'' says the downtown association's Calvert. ``The feel is both more orderly [yet] free form.''
``I never want to live through something like this again as long as I live,'' adds Joe Hall, a 20-year resident. ``It's not really appropriate to speculate whether the town is better or worse now ... It's just different. We built on tragedy and made the best of a bad situation.''