Wacky Santa Cruz resists becoming too 'normal'

It's the sort of scene C-SPAN could only dream about.

One gentleman, politely and with all seriousness, introduces himself to the assembled lawmakers as the King of the Trolls. Another steps to the microphone and declares these deliberations pointless because people in Angola are starving. Outside, rainbow-wigged clowns on stilts teeter toward a meeting that has nothing to do with rainbows or clowns or stilts.

Or maybe it does.

Outside the city council chambers of Santa Cruz, Calif., the docket merely reads: "downtown ordinances." But everyone here – from the shopkeepers to the sitar players who wait to address the council in lines that stretch out the back door – knows that tonight is about more than just a plan to rein in panhandlers. It's a struggle for the soul of one of the most bohemian cities in America.

In truth, the regulations are nothing so shocking. Scores of cities have similarly expanded bans on begging and soliciting near ATMs and in front of stores. But many of the residents here came to these piney Pacific banks precisely because, for so long, Santa Cruz wasn't that sort of place.

Now, with the rise and fall of the dotcom kingdom and the pressure of a growing population, this coastal town long bypassed by the fits and starts of the outside world increasingly finds itself connected to them – from the economic downturn to the spread of hard drugs. The result has been conflict, as many see Santa Cruz losing its unique character.

"It's sort of an identity crisis as to who we really want to be," says Sherry Conable, who has managed several local political campaigns since she moved here from Vermont 24 years ago. She stands in the angled sunlight of a cloudless and cool northern California afternoon, a matron of the protesters gathered on the city hall plaza below. There are dredlocked bongo players and veterans of the WTO protests in Seattle, folk singers and roller skaters.

One shaggy-bearded insurgent wears a gray bathrobe with a stuffed panda tied to his waist as he networks. And there is no shortage of opportunities to network – among the Santa Cruz Action Network, Downtown-for-All, Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom, and the Areola Rebel Forces, who three weeks ago came to a city council meeting bare-breasted to proclaim their "Mammary Manifesto" and stand up for the rights of topless women.

None were thrown out of the meeting or asked to re-robe, although one was reprimanded for blowing bubbles. This session, the city council sat silent as a man approached the podium with his guitar, then sang his grievance to the rhythmic claps of half the crowd. Around town, people say the public-access broadcasts are must-see TV.

Santa Cruz is, and surely will remain, a universe removed from much of America. Yet most here say they have seen this city change, and the downtown ordinances are the most recent and telling symptom.

In fact, the codes were spawned by the widespread belief that Santa Cruz has become less friendly. As the dotcom industry collapsed, business leaders say, teenage waifs – on their own and often driven to aggressiveness by drug addiction – have turned the main drag of Pacific Avenue into a gantlet of abuse,

One woman stands before the council, her voice wavering between conviction and fear. Calling herself the "Downtown Superhero," she's here to support the new codes, which she says will make downtown safer. But she wears a black mask and a red cape, saying she's only willing to raise her voice in disguise.

Mike Tosney also speaks. His restaurant has lost business because people are scared to come in when transients loiter by the door. He's found tinfoil and heroin residue in his bathrooms; "I've been offered heroin and meth-amphetamines on the street."

Even critics agree there are problems, from sexual harassment to public defecation. But many see the city council's remedy as misguided, hurting those who give Santa Cruz its color, from artists to musicians to well-behaved homeless people.

In front of city hall, bumper stickers on a rumpled Honda capture a strain of the antiestablishment ethic: "I'd rather be smashing imperialism," and "Don't shop: It just encourages them."

A blue-eyed, nose-pierced senior at the University of California-Santa Cruz sits nearby. Referring to herself as "Miss Chief," she's both disgusted by and imperious about the ordinances. "I always have the feeling here that I am seen and I am known, and downtown so full with all these artists and musicians and street people hanging out," she says. "The laws are going to turn it into a private mall." At 10:52 p.m., she delivers her 120-second diatribe to the council, following a poem-reading clown. (The fire chief asks him to take off his stilts before he comes inside.)

Mike True watches from the end of a line that still stretches out the door. Five hours earlier he began his vigil by playing songs for the protesters outside. A former schoolteacher, he now plays for food. And he can sense what will happen: Last Wednesday – a day after the meeting – the council passed its ordinances.

That wouldn't have happened in the Santa Cruz where he grew up, he says: "This place was like a cultural mecca." Now, faced with playing only on the edges of major shopping areas, he says he's not sure if he'll be able to make it.

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