The Hip Santa Cruz History Project is the brainchild of longtime UCSC professor Ralph Abraham and Cabrillo College teacher T. Mike Walker. They recently released Volume 6 in their “Hip Santa Cruz” series — essays, poems and more about the hippie era and its long aftermath in Santa Cruz, largely written by people who lived through it, to be released April 8 with a gathering at the Santa Cruz Art League.
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For such a tiny word, “hip” really carries a lot of freight. We’re talking, of course, about the non-anatomical meaning of “hip,” as the root word in “hippie” and “hipster” and “hip-hop.” It’s one of those words in which everyone is essentially entitled to their own definition of it, used positively or negatively, in earnest or sarcastically.
When applied to the history of Santa Cruz, “hip” means a specific thing, at least to Ralph Abraham and T. Mike Walker. Both men, now in their mid-80s, have for years now been consumed with a mission to chronicle the history of what they call “Hip Santa Cruz.” That is, the 1960s counterculture that landed in Santa Cruz with a wallop around the same time that the University of California established a campus there.
“I was obsessed with an idea that maybe is not shared by everyone,” said Abraham, “the idea that the hippie culture of the 1960s and ’70s was a miracle.”
Abraham first arrived in Santa Cruz, as he puts it, “post-miracle,” in 1968, hired by the new UC Santa Cruz as a math professor who, from that very point, immersed himself in the cultural, political and spiritual nexus of the hippie revolution.
Walker also has his hippie bona fides. A onetime San Francisco police officer, Walker was present at the flowering of the hippie era in the fabled Haight-Ashbury, and ended up in Santa Cruz not long after, eventually establishing himself as a teacher at Cabrillo College.
For the past 20-plus years, the two men have been engaged in an effort to capture that era for posterity in a series of books called “Hip Santa Cruz.” The sixth volume of the series — mostly essays, some poems and other material, about the hippie era and its long aftermath in Santa Cruz, largely written by people who lived through it — has just been published.
It was 2001 when Abraham first flashed on establishing the Hip Santa Cruz History Project as a kind of oral history capturing the voices and memories of people who were involved in the transformation of Santa Cruz with the coming of the UC. (It would be inaccurate to suggest that Santa Cruz was nothing more than a sleepy retirement community, or that it didn’t have a stake in the counterculture before the arrival of UCSC. But this project is specifically focused on what happened in the mid-1960s and beyond.)
The first idea was simply to establish a website. But, many years later, in 2016, the idea to publish a book gathered momentum, and the first “Hip Santa Cruz” was released. Abraham had expected the book to be a one-and-done. “The website accumulated material for 15 years,” said Abraham, “and so we had a book reading for Volume 1. And that’s when so many people stood up and said, ‘What about my story?’, and so Volume 2 was born.” And the books haven’t stopped coming since. Walker assumed a bigger role in the project when the books began to come out, and he served as the editor of the new Volume 6.
The focus of the project is a period in the mid-1960s that immediately preceded the opening of the university in 1965. At the center of the story is the Hip Pocket Bookstore (notice the clever double meaning behind “Hip Pocket,” which sold only small paperbacks). The Hip Pocket, which was in roughly the same area where Bookshop Santa Cruz is now, was an idea hatched by two guys named Peter Demma and Ron Bevirt, reportedly while the two were lounging in the fabled hot springs at Esalen in Big Sur. Soon after, another new business opened right next door to the Hip Pocket — The Catalyst. Before it was a famous nightclub and performance venue (and before it moved a few blocks down to its present location in a former bowling alley), The Catalyst was a coffeehouse, cafe and general hangout. Taken together, Hip Pocket and The Catalyst formed a kind of nexus of a small but emerging gathering of students, artists, ex-beatniks and other adventurers.
Abraham landed in Santa Cruz through another portal. He was at Princeton when he arrived in town on a recruiting trip to UCSC. He wasn’t particularly impressed by the university, but he went to a club in Scotts Valley known as The Barn. And it was there he met many others who shared his interest in the emerging counterculture. The Barn brought the full-on hippie aesthetic to the area with lightshows and live concerts (featuring Janis Joplin, Country Joe & the Fish and many more), and not merely a tolerance but an embrace of the long-haired, cannabis-loving, psychedelic generation of young people coming of age at the time.
As anyone who has lived or worked in Santa Cruz for the past 50 years can probably tell you, the counterculture that sparked in the mid-’60s shaped the city’s cultural personality in a number of profound ways, making it a beacon for artists, creative types and various misfits or square pegs, many of whom bought homes, reared children, and/or started businesses in the area. The influence was as fundamental as that of surf culture, for better or worse.
Hip Santa Cruz aimed to capture the stories and perspectives from the folks who started the seminal businesses like Hip Pocket, The Barn, The Catalyst and others, as well as those who supported them.
Both Abraham and Walker credit their turn in perspective from relatively conservative upbringings to the use of psychedelic drugs in the 1960s, before such drugs were outlawed. “LSD was the atom bomb of consciousness that blew everybody’s mind,” said Walker, “and it still does, all around the world.”
Earlier volumes in the series featured key interviews or writings from such central figures as Demma, Joe Lysowski, Max Hartstein, Leon Tabori and Paul Lee — Lee, a former UCSC philosophy professor and central figure in many Santa Cruz institutions, died in 2022, and Abraham’s tribute to him is featured in the newest book. Volume 6 also includes T. Mike Walker’s story of an infamous tipi on the Cabrillo College campus in the 1970s, and an account of Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton’s experiences at UCSC, written by Willard Charles Ford, the nephew of Paul Lee and son of movie star Harrison Ford.
After each volume of Hip Santa Cruz, Abraham believed it would be the last. But now, he and Walker are tentatively expecting to climb the mountain again and publish Volume 7, somewhere down the line. They both say that traditional historians tend to overlook the big contributions that came from the counter-culture. In the case of Santa Cruz, the 1960s counterculture has been so influential for so long that for many years, it wasn’t technically a counterculture, but more of a dominant culture.
The “miracle” of the ’60s in Santa Cruz soured fairly quickly — less than a decade after UCSC’s opening, Santa Cruz was dubbed “The Murder Capital of the World,” for a series of grisly murders, some of the victims of which were products of the hippie scene. The influence of Silicon Valley, the housing crunch, the gradual conservative lean of aging boomers and many other factors have dimmed the promise of that era, some might say even made a mockery of it.
Now that Santa Cruz, and much of the rest of America, is slowly pulling away from the force of what happened in the ’60s, Abraham, 86, and Walker, 85, feel that it’s critically important for younger generations (as well as future generations) to take lessons from that time to apply to their own.
“Our culture today is on a death track, really,” said Abraham. “And people have ideas about what could save us, but probably the only thing that can save us is a miracle. So if you think we need a miracle, then it’s helpful to know that miracles do actually happen. And we had one here. I just want that documented, so young people today can have some hope.”
The release of and readings from “Hip Santa Cruz Volume 6″ happen Saturday, April 8, from 3-5 p.m. at the Santa Cruz Art League, 526 Broadway. You can also join via Zoom.