Quick Take:

Wallace Baine asked what Lookout readers thought Santa Cruz’s vibe was and how public art should communicate that as the city undergoes its big makeover. From murals to a riverside sculpture garden to hanging art in alleyways, the response showed that there is no dearth of interest, ideas and energy when it comes to bringing a sense of personality and identification to a new downtown.

Crystal balls and tarot cards don’t work. Psychics don’t have an answer. Time machines don’t exist. So no one knows exactly what downtown Santa Cruz will look like a decade from now.

But we do know this — or, at least, we suspect it: Whatever the Santa Cruz of the 2030s turns out to be is, right now, merely one of many possibilities.

In September, I wrote about what role public art might play in the new look of Santa Cruz. After a recent visit to Miami, I wondered out loud: Does Santa Cruz have a dominant aesthetic or image that’s easily discernible to an outsider? And, more practically, what cool aesthetic idea or look from some other place like Miami could work in Santa Cruz? It’s a topic that we at Lookout will continue to cover as a new downtown emerges.

I also asked Lookout readers and community members for some ideas about what they would like to see emerge in Santa Cruz in the realm of public art. I wanted to know specifically if there were things they saw in their travels in other cities that might work here. We asked: What is Santa Cruz’s “vibe”? And how best can we communicate and honor that vibe through public art?

To begin with, there is plenty of gratitude for what Santa Cruz already has. The amazing Sea Walls mural project, which almost overnight brought a wide variety of eye-popping murals to town in the fall of 2021, has given Santa Cruz a vivid sense of freshness.

“I love the Sea Walls murals,” said reader Laura Booth. “While I did get rather complacent about them, now that I have a curious 3-year-old in the backseat, the murals have been a great learning opportunity (‘I spy something purple.’ ‘An octopus!’).”

Umbrellas are the theme of this alleyway public art in Amsterdam.
Umbrellas are the theme of this alleyway public art in Amsterdam. Credit: Via Carol Berberich

Also, people admire the work of mosaic artist Kathleen Crocetti and her army of volunteers in projects like the Watsonville Brillante mosaics on the parking garage in downtown Watsonville, and the recently unveiled “Dancing Waters” piece on the River Front parking garage in Santa Cruz. Crocetti was particularly singled out for her insistence on inclusion in telling the story of Santa Cruz County’s history, in the words of one reader, for “honoring the Filipino Agricultural movement, Chinatown, celebration of the Ohlone, Latino diaspora, and the Japanese farmers who were interned.”

However …

“The new murals are fun,” wrote reader Erika Perloff, “but I also think a city can have too many murals. The eye needs some place to rest. I’d love to see some really fine outdoor sculpture.” She suggested that Santa Cruz adopted a kind of mascot creature — a sea lion or an otter — to serve as a theme for sculptures to be placed throughout the city.

So, does Santa Cruz still have a dominant vibe?

a mural on the side of building in Spain
Reader Cheryl Pruss contributed this photo of a building in Spain as an example of a vertically oriented mural, and she suggested that the city sponsor a contest for artists to do such large-scale vertical murals. Credit: Via Cheryl Pruss

Santa Cruz born-and-raised reader SC Benetua at least has the long view, articulating who constituted the unique Santa Cruz vibe over the past few decades, “From the neo-beatnik intellectuals, skatepunks, crunchy hippies, to the bleeding-heart families in our workforce, multi-gen surfers, activated students, and beach bunny moms.”

Benetua also wrote: “What I want from the new ‘vibe’ is authenticity. When Logos and Pergs [Caffe Pergolesi] closed down, and when the old clock-tower mural was repainted (the former mural depicted people from all walks of life, disabilities, ages, dancing under the moonlight on the beach, and it was replaced with cheap tourist-bait art that did not go unnoticed by us locals) those changes felt more threatening to the ‘vibe’ of Santa Cruz than any new housing and paseos.”

As for my idea to hand over the lifeguard towers on Santa Cruz beaches to local artists and designers to reimagine, that got some thumbs up — “The idea of ‘artsy’ lifeguard towers seems appropriate here,” wrote Judi Grunstra — and some opposition — “I am not a fan of the lifeguard tower idea since I love the bleached-out, pale blue towers that are so iconic and California,” said Erika Perloff.

But, according to our readers, what exactly are some of the towns and cities in different parts of the country or the world that Santa Cruz might emulate? We got several promising suggestions.

Redwood City: Craig Smart pointed to the Peninsula city as an example of an attractive place to gather: “All the restaurants and little bars and outdoor seating are all so inviting, kind of like South Beach in Florida.”

a sign welcoming visitors to the Normal Heights neighborhood of San Diego
One reader suggested street-spanning welcome signs to distinguish separate neighbors, districts or communities within the city of Santa Cruz, such as is done in San Diego. Credit: Wallace Baine / Lookout Santa Cruz

San Diego: SC Benetua called forth the broad, street-spanning welcome signs in many parts of San Diego, “creating a sense of unity and identity.”

Asheville, North Carolina: Erika Perloff called the Blue Ridge Mountains city a destination for fine art, in a way that might have some lessons for Santa Cruz: “I was blown away by the high-quality art available in many beautiful galleries [in Asheville]. People go there for the art and to purchase art from the myriad local fine artists and crafters.”

Santa Fe: The capital of New Mexico was mentioned several times by readers. “Yes, the climate is wonderful,” wrote Cara Lamb. “Yes, there are lovely hills in every direction, but what I love most is that there is art everywhere. Our murals are great, especially because they aren’t all downtown. But we could have more — in the parks, along the shore, everywhere.”

New Orleans: Reader Carol Berberich referenced a sculpture garden at the New Orleans Museum of Art that could work on the San Lorenzo Riverwalk. She also brought up Amsterdam as an example of a city that prioritizes public art.

And there were plenty of ideas to reestablish the city’s creative culture as the new development downtown changes the look of Santa Cruz. One of those ideas was a public marketing campaign “Come For the Beach — Stay for the Art.” Another idea is to give each of the new downtown “paseos” a unique theme: “The street around the corner from Front/Cathcart building could pay tribute to events that have happened at the Del Mar Theatre, since it’s right next door,” wrote Laura Booth. Judi Grunstra suggested “artist-designed miniature golf courses.” Cheryl Pruss suggested a communitywide contest, to create vertical murals for many of the new tall buildings.

rendering of a new labyrinth planned for the north lawn of Calvary Episcopal Church in downtown Santa Cruz
Calvary Episcopal Church in downtown Santa Cruz is already planning a new public art addition with this labyrinth on its north lawn, which will be just across the street from the sleek new public library. Credit: Via Calvary Episcopal Church

One idea that is already moving toward reality, said Martha Dexter, a member of the downtown Calvary Episcopal Church, is a seven-circuit classical labyrinth on the north-side lawn of the church property, across the street from the Nickelodeon Theater. The church has already engaged a designer and a landscaper and expects to break ground for the labyrinth in 2024.

The responses to my piece on public art in downtown Santa Cruz show there is no dearth of interest, ideas and energy when it comes to bringing a sense of personality and identification to a new downtown.

A common theme in the responses we received had to do with the perceived threat to Santa Cruz County’s historical identity from the forces of “over-the-hill” gentrification and Middle American homogeneity. Whether or not it accurately reflects the dominant political leanings in Santa Cruz, many locals want the city to maintain its sense of progressive defiance and 1960s-style nonconformity. As SC Benetua put it, “I want to see socialist, solarpunk art created by multiracial families and skaters of Midtown! I want to see the beach bunny grandmothers recreate the images of the beaches of their youth. Give students in transition from El Salvador the paintbrushes. Work with our local public schools and prisons! Let’s include the unhoused in the creative process!”

Let’s keep the conversation going. If you have ideas about what Santa Cruz should adopt in the realm of public art, or a comment on how the city can communicate its personality better through public art, drop us a note, with the subject line “Vibe.”

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Wallace reports and writes not only across his familiar areas of deep interest — including arts, entertainment and culture — but also is chronicling for Lookout the challenges the people of Santa Cruz...