Quick Take:

Midtown is the name of a simple business district — bounded roughly by Soquel Avenue between Ocean Street and Morrissey Boulevard — but in the hurly-burly of change in Santa Cruz, its wider use features lots of questions of identity itself. While it causes some heads “to burst into flames,” others see it as supporting the commercial district around Soquel Avenue and Water Street. Is the Eastside — Seabright, Branciforte, Prospect Heights, the Banana Belt, DeLaveaga and Live Oak — the only name that’s needed?

Let’s say you’re standing near the green canopy of The Crepe Place on Soquel Avenue in Santa Cruz, holding your Charlie Hong Kong to-go order, admiring the Rio Theatre marquee, while you wait for an Uber.

I have one question for you:

Where are you? Rather, what part of town are you in?

Be careful with your response. Whether you realize it or not, your answer is going to position you in an enduring controversy that has, for years now, stirred up passions and created discord between neighbors, and between generations.

Daniel Model lives nearby and is, in fact, a historian who leads walking tours of the area founded more than 200 years ago as Villa De Branciforte. Here’s how he answers that question:

“If you’re at The Crepe Place, you’re straddling the border between — honestly, to me — Seabright and the Eastside, with Soquel [Avenue] as the dividing line, at least in my mind.”

Looking east down Soquel Avenue in Santa Cruz.
Looking east down Soquel Avenue, hotbed of the Midtown-Eastside debate. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Notice something? That’s right: No M-word. He doesn’t say “Midtown.”

Many people — locals and visitors alike — regularly use “Midtown” to describe the commercial district centered on Soquel Avenue between, roughly, Ocean Street and Morrissey Boulevard. Merchants in the area tend to think of it as a handy way not only to distinguish themselves from the downtown business district, but other areas in the Eastside as well.
Others, however, insist that “Midtown” is not a real thing, that it’s little more than a gimmicky marketing tag. That part of town is, always was, and always will be the “Eastside.”

Across the street, just a block over, is something that, in normal circumstances, would settle the matter. It’s a new sign, erected just a few weeks ago at the parking lot next to the Santa Cruz Fire Station No. 2. The sign is a colorful street map, featuring many of the businesses and retail shops in the area. It says “Experience Midtown.”

Though it was not designed to be, the Midtown sign is a symbol of the controversy. The sign had actually been around for a couple of years in that spot, but in a temporary, “pop-up” state. It was, predictably, vandalized and eventually even torn down by some unknown aggrieved party. Late this summer, the city, expressing its vote in the debate, put up a more sturdy permanent replacement of the same sign. The message here is pretty clear: “Midtown” is here to stay.

Soquel Avenue between N. Branciforte Avenue and Morrissey Boulevard in Santa Cruz
Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to light a match in this particular fireworks factory by posting on Nextdoor that exact query: Is it Midtown? Or the Eastside? Or something else? In the days that followed, the post attracted more than 350 responses and about 14,600 page views. The responses featured a lot of geographical hair-splitting and chest-beating about nomenclature (“There is NO MIDTOWN!” “Midwuh!???” “STILL THE EASTSIDE!”).

Partisans were split roughly 60-40 in favor of those who call it “Eastside,” though those who preferred “Midtown” seemed much less militant on the matter. If there was any consensus on which both sides agreed, it was that “Midtown” is a much more recent coinage (since about 2000), and that the disagreement falls roughly along generational lines.

The evolution to Midtown

The commercial district itself includes many of Santa Cruz’s most iconic businesses — Shopper’s Corner, The Crepe Place, The Buttery. At one time decades ago, it was home to many other touchstone establishments that branded it one way — the Eastside Meat Market, Eastside Hardware, the Eastside Library. But now, there are just as many that use the “Midtown” brand — Midtown Surf Shop, Midtown Optometry, and, the flashpoint for much of the flap, the Midtown Fridays! summer block party that takes place at the very parking lot where the new Midtown sign now stands. The organization that represented the area’s businesses used to be the East Santa Cruz Businessmen’s Association. Now, it’s the Midtown Business Association.

Soquel Avenue between N. Branciforte Avenue and Morrissey Boulevard in Santa Cruz
The Midtown Surf Shop on Soquel Avenue. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Clearly, the area has evolved into a different identity. And many locals are not happy about it.

Seabright resident Ron Locey, who’s lived on the Eastside since 1976, said of the Midtown sign, “It made my head burst into flames when I saw that sign put up there.” Locey said that many of his neighbors feel similarly, that a neighborhood they’ve known by one name for decades is now suddenly something else.

Admitting that “I don’t know why I’m so passionate about it,” Locey said, “It kind of represents a threat to what I consider my neighborhood. I just don’t know why you have to change the name of the Eastside. I mean, why? What’s the motivation?”

Bonnie Faraola is a born-and-raised Santa Cruzan, old enough to have attended Soquel High School in its first year, 1962, long before the local high school, Harbor High, was opened. Her friends and family know not to use the M-word around her. “Midtown,” said Faraola, sounds “cheap.”

“My grandmother called it the Eastside,” she said. “My parents called it the Eastside. I avoid anything that has Midtown associated with it — just on principle, that and stubbornness. I won’t go into a business that is called ‘Midtown Something’. Even if it has good coffee.”

Shelley Hatch has lived in the area for more than 50 years. She sees “Midtown” as an agent of cultural obliteration, an excuse for newcomers and young people to ignore local history: “I think we’re going to totally lose the continuing interest in what came before.”

The “Eastside” contingent often points to the simplicity of the old-fashioned naming conventions of Santa Cruz. Anything west of the San Lorenzo River is the Westside. The river’s flood plain is essentially downtown. And east of the river? That’s the Eastside.

But the Eastside has geographical characteristics the Westside does not. For example, the Eastside is essentially a patchwork of smaller neighborhoods — Seabright, Branciforte, Prospect Heights, the Banana Belt, DeLaveaga. Also, while the Westside has remained more or less static in terms of settlement and development over the past half-century or so, the area east of the Santa Cruz city limits, the unincorporated region known as “Live Oak,” has expanded dramatically in the same time span. For younger people and newcomers, that has expanded the notion of what is meant by “the Eastside” in the popular imagination to include Live Oak, in some cases, all the way to Pleasure Point and Soquel. Because of that expansion, “Eastside” has been an elastic term in a way that “Westside” has not.

A plaque commemorating the location of the Eastside Library at the confluence of Soquel Ave., Water St. and Morrissey Blvd.
A plaque commemorating the location of the Eastside Library at the confluence of Soquel Avenue, Poplar Avenue, Water Street and Morrissey Boulevard. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

More than a century ago, said historian Daniel Model, when this area was Villa de Branciforte, locals would have been annoyed if it had been referred to as Santa Cruz, which was a rival settlement on the other side of the river. Model said that changing place names is inevitable, particularly when it comes to informal names of neighborhoods or districts. He does not use the term “Midtown,” he said, out of sensitivity to older folks who dislike the name.

“You can call it ‘Midtown,’” he said. “I’m not gonna make a face, or spit on the ground, or anything like that. Informal place names are fluid, and you got to expect that they’re going to change. But I’ve seen so many of our longtime residents just get too upset by that term. Names matter to people. It’s part of feeling attached to a place you consider home.”

Whence “Midtown”?

So, how did all this “Midtown” stuff start?

Nobody can discern exactly who uttered the term in reference to Eastside Santa Cruz for the first time. But locals under the age of 40 — especially alums of Harbor High — will often claim that “Midtown” dates at least back to the 1990s, or even the ’80s.

Author David Anthony attended Harbor in the ’80s. In his 2011 book “Town Boy: Memoir of a Santa Cruz Street Kid,” Anthony said the term grew organically from street kids, surfers and gangs in the area, as a way to distinguish the rapidly expanding idea of what the Eastside entailed.

A Midtown mural just off the corner of Water Street and Poplar Avenue.
A Midtown mural just off the corner of Water Street and Poplar Avenue. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

“To us,” he wrote, “the East Side comprised Live Oak, Capitola and Soquel. This neighborhood, which spanned east of Ocean Street and west of Seventh Avenue, was right in the middle of the greater city, hence the name Midtown.”

If a generation or two of locals adopted “Midtown” — and even many “Eastside” partisans say that their millennial children use the newer term — it was only a matter of time before it was embraced by the business community.

Laurence Bedford, who owns the Rio Theatre, said that “Midtown” as it was conceived by local business owners, encompasses only the commercial district of Soquel Avenue and Water Street, and not the nearby residential neighborhoods. “I live two blocks from the theater,” he said, “and I don’t say, ‘I live in Midtown.’”

The city’s Eastside Business Area Improvement Plan, released in 1996, makes no mention of the term “Midtown.” Sometime after 2000, Bedford said, he and other merchants in the area began using the word as a way to draw attention to the area: “A lot of us felt like a lot of the city’s attention was going downtown, so we kinda created our own shopping district.”

A plaque commemorating the location of the Eastside Library at the confluence of Soquel Ave., Water St. and Morrissey Blvd.
“Everyone was calling it Midtown,” Summer Duppen, owner of Tomboy, says of growing up in the area in the 1980s. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Summer Duppen owns and operates Tomboy, a distinctive Western-wear shop next to the Rio. She also grew up in the area. On the front door of Tomboy is “Welcome to Midtown.” During her childhood in the ’80s, she said, “We just grew up on the beach pretty much. And there were these old fisherman/surfer guys at the beach [calling it Midtown]. Everyone was calling it Midtown.”

Duppen opened her shop in 2012, and it wasn’t until people starting coming into the shop to complain about it that she even knew there was a controversy. “For me, Pleasure Point is the Eastside.”

The mid of Midtown

A plaque commemorating the location of the Eastside Library at the confluence of Soquel Ave., Water St. and Morrissey Blvd.
A plaque noting the first bank on Santa Cruz’s Eastside, on what’s now Home/Work, at Soquel Avenue and Cayuga Street. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

The epicenter of Midtown very well might be the 100-year-old former bank building at Soquel and Cayuga. The building has a historic landmark marker calling it “The First Bank on the Eastside.” Yet inside that building today is the gift shop Home/Work, owned and operated by Sonia McMoran, who heads up the Midtown Business Association. “Eastside” proponents tend to point to the sign on the building, installed by the Museum of Art & History, as evidence for their argument. But McMoran sees no contradiction that she is running a Midtown business in a historic Eastside building. To her, Midtown is simply a smaller entity within the Eastside.

“When I moved my business here [from downtown Santa Cruz],” she said, “it was hard for me to explain to people where I was if I used terms like ‘Eastside’ or ‘Seabright.’”

McMoran has also had to occasionally deal with folks upset at “Midtown.” She’s learned that her best move in such cases is to listen and be empathetic. The passion of the debate, she said, is a uniquely Santa Cruz phenomenon.

“Not very many people will be walking around their hometown with a shirt that says, ‘Yea, Kansas City,’ or whatever, unless it’s connected to a sports team. But here we have folks everywhere wearing T-shirts and driving cars with bumper stickers that pronounce their love for Santa Cruz. So I know that it comes from a place of being passionate about where you live. And I think probably part of it comes from folks who have lived here for a long time who feel vulnerable about the changes that are happening. And I’m sympathetic to that.”

Right across the street from her shop stands the new Midtown sign and the site for the big weekly block parties that enliven the neighborhood during the summer. Matthew Swinnerton of Event Santa Cruz, who coordinates the Midtown Fridays event, said he likes the sound of the name “Midtown.”

James Durbin and the Lost Boys perform at the Sept. 29 Midtown Fridays block party.
James Durbin and the Lost Boys perform at the Sept. 29 Midtown Fridays block party. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

“I’ve never seen more just pure anger at the naming of an event, ever,” said Swinnerton.“I kinda think of it as, well, it’s like adding these big buildings to downtown Santa Cruz. Maybe, in some people’s minds, it’s changing their view of what their version of Santa Cruz is.”

Before the pandemic, Swinnerton was approached by the Midtown Business Association to create an event to draw attention to Midtown. Mission accomplished. The Visit Santa Cruz County tourism board has embraced the term. TheCity of Santa Cruz‘s Economic Development department plays it both ways by referring to the area as “Midtown/Eastside.”

Still, said city development manager Dave McCormic, the city’s goal in efforts such as the “Experience Midtown” sign is to follow what the merchants want: “It’s really about supporting the identity that the active business community is seeking.” Though the summer block parties are over for 2023, the Midtown lot is likely to be the spot for a winter night market event.

“Midtown” is apparently here to stay. Yet “Eastside” isn’t receding either. Still, Sonia McMoran said, local businesses want peace with their neighbors. “I just hope that folks who are offended by the term know or learn that it doesn’t come from a place of disrespect. It truly comes from a place of wanting to better the area.”

For those on the “Eastside” side, their beef, they say, is not with local businesses, but with the casual tossing-aside of years of historical precedent. “Being born and raised here,” said Bonnie Faraola, “it’s important. This is kind of our identity in a way. And we want to preserve it. And, you know, that’s not a bad thing.”

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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...