Quick Take:

While it would not be right to think of the 1989 Loma Prieta quake as a “blessing,” it’s worth considering the ways in which downtown Santa Cruz was re-envisioned — and whether that would’ve ever happened without the natural disaster.

For years, you could always start a conversation with “The Earthquake” and expect a lively exchange of anecdotes, second-hand tall tales, and even a juicy conspiracy theory or two. It was a great ice-breaker and a dependable shortcut to entertainment.

These days, however, evoking the Loma Prieta earthquake has lost much of its magic. If you don’t read the room properly, you might very well feel like Granpappy nattering on about World War I, especially when you’re reminded that the smart, sophisticated, very much adult person you’re chatting with literally did not exist at the time.


That number your brain is laboring to calculate right now is 32. That’s how many years it’s been since a dramatic earthquake, epicentered in the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park in Aptos, changed the cultural and geological history of two bay areas, Monterey and San Francisco, on this date.

Those of us who were around for the quake instinctively can recite the numbers: Oct. 17, 1989. 5:04 p.m. 6.9 magnitude, 63 dead, six in Santa Cruz County. Downtown Santa Cruz and Watsonville were clobbered, in many areas reduced to ruin.

The rubble across from the Cooper House.
The rubble across from the Cooper House. Credit: Courtesy of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH

Thousands of lives were uprooted and disrupted, hundreds of homes destroyed. Highway 17 was closed for a month. Lines outside supermarkets to get food and basic supplies were breathtaking, making recent pandemic queues look like child’s play by comparison.

Red tags that marked unsafe structures fluttered around town like autumn leaves in New England. Many of the signature buildings in the area, buildings that gave Santa Cruz its personality, didn’t survive the quake — most painfully the grand old Cooper House, the dominant landmark of downtown.

At the time, and during the long rebuilding period, the quake felt like a stark demarcation line in local history, that life in Santa Cruz County might forever be marked as “BQ” or “AQ.”

The Pacific Garden Mall snaked its way up Pacific Avenue.
The Pacific Garden Mall snaked its way up Pacific Avenue. Credit: Courtesy of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History

Perhaps the most prominent BQ feature of the local landscape was the Pacific Garden Mall, the leafy, pedestrian-friendly design overlaid onto Pacific Avenue 20 years before the quake.

The mall snaked through downtown mimicking a river, with lots of trees and vegetation to suggest a country village out of a Grimm fairy tale, the vision of photographer Chuck Abbott (after whom Abbott Square is named) and local landscape architect Roy Rydell. It was a tangible expression of the sensual, Dionysian, back-to-nature aesthetic that characterized the hippie movement of the late 1960s.

The mall cast its spell on Santa Cruz and before long it became an inviting venue for everything from street performers to Hare Krishnas. But as the 1970s morphed into the ’80s, many locals felt the mall had become a bit too colorful, even unsafe, attracting, in the terminology of the time, “undesirable transient elements.”

By ’89, many locals felt that the mall was a design out of fashion, aging about as well as drawstring bell-bottoms, and some began avoiding downtown altogether.

By ’89, many locals felt that the mall was a design out of fashion, aging about as well as drawstring bell-bottoms, and some began avoiding downtown altogether.

Which brings us to a fascinating what-if, 32 years later. However much trauma and pain Loma Prieta brought about, it’s clear that the quake gave Santa Cruz a timely opportunity to redesign its downtown, and given the chance, the city quickly changed course away from Roy Rydell’s urban Eden. In its place came the wide sidewalks, clear sight lines, and geometric purity of Pacific Avenue as we all know and love it (or not) today.

If the ’89 earthquake had never happened, would the city have ever taken on the hassle and expense to replace the mall design with a more sleek and modern downtown? Would it have opted instead for piecemeal, patchwork changes? Or would always-inventive Santa Cruzans just have learned to adapt to their endearingly weird drawstring bell-bottoms?

The Cooper House would have continued to get older, as would many of the downtown spaces and buildings wiped out by the quake. If architecture is subject to the dynamics of fashion or technology or pop music, maybe the painfully dated aesthetic would have eventually ripened into retro-chic, and Santa Cruz would be celebrated today for its throwback vibe.

Pre-earthquake downtown Santa Cruz.
Pre-earthquake downtown Santa Cruz. Credit: Courtesy of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History

Maybe the Cooper House would have been refurbished in some smart, elegant way, or some clumsy Frankenstein way. Maybe it would today be sitting behind a chain-link fence, forlorn and forgotten like the former Caffe Pergolesi building on Cedar Street.

If the quake had never happened, stalwart local businesses that endured an expensive but ultimately transformative move into new spaces — Bookshop Santa Cruz, Atlantis Fantasyworld, Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Co., the Museum of Art & History, many others — might still be struggling with ol,d decrepit buildings. What kind of effect would an unchanged Santa Cruz County have on traffic, economy, housing, or demographics?

It would be crass and disrespectful to the loss of life and property to think of the ’89 quake as a “blessing” in any way. It certainly didn’t feel like that at the time. But, for better or worse, it delivered the downtown Santa Cruz we have today. We can’t know what alternative reality exists in the parallel universe of a quake-less Santa Cruz, or what fundamental differences the butterfly-wing nature of time would have brought about in countless individual lives.

Maybe the Loma Prieta earthquake was just a speed bump in Santa Cruz’s history with little influence on what this city has become, or what it imagines itself to be. But I suspect that’s a very BQ way of thinking.

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...