Capitola Village’s magic has taken a beating, but you can help rekindle the #capitolalove

Capitola Village from the air
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

It’s hard to visit Capitola Village and not come under its spell — and that makes it even harder for anyone who’s felt the magic to see it in its current storm-ravaged state. And while our Santa Cruz County gem will always be vulnerable, we can all do our part to help the healing process by returning that love now.

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The day the governor of California visited Capitola Village, he walked past a pile of ragged, waterlogged timber boards as he stepped into Zelda’s to see, among other things, a chunk of the Capitola Wharf that had gone through the restaurant’s ocean-view window.

There was no apparent reason for Gavin Newsom to notice this particular pile of distressed lumber in an environment of so much other debris. But a closer look reveals that these boards are part of the memorial benches along the seawall at Capitola Beach, removed by the city because of the storm that damaged the Esplanade the first week of January.

On the boards, piled in a heap, you can see the small memorial plaques embedded in the wood, evoking the departed who once loved this place. Here is Don Slivka, a Sacramento probation officer who vacationed with his family in Capitola for more than 40 years. And Marilyn Badeaux, a dynamo with an avid love of gardening and of Capitola. And Ellen Page Melton, a “true California girl” from Sacramento.

Not everyone has the opportunity to be memorialized in this way in this place. If every person who held an incandescent love for Capitola Village in his or her heart were allowed a tiny bronze plaque, there’d be room for nothing else here. These names are stand-ins for the millions of people from nearby and far away, going back generations, who once were — or who continue to be — entranced by the unique charms of this beautiful corner of California.

Before New Year’s Eve, longtime residents of Santa Cruz County or the Monterey Bay region might have taken for granted the charms of Capitola Village — or, depending on whom you’re talking to, “Capitola-By-the-Sea,” or even “’Tola.” In the past two weeks, however, locals living outside of town are grieving for the residents and business owners of the village. The bejeweled image that so many of us have of Capitola — a dazzling sunshiny day full of sunbathers, surfers and picnickers — seems so far away.

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We’re all asking when we might see that Capitola again.

For locals outside the village who are asking themselves how they can help, there are two things to keep in mind as Capitola Village assesses what has been lost and braces for what might still happen. The first thing is, Capitola is not crippled. There were only a handful of businesses on the Esplanade that have been indefinitely closed because of the Jan. 5 ocean surge. Most of Capitola’s businesses are fine. Some are only now coming out of a period of having no electricity. But mostly the village is open for business. The second thing to keep in mind is the best way to support Capitola’s businesses is to support Capitola’s businesses — now. The village is not a crime scene or a restricted zone. Local businesses are eager to welcome visitors. Have a sandwich, buy a sweatshirt, get a gift card. Show up. You’ll be glad you did.

Capitola exists on an exclusive list of picturesque California coastal towns — Ferndale, Mendocino, Cambria — that are jewels in the Golden State’s crown. I’ve visited Capitola Village hundreds, maybe thousands of times, going back decades. I still visit once or twice a week. Yet I almost never drive into the village. I’ll park a good distance away — the Nob Hill parking area, often, or over by Jade Street Park — and walk.

There is something about descending down into the village that feels right to me, whether it’s coming down on the other side of Soquel Creek by Shadowbrook, or down Monterey Avenue by Depot Hill, or, even better, from Opal Cliffs hugging the coastline, getting that postcard view of the beach and the Esplanade just beyond the wharf. It’s a joy to take out-of-town visitors to the village. If we’re lucky, we can get a table on the balcony up at Mr. Toots, overlooking the sand and the candy-colored Venetian Hotel.

Capitola Village at sunset
The Instagram feed of Capitola resident Ercilia Medeiros — known as "#capitolalove” — is a popular online touchstone that captures Capitola Village at its loveliest.
(Via Ercilia Medeiros)

On her daily walks, Ercilia Medeiros takes a path through Capitola much like I do. She, though, is a local who lives up near the entrance to New Brighton State Beach. “It does feel like you’re descending into something magical,” she told me.

Ercilia has gotten lots of attention in recent years for her Instagram feed, hashtagged #capitolalove. For more than six years, she’s been taking shots of Capitola Village from a number of different vantage points, and the village always looks idyllic through her eyes. She’s netted more than 3,700 followers, many of them folks far away looking for a bit of Capitola warmth on an otherwise dreary day. Her view of Capitola now seems like another place and time.

“The other evening I drove past the village at night,” she said, “and thought how sad the view from the Stockton Bridge was with the waterfront restaurants all dark.”

Though it often appears otherwise, Capitola Village exists in the real world, not a storybook. And that means it is subject to the whims of Mother Nature, which is utterly indifferent to Capitola’s loveliness. The village is simultaneously vulnerable to ocean swells and to the rising waters of Soquel Creek. Because of that geography, it has a long history of being walloped by winter storms coming in off the ocean. One of the most damaging, at least in recent memory, came 40 years ago, in the winter of 1983, when a storm surge overwhelmed the Esplanade and almost completely wiped out Zelda’s.

Capitola Village took an especially devastating blow in the El Niño winter of 1983.
(Via Gary Griggs)

This January continues to remind us that, when it comes to natural processes, the past is often prologue. There is no reason to believe that Capitola Village will be spared this kind of mayhem in the future. In fact, climate change science suggests it’s likely that bigger and more devastating events await down the line.

As Newsom made comments about the storms to the local media on the damaged deck of Zelda’s last week, the ocean behind him seethed like an agitated caged animal. The beach was a junkyard of storm debris. The restaurants on the Esplanade were quiet and dark. I asked Newsom about the previous time he had visited Capitola, in hopes he might be one of those people who keep an idyllic image of ’Tola in his heart. He had no specific memories to share, but gestured to his surroundings with a gusto not quite fitting with the occasion, saying, “Eat your heart out, Texas. I mean, this is California.”

Too bad, I thought. He was seeing Capitola at its most vulnerable, at one of its lowest points. Come back on a summer evening with live music in the bandshell, children shouting from the beach, families sharing a takeout meal on the seawall benches. Come back when Capitola is back on its feet again. Take a walk and descend into the village from any direction. I promise you the magic will do its trick. You’ll feel the #capitolalove.

The Community Foundation Santa Cruz County has set up a relief fund to assist local businesses owners in Capitola and elsewhere. For more information, or to contribute, go here.


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