Pleasure Point: A rapidly changing, surf-obsessed neighborhood with a gritty past

Pleasure Point video
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Pleasure Point’s beat-up beach cottages are being torn down to erect multistory, multimillion-dollar homes. For lifelong Point denizens like the author, the changing face of an iconic neighborhood — one of California’s last rough-edged coastal zones — hasn’t been without its pros and cons. While the scene has become livelier and friendlier over the years, the cost of living has soared, sending many longtime locals packing.

It’s the summer of 1995, and a crew of surfers is gathered around a rusty guardrail on Pleasure Point as a beautiful south swell wraps around the coast, trickling into the smallest nooks and crannies of the offshore reef structure, lining up excellent surfing conditions. All imaginable types linger around the cliff comparing critiques of surfer style at First Peak and pondering their own moment to strike: construction workers, pot dealers, white-collar business types, shoeless preteens on skateboards and bikes.

While most of the radical action is reserved for out in the lineup, it wasn’t unusual to see a group of beer-swilling, hardcore rabble-rousers — we called them Point Boys — lean against the rickety railing, facing the East Cliff Drive traffic, hurling a cacophony of jeers and catcalls at poor, terrified female joggers now sprinting toward safety.

As a 10-year-old “grom” growing up just down the street from all that regular commotion, this was my Pleasure Point — alluring, intimidating, mesmerizing, terrifying.

But, boy, are things different these days.

Today’s Point is hardly recognizable. Take a stroll up East Cliff from the end of 41st Avenue to the Point Market on an average weekday, and you’ll see Lululemon-clad joggers, stroller-pushing moms, groups of seniors striding in rhythm, and surfers of all ilk — longboarders, shortboarders, funboarders, hipsters with fish, even the occasional surf mat rider — peering out at the ocean for a surf check.

During weekends and holidays, particularly in the summer months, the foot and road traffic picks up considerably. Tourists, “over-the-hill” day trippers, cyclists, local kids on skateboards, roller skaters, one-wheelers all whiz past folks camped out in six-figure Sprinter vans gorging on their post-surf session breakfast burritos from the Point Market. Listen closely enough and, beyond the typical surfer speak, you’re likely to hear French, Italian, Mandarin and other languages being spoken by the international tourists drawn to the scene. Not nearly as findable for tourists as its Westside cousin, Steamer Lane, Pleasure Point has officially become a destination.

I count myself fortunate to have grown up on the Point in those rugged days. It was a neighborhood that makes up the coastal slice of Live Oak, an unincorporated part of Santa Cruz County between the City of Santa Cruz and the village of Capitola. As a student in the Live Oak school system, I mingled with a diverse mix of other lower- and middle-class kids from working-class families, exploring the area’s Eucalyptus forests and backstreets, from Ferrell’s Donuts off 17th Avenue, all the way east past the Capitola Mall to 41st Avenue.

Ultimately, though, my world revolved around the cliffs, beaches and world-class waves found just down the street from my house. I dreamed of becoming a pro surfer someday.

The fortified seawall along Pleasure Point changed things greatly.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Although officially a part of Live Oak, Pleasure Point has taken on an identity of its own over the decades. Almost 6,000 people live in the area, nestled along the Monterey Bay between 26th Avenue and 41st Avenue. Just west of what is technically known as the Point, Live Oak boasts several other of the county’s finest beaches to stroll, sit in a beach chair or on a bench and just chill. From Moran Lake Beach to Sunny Cove, it’s a sun tanner’s paradise, with plenty of room to breathe while bronzing.

The neighborhoods are a unique blend of townhouses, mobile home parks and residential complexes. The eclectic nature of the Point’s residential neighborhoods owes its jigsaw-puzzle quality to the way the original larger parcels and lots have been sliced and diced over the years by developers, seemingly without any semblance of a master plan.

Going back to my parents’ generation, it was a sleepier scene, with remnants of the original farm and ranch culture still visible. Capitola Mall was a cow pasture up until the late ‘70s. Go back another generation and entire subdivided neighborhoods were “chicken ranches” or flower gardens — a few of the latter even still exist. Young couples could afford to rent a house on the Point for a couple hundred bucks a month, even while starting families.

38th Avenue, aka Jack's, packs in the beginning surfer set.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The transformation the Point has undergone in my lifetime has been positive in many ways, but some of the longtimers who loved “how it was back then” are not among those applauding the changes. My neighbor, Dennis Godfrey, who has lived on the Point for over 40 years, is one of those disenchanted souls.

“The reason I moved to the Point was because it was the last surf ghetto in California, and the waves were unbelievable,” says Godfrey.

“We had it too good. When the money came in, everything changed. It told all the people who owned these little homes in the neighborhood that they were sitting on gold mines, and the hardcore locals who were renting them suddenly weren’t locals anymore. (Those with the money) bought everybody out.”

Along with Godfrey, I’ve had a front-row seat to the rapid change in Pleasure Point. I’ve watched from my deck as young, upwardly mobile couples drive the block, pointing out houses and assessing their value as though my street was a Monopoly board. And while I can see where my neighbor is coming from — I grew up surfing spots with half the number of humans most days — I have to acknowledge the positive elements of change, too.

Looking back, things seemed to really change in 2009 when a protective seawall was built to save the eroding bluffs. It erased rat-ridden cliff faces and replaced them with a more polished look, complete with fancy staircases to the surf breaks and a wide, paved sidewalk that would accommodate all manner of passerby. It further solidified the Pleasure Point zone as a destination for recreation seekers both above the cliff and at sea level.

An overview of the former "surf ghetto."
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

By then the beer-swilling Point Boys were finding new hangouts. It’s a more family-friendly scene now, with throngs of pedestrians sharing the large sidewalk. With the wave-tracking service Surfline hosting multiple easy-to-view cameras along the Point and the advent of smartphones providing a record of the surfside action, the old forms of Wild West surf justice have become a thing of the past.

Change has spread from the water’s edge to the residential grid inland. Once referred to as a “surf ghetto,” now Pleasure Point’s beat-up beach cottages are being torn down to erect multistory, multimillion-dollar homes.

The cost of living has soared, sending many longtime locals packing, while tech entrepreneurs and young families with six-figure incomes take their place. Many homes stand lonely and unused, waiting for their owners to visit, while Airbnb house rentals spread like wildfire.

Today, Pleasure Point is a livelier, friendlier scene. Over the past 15 years, a number of new establishments have popped up where the locals who have stuck it out can meet. Order a steak and watch the game at The Point chophouse. Brag about the size of your last ride over cocktails at Suda restaurant.

Enjoy the cozy, open-air environment of Cat & Cloud coffee. Open your hip flexors in the butterfly pose at Pleasure Point Yoga. Sip some craft beers with close friends at the NuBo taproom. Buy some buds at Pacific Reserve cannabis dispensary. The Point is packed with businesses these days — the vast majority still local, as a staunch noncorporate ethos pervades.

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Video shot by Kevin Painchaud

Several creative entrepreneurs have found the pedestrian path along the cliffs to be a great spot to peddle their wares from carts, including S.C. Bread Boy and his pastries or Eddie Alaniz’s pop-up cold-brew coffee outfit, Coffee Conspiracy Co. They are modern-day ice-cream men, if you will. And there’s the modern-day ice cream shop, too (local only, of course), just up the bustling 41st Avenue corridor: Penny Ice Creamery is one of several successful Westside or downtown enterprises to have brought its creations east.

The changes in the vibe along the Point have made it a far more welcoming scene for women, both on land and in the water. When I first started surfing, there weren’t many women in the water. Today, they sometimes outnumber the men surfing in the lineup.

Shaylene Peterson, a 35-year-old stroke rehabilitation specialist, who started surfing the Point when she was 15, offers this perspective: “I was one of a handful of female surfers at the time. It was a challenge every day competing with the boys for waves. With the Point becoming a more inviting space, we now have a large group of extremely talented young female surfers coming up which makes me so proud to see.”

Along with more female surfers, the lineup has become more diverse. There’s a large local contingent of Brazilian surfers, and more people of color are being welcomed into the mix, represented by Black Surf Santa Cruz, founded by Esabella Bonner. Additionally, the assortment of craft being ridden in the water has skyrocketed.

Shaylene Peterson with her sons Bucky and Occy.
(Via Shaylene Peterson)

Longboarders took a ton of grief for years, sequestered away from the main takeoff zones and intimidated with threats of violence. Now they outnumber the shortboarders at many of the top breaks on many days. Alternative shapes — fish, mini-Simmons, eggs — abound.

Despite the changing face of the neighborhood, the local community is still active, with events year-round. The Pleasure Point Street Fair blocks off a stretch of Portola Drive in the summer for local artisans and businesses to show off their wares. The Halloween costume party takes place each October, with young ghouls and superheroes strutting their stuff for a chance to win the Best Costume Award.

The annual 4th of July Surf Parade flows south down East Cliff, led by an American-flag-waving Emily Myall, decked out as Wonder Woman. On any given weekend there could be a high-school surf competition or a retro surf event, such as the annual no-leash-allowed “Logjam” longboard event that harkens back to a simpler era. The competition-free “No Contest” dedicated to shark attack victim Ben Kelly has brought with it a newly inclusive vibe.

Back to shore after a low-tide session at Pleasure Point.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“Growing up, the Point was a little rougher,” admits Peterson. “But now we all have families and can enjoy celebrating events and holidays there together. I wouldn’t change that for the world.”

In my 36 years living on Pleasure Point, I’ve seen my fair share of change — both good and bad. The negatives are easy to rattle off. The influx of luxury-vehicle-driving neighbors, many who seem to view stop signs as mere suggestions. The exodus of many locals I grew up with since grade school and considered good friends. The watering-down of a once-raw surf culture that backed up the validity of the “surf ghetto” moniker.

But those salty complaints just make me sound like a nostalgic grump. Despite the downside, I like to look at all this change as an opportunity to be a better person less driven by the learned provincialism of my youth: sharing waves with strangers, giving a big smile and wave to new neighbors, and most of all, being a positive role model for the kids of my beloved neighborhood, on land and in the water.

Neal Kearney is a UC Santa Cruz grad who enjoys surfing, writing and teaching yoga. When he’s not shredding, scribbling or stretching, you can find him walking his pup, Oz, on East Cliff or strumming on his guitar in the sand.

Author Neal Kearney as a Pleasure Point grom.
(Via Neal Kearney)

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