Best of 2022: Lookout correspondents pick their favorite stories of the year

Strikers outside the Ocean Street Starbucks in November.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout’s correspondents look back on their most memorable reporting and photography of 2022 and what these stories and images mean to them.

An 8-year-old’s invention to help his grandmother with dementia. A quest to create a film-lover’s paradise in Santa Cruz. A race for the new full-time Santa Cruz mayor. An investigation into surging fentanyl deaths and a journey into the mystery of why so few local farms raise pork. These are some of the best stories Lookout published in 2022. Read on as our correspondents describe, in their own words, their favorite stories of the year. (And click on each correspondent’s name below to find all their work.)

Wallace Baine

Wallace Baine outside the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium ahead of Bob Dylan's sold-out show.
(Giovanni Moujaes / Lookout Santa Cruz)

‘Don’t expect any oldies’: Bob Dylan comes to Santa Cruz: In boomer-friendly Santa Cruz, Bob Dylan has always been something of a demigod. In June, the famously obtuse Dylan performed at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, as he has done a few times before. I didn’t want to write a straight-on review of the performance so much as I wanted to use it as a vehicle to bring those who weren’t there in for a peek at what the experience was like. I wasn’t too impressed by Dylan’s somnambulant performance, and I certainly heard from various Dylan fans about it, too. From my perspective, I figured that the world certainly didn’t need yet another hot take on Dylan. I instead wanted to entertain readers with an encounter that, like most concerts these days, carries a bit of cognitive dissonance between the art of Dylan and the ugly commerce of the concert industry.

My Esalen experience: Big Sur’s ‘one-of-a-kind, you-gotta-be-kidding-me, is-this-a-dream?’ kinda day: Sitting in the famous mineral baths at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur is such a heady experience that writing about it can feel puny and inadequate. But I took a shot at it. My wife, Tina, and I got to visit Esalen on my most recent birthday, and we spent the entire day there intently focused on feeling every minute of it, trying gamely not to allow our minds to wander or to fall prey to distraction. It was the quintessential California experience, and whatever writing chops I could bring to bear on it does it very poor justice.

Icons of Santa Cruz: The centurion of West Cliff Drive: I’ve always wanted to write the definitive piece on the most famous touchstones of living in Santa Cruz, and I began that quixotic quest this year with this piece on the famous West Cliff Drive surfer statue. Coincidentally, the statue turned 30 this year and, as a writer’s conceit, I thought it might be a good idea to see if I could name the guy — which you would have thought might have happened already. I settled on “Wes Clift,” besides the obvious pun, it evokes the mysterious 1950s actor Montgomery Clift, and Wes is an underrated name. It’s been almost a year since that piece was published, and the next person whom I hear reference the statue as Wes Clift will be the first one. Oh well, you can’t have everything.

Who is Bud Colligan?: It seems like so long ago now, but Measure D, the rail-trail voter initiative on the June ballot, produced tons of community unrest and suspicion, and I dove right into the middle of it with this profile of maybe the most central figure in the whole debate, philanthropist Bud Colligan. I actually admired Colligan for his community activism when so many other people of his means have retreated into their own bubbles, and I was not cynical about his motives. This piece managed to upset both Colligan supporters and detractors, some of whom I consider friends, which is never a comfortable position to be in. Still, somehow I had to pull back the curtain. And, however imperfectly, I took a shot.

Lily Belli

At Pajaro Pastures, farmer Ryan Abelson supplements his pigs' diet with unsellable fruit and vegetables from nearby farms.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

One Santa Cruz County farmer’s quest to grow sustainable, locally raised meat: This story started out as a profile of a young farmer growing sustainably raised pork in Santa Cruz County. But when he said that his ecologically farmed pork, from Pajaro Pastures, is the only county-raised pork available commercially by the pound, the question became, why?

Although Santa Cruz County’s crop value exceeds $600 million, livestock accounts for just 1%. This dearth in locally raised animal products is indicative of a national trend. Farmer Ryan Abelson and others in the story revealed that a confusing snarl of U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations and the closure of several USDA-certified slaughterhouses in the state, combined with high land and water prices in Santa Cruz County, has made selling USDA-certified commercial meat products nearly impossible. This juxtaposes against another trend: the desire to “eat local” as much as possible.

A sober rethink: It’s time to widen our booze-free choices: Of all the stories I wrote this year, I received the most letters about this one. Dozens of readers wrote in to say that they or their partner/friend/parent doesn’t drink alcohol and that this story made them feel “seen.” My husband made a health-focused decision to quit drinking alcohol during the pandemic, and while dining out with him I became acutely aware how many Santa Cruz County restaurants overlook the importance of offering compelling booze-free beverage choices. Usually, all he could find was a sugary soda or fruit juice, while I sipped on a thoughtful craft cocktail or an elegant glass of wine.

Here, I reveal how this is a missed opportunity for local restaurants to capitalize on a growing trend of abstention from alcohol and assert that in the hospitality industry, they owe it to their guests to offer nonalcoholic beverages that compliment the meal, rather than clash with it. Many local restaurants are hip to this trend, and I share which ones offer fun alcohol-free drinks and dig into why others might not.

Alderwood group Santa Cruz Sky aims to revitalize downtown Santa Cruz: Here at Lookout, we are constantly tuning our sails to the shifting tides of a changing Santa Cruz landscape. No dining group exemplifies that better than Santa Cruz Sky. The locally owned company runs Michelin-noted Alderwood Santa Cruz; Burn Hot Sauce, a wholesale organic hot sauce company; Abbott Square’s fried chicken fast-casual restaurant Flashbird; the in-house Bun & Sons Bakery; and is set to open two more Flashbird locations and a second restaurant, Alderwood Pacific.

In this story, Sam Woods, director of operations at Santa Cruz Sky and a Capitola native, reveals how the company’s rapid growth has a clear goal: to revitalize Santa Cruz’s restaurant scene and help usher in a new era of downtown dining.

Max Chun

Marja Adriance and Dennis Bartok want to rejuvenate the arthouse film scene in Santa Cruz.
(Via Marja Adriance)

Post-Nickelodeon, can Santa Cruz become a film lover’s paradise?: I’ve always loved movies, so the prospect of a year without theaters was predictably distressing on top of the whole pandemic thing. But at least they’d eventually open up again, right?

Well, for local arthouse gem the Nickelodeon, that wasn’t and still isn’t the case.

The indie and art film industry — already not known for its box office prowess — is still recovering from pandemic losses. Landmark Theatres, which owns the Nickelodeon, has not indicated any intention to reopen the Nick.

With the cinema’s reopening still stuck in limbo, film veterans Dennis Bartok and Marja Adriance — the latter a Santa Cruz native — have begun early steps to bring their vision of a revitalized arthouse film scene to Santa Cruz. Their passion to create a space that blends community, film and live events is immediately evident, while their years of experience writing, programming and curating and restoring films provide the film knowledge necessary to keep audiences excited for the next screening.

It’ll be a long process with much fundraising and planning to be done. There are no promises, but no matter what happens, I’m excited. If you’re also a cinephile, you should be, too.

Two Santa Cruz Starbucks vote in favor of unionization, a first in California: As a fellow service worker, and more specifically a coffee shop veteran, I knew this story was a big deal from the moment the rumblings of organizing began.

In a sense, it’s an underdog story. A group of young adults and college students working to achieve something that had never been done before in the state’s history and succeeding. Following the road to unionization from the very start, and being able to break the news months later, was a very rewarding experience.

Watsonville-born playwright Spike Wong explores his identity through his work: Candidate for best conversation I had all year goes to Spike Wong, as he shared the creative process and inspiration for his latest endeavor, “White Sky, Falling Dragon” — a rumination on the clashing of cultures and coming to terms with one’s identity.

With the main character based on Wong’s father, and he himself assuming the role of his own grandfather, it was maybe his most personal play yet.

Having grown up in Santa Cruz, I became well aware that there is a small Asian population here. As a result, I know that I did not explore my Chinese identity much and didn’t really feel the need to. Spike, though, made the effort to connect with that identity later in life, and realized just how much his family had lost through assimilation.

Maybe I should do the same.

Mark Conley

Leticia Sandoval flanked by all her children, Adrian and Mirella to the left and Marina and Jared to the right.
(Via Leticia Sandoval)

Unhoused Santa Cruz: The struggle for families is real — and for one family, tragedy followed triumph: When I was introduced to Leticia Sandoval, I was told that her story represented an extreme case of a local family in need of housing finding the golden ticket and providing her children the stability they deserved. I didn’t, however, know the details of what that extremeness entailed — that just as that dream was realized, one of those kids would be tragically lost.

Watching tears fall from her eyes as we sat on the couch in her living room, I knew this would be one of the saddest stories I’ve ever told. As I reflect on stories like this as a dad, it makes me appreciate the process and importance of sharing. And mostly that people are willing to share — and find the trust to do so. In this case, Leticia Sandoval realized that her success story — going from unhoused to housed, finding the stability of a roof overhead — was only made more important by the tragic loss that would follow.

‘We’re here for you’: In wake of tragedy, Santa Cruz surfing community doubles down on generation next: I had heard the rumors of how local second-generation surfboard shaper Buck Noe had lost his life. And they were ghastly. I also knew that the annual event honoring another local surfing legend lost too soon, Shawn “Barney” Barron, was happening the next day at Steamer Lane. As I made a few calls to surfing world sources, I discovered that the event to honor Barron would be utilized by organizer Darryl Virostko — an important success story in Santa Cruz surfing’s chapters of struggle — to honor the fallen and extend a hand to the younger generation. Within that scene and moment, there was some history to be told and some reflection to be culled.

As fentanyl’s painful death toll grows in Santa Cruz, taking young lives, it’s time for meaningful solutions: The idea was simple: Find out what is going on locally in response to the national crisis of fentanyl use/overdose/death. The answers were far from simple. The primary discovery in Lookout’s investigation of the systems in place was that key local bodies — public health leaders, law enforcement, the coroner investigator, the district attorney’s office — were not in regular communication about the crisis and had no specific plan for keeping the community safe. It was particularly concerning given the growing number of young people dying because they had taken pills laced with the deadly toxin that has overtaken the illicit drug scene.

Our consistent pestering of these stakeholders ultimately helped spark a virtual community town hall in which the need for proactive education and communication with the public became abundantly clear. Since that three-part series ran — it included the revelations that both the sheriff and the county’s top public health officer lost close loved ones to fentanyl poisoning — public health leaders have formed a fentanyl task force, the county’s public high schools have improved educational resources and made sure the opioid antagonist Narcan is available on campuses, and a second town hall was held specifically for the Spanish-speaking community. This is the type of accountability reporting the Santa Cruz County community deserves.

Christopher Neely

Santa Cruz mayoral candidates Joy Schendledecker (left) and Fred Keeley.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Joy and Fred: A mayor’s race in high contrast: Open seats for public office often attract a certain brand of characters. Fred Keeley and, to a lesser extent, Joy Schendledecker, are well known throughout Santa Cruz. However, as a newcomer to town I knew neither of the two candidates for Santa Cruz mayor. This story (my first with Lookout) allowed me to explore who Joy and Fred were through the lens of an outsider. Any story that works even slightly toward a more intimate understanding of another person is my kind of story. They require a fine-tuning of observation skills and shift the types of questions I ask, even if the topic is political, or electoral.

Hillary Ojeda

Good Shepherd Catholic School is closing after 60 years.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

‘Tell the school goodbye’: Families, staff, alums heartbroken by closure of 60-year-old Good Shepherd school: The past several years severely challenged the education system; remote learning and the pandemic have exacerbated mental health issues for students and teachers, and intensifying curriculum debates have led to laws in some states limiting teaching on racism and gender. It has not been easy.

So in July, when news emerged of Good Shepherd Catholic School closing its doors due to what administrators said was declining enrollment and rising costs, the blow hit extra hard for families who for decades sent their children to the school. Families, teachers and administrators were devastated to see the school close and felt robbed of an opportunity to raise funds to save it.

The closure of the school and the responses by those who cared about it demonstrated the meaning of a school community — how schools provide a sense of safety and identity.

Resigned then (likely) reelected: Soquel Union board trustee faces questions from parents, teachers union: With school curriculum becoming more and more politicized over the past several years, stories about heated school board races have been making headlines. The Soquel Union Elementary School District board race this most recent election cycle made it to Lookout’s headlines because of some odd circumstances.

Longtime board member Phil Rodriguez resigned from his seat just months before his term was set to end and just weeks after he had filed to run for reelection. His opponent, Justin Maffia, thinking he was running unopposed, relaxed his campaign.

As the incumbent with his name still on the ballot, (his resignation came too late in the campaign to remove his name from the ballot), Rodriguez won the race. Rodriguez told Lookout he would serve if voters elected him, and he was reinstated to his position on the board — leading parents and both of the district’s unions to question Rodriguez’s intentions and the fairness of the race.

The school district is one of the smaller ones in the county, but the story shows the importance of civic engagement.

Meet the Watsonville 8-year-old behind ‘D’ shoes, an award-winning invention for people facing dementia: Second grader Kristopher Bayog’s invention to help find people with dementia was full of creativity and heart. After his grandmother, who has dementia, wandered off at his cousin’s graduation, Kristopher was driven to find a way to ensure that people with dementia are reunited with their families.

Equipped with only the items he could find in his home, as the invention program he participates in at school calls for, he created an alarm by installing a doorbell in a shoe to locate a missing loved one. His invention advanced through several rounds of the program, allowing him to become one of only five California students to qualify for the global competition.

This simple and sweet story was the most-read of any story in Lookout’s two-year history. I think that shows how much readers value youth voices and heartfelt stories.

Kevin Painchaud

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Come with us to the Benchlands: Listen to five voices of Santa Cruz’s unhoused: I have spent the past 2½ years walking down at the Benchlands and speaking with the unhoused. It was important to me that their voices were heard in this feature speaking with five unhoused people earlier this year, before the encampment was closed in the fall.

Take a peek at Veterans Village: It’s an answer to homelessness, but needs more money: People who have fought for our country deserve better. This video story exploring Veterans Village, a project for homeless veterans in Ben Lomond, was enlightening. Veterans Village has succeeded in finding an amazing location in the redwoods to house a select few veterans and give them the support they deserve.

Gallery: Fire at DeLaveaga Park: As a photojournalist, covering fires is always exciting. So when a wildfire broke out in DeLaveaga Park in August, I jumped at the chance to photograph it. The blaze was quickly extinguished, and the fire that bordered a beautiful golf course provided an interesting setting for photography.



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