What makes the Westside the Westside?

An aerial view of the Westside.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

It’s the San Lorenzo River geographically, but it’s as much a well-developed state of mind. Liza Monroy picks that identity apart — and provides a great guide for all to eat, visit and explore.

Welcome to our reenergized Places.

Today, we launch our Area Guides. We’ll publish a new one at least monthly, each one intended to capture what makes each community in Santa Cruz County unique. Westsider Liza Monroy captures the spirit and history of Santa Cruz’s Westside in our debut Area Guide. Enjoy, and let us know what you’d like to see in them as we go forward, at news@lookoutlocal.com.

Area guide for the Westside

When I first got this assignment, my first response was, “But I don’t live on the Westside.”

Except, it turns out, I also do — depending on whom you ask.

The precise borders of what constitutes “the Westside” is — akin to many Santa Cruzan topics — subject for a little debate. My home at the intersection of Chestnut and Lincoln streets, down the hill from Santa Cruz High School, is technically located downtown.

Some draw lines around downtown; it is definitely its own neighborhood and not lump-able with any other. That’s where I was at until a conversation with neighbor, artist and waterman Jon Bailiff. When I brought up the conundrum of our ‘hood, he said: “Anyone who lives anywhere else but the Westside and downtown thinks of this as the Westside.”

From that perspective, everything west of the San Lorenzo River qualifies as “Westside.”

“We either explain we live downtown or on the Westside, depending where you’re coming from,” he said. “And we still get the red downtown parking tags, which change to blue Westside ones at Laurel and Mission.”
So, technically, the Westside could also be said to begin there, as well as the intersection of Highland Avenue and Mission Street, where spacious, UC Santa Cruz-destination cafe The Abbey is a landmark.

Though I am a “downtowner,” school boundaries have my first grader at Westlake Elementary School — as Upper Westside as it gets — and her sibling attends preschool in the Circles — the Lower Westside’s beating heart. Being in-out-and-around the Westside on a daily basis gives me perspective on not just part of it, but all of it.

My routine includes going up to Westlake, down to the Circles, driving solo along West Cliff Drive, and eyeballing surf conditions at Steamer Lane, Indicators and Cowells. I love to grab coffee at Shrine and/or a tofu vegandilla at Steamer Lane Supply before either returning for the day to the work-from-home office, or procrastinating by going back to surf. A privileged life in this neighborhood can be organized around swells and tides — and kid pickups.

A move here in 2012 was no difficult decision. I’d grown weary of New York City winters and longed to live closer to nature, ditch the floor-length puffy coat, and soak up some year-round sun.

I came here for love, but often had a nagging feeling that there was also another reason, one I had yet to discover. (Maybe my New Agey sense of fated meaning also made this place a natural fit.) A career opportunity? The ability to surf a few times a week?

But what I have come to understand, like many others, is what this place means to me. It’s the place itself. It’s being here, where I have learned to “be” in a new way. To stop defining myself by my accomplishments. To slow down, meditate, and breathe. To walk on West Cliff Drive and appreciate the sights of otters and dolphins, whales breaching in the distance, and inhale the salty ocean air of Monterey Bay.

Longtime Westsiders agree. Karen Joy Fowler — bestselling author of “The Jane Austen Book Club” and a Pen/Faulkner Award-winner for “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,” and the newly released “Booth” — calls the charming Lighthouse neighborhood home and walks West Cliff near-daily at dawn. “The sunrise coming up behind the lighthouse — very disorienting if you’re expecting the sun to rise in the east, when you first get here — colors the sky, and the water turns silver and everything is incredibly beautiful,” Fowler says. “On a good day, there are pelicans and sea lions, maybe an otter. Hawks and blackbirds. It’s been years since I saw a whale, but right now, the monarch butterflies are here, in better numbers than last year, though not as many as the year before that. I’m a big fan of Steamer Lane Supply, the café in the park, where I get the fire drink and the dog biscuits flow.”

Others, such as this writer, cannot resist the call of the ocean itself. I consider the day I became a true Westsider not when I moved here or bought a house, but rather my first successful session at the Lane — a place I felt was out of reach until after a lot of time and practice.

If there ever was an “I feel like a local now” moment, that early December day, riding just-overhead waves from Middle Peak through Indicators as friendly regulars cheered me on, was it. It was the moment I felt I had “arrived” on the Westside. I’d become a part of the neighborhood, as it had been a part of me for the previous nine years.

As I was exiting the Indicators staircase that day, feeling exhilarated, I ran into Jon Bailiff, my artist neighbor who worked as a lifeguard on the Westside for over a decade. Bailiff had come in from stand-up paddleboarding around the area and had just sent renowned big-wave Mavericks surfer Sarah Gerhardt out to try mat surfing with some friends. Bailiff, atop the staircase and photographing Gerhardt, snapped a picture of me carrying my board that perfectly captures the sense of accomplishment and belonging that came from that day.

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After my writing and research, my updated answer about whether I live on the Westside resembles a Zen koan: yes and no. Coldwell Banker real estate agent Jessica Wallace says it’s pretty common around here.

“It’s like that with every neighborhood,” she says. “‘What is Midtown? Why is there Midtown?’”

Asking different people where a neighborhood begins and ends yields slightly different perspectives.

Dividing lines aside, what’s not up for debate is how much there is to learn and love about living here — or visiting. There’s no shortage of engaging Westside stories, from notable history, such as the all-Black 54th Coast Artillery Army group, which had the duty of protecting the coast during World War II; conspiracy, like the “Moore’s Beach Monster” that washed up at Natural Bridges in the summer of 1925 and turned out to be a beaked whale; and the everyday times past, such as one retired resident recalling when people could “jump off the wharf and swim to Cowells and nobody cared.” Imagine leaping off the wharf now!

But for what we’ve lost, we’ve also gained: The Westside is a booming epicenter of entertainment, good food, drinks and outdoor recreation that’s been particularly appreciated during the life-altering pandemic. It’s also not without its issues, which arose in many discussions for this story: lack of affordable housing, homelessness, the need for more diversity, controversy over whether and where RVs may park overnight — society’s economic disparity and structural injustices are mirrored here.

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Still, whoever you are, and wherever you go on the Westside, you’ll find a lively and expanding community of students, artists, teachers, local business owners, hospitality workers, writers, surfers, scientists, doctors, real estate agents, activists, and more, along with a whole lot of natural splendor.

Liza Monroy is the author of the essay collection “Seeing As Your Shoes Are Soon To Be On Fire,” the memoir “The Marriage Act: The Risk I Took To Keep My Best Friend In America And What It Taught Us About Love” (Counterpoint/Soft Skull) and the novel “Mexican High” (Spiegel & Grau/Random House). Her articles and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times, O: The Oprah Magazine, Marie Claire, The New York Times Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Longreads, Catamaran, and various anthologies, including “The Best American Food Writing 2021,” The New York Times’ Best of Modern Love collection, and “Goodbye To All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York.” When not writing, she is likely to be found in the ocean.