Hindsight 2050: Revisiting 1980s Santa Cruz predictions casts doubt on current prognostications

A model of downtown Santa Cruz, including projects underway or proposed for the area around Front Street.
(Wallace Baine / Lookout Santa Cruz)

A look back at what Santa Cruzans foresaw in 1985 for the city and county is instructive — they were right on the affordability challenges that are a stark reality of 2022, less so about an “inevitable” commuter train from the Bay Area. With Santa Cruz in the midst of enormous development, it’s all a reminder about how slippery the future is.

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Last week, on a golden fall day, I was at the Esplanade in Capitola and I noticed something both peculiar and commonplace. On the benches just behind the sea wall looking out at Capitola Beach and the bay beyond, I counted 28 people. Of those 28 sitting in one of the most beautiful spots in all of Northern California, I then counted 20 of them looking at their phones. (Of course, that number rose to 21 when I texted a friend of my finding.)

It struck me then that, if I were to conjure a local person from, say, 30 or 40 years ago and set her down at that spot in 2022, everything would look pretty familiar, except for that. The first thing she’d likely ask her tour guide to the future would be: “What the heck is everybody looking at?” (Second thing: “And what happened to the Capitola Theater?”)

We humans are pretty bad at predicting the future, especially the technological future. If anyone back in the 1980s predicted cellphone addiction, I’ve certainly never heard about it. (I’ll check with Siri.) But clearly, whenever we pull out our phones, we’re living in “the future,” at least from the perspective of the past. Turns out, we didn’t get “The Jetsons”; we got the iPhone.

The past’s view of the future was on my mind because earlier on the same day I was hanging out at the Esplanade, I found an article in the archives of the Santa Cruz Sentinel dated Jan, 2, 1985. It was what we used to call in the newspaper business a “thumbsucker,” a long piece featuring a lot of people speculating or guesstimating about something they had no first-hand knowledge of — in this case, the future.

“Santa Cruz of Tomorrow” was the headline of reporter Paul Beatty’s story, which gathered together the thoughts of “civic leaders and community activists” — some quoted by name, others anonymously — to contemplate what Santa Cruz would look like in the era you and I are now living through.

This is relevant not as an exercise to laugh at how badly those armchair futurists missed the mark, but because we now may be on the edge of huge changes that could alter the look, the livability, and even the character of Santa Cruz County, ones Lookout is now detailing in our Changing Santa Cruz series.

In peering into the murky future from our vantage point today, it might be helpful to see what equally community-minded people saw when looking our way back in 1985. (Is it a coincidence that ’85 was also the year of “Back to the Future”?)

In the Reagan years, the growth-versus-preservation tensions were as pronounced then, maybe even more so, than they are now. The Sentinel piece, in fact, is more an insight into a community’s anxieties and phobias than its clairvoyance.

Changing Santa Cruz gif
A look at the current under-construction Front Street area downtown and renderings of what’s planned there.

First off, let’s reflect on just how long ago 1985 was. That was well before the Loma Prieta earthquake which utterly transformed downtown, before the invention of the World Wide Web, before Burning Man, before Microsoft’s Windows, just a year after Apple released the Macintosh. Silicon Valley was in its gawky adolescence, and Mark Zuckerberg was in diapers (literally).

In the same edition of the Sentinel, among the house-for-sale advertisements, the following was typical: three-bedroom house, sunny and close to the beach, $115,000.

In one sense, the Sentinel crystal-ball story was leaning in the right direction. Long before the term “income inequality” was commonly used, and before anyone knew what a “millennial” was, many saw affordability as a dream beginning to drift away. One unnamed prognosticator said, “The inflow of greater wealth will wash away our rainbow of people and we will all be better dressed, better behaved, and better golfers.” Despite the mixed metaphor, the first part is true or true-ish, but the second was way off the mark.

There was a lot of talk in the story of Highway 17 becoming a freeway. A commuter train from the Bay Area was deemed “inevitable,” as was a major convention center. (Nope, both were quite … evitable.) Homelessness was referenced in the piece, though in the retrograde language of the times as “street people.”

There was great worry that the struggles to protect open spaces wouldn’t hold, and some commented that greater wealth will lead to conservatives taking majorities from progressives on the city council. (In fact, a California condor is more likely to be seen at city hall than a conservative these days.) Thermonuclear war was mentioned, but climate change was not.

Only architect Jim Pandolfi nailed it when he said, “If we maintain the greenbelt and don’t expand the city, the increase in affluence is going to shift the less affluent to Live Oak, then Watsonville, and ultimately out of the county.”

Then, as now, San Jose — “over the hill,” Silicon Valley — loomed as a colossus threatening to gobble up Santa Cruz’s distinctive personality. Then, as now, Carmel stood in for the worst-case scenario of what Santa Cruz was becoming. Gary Patton, then a county supervisor, said that the influence of San Jose “will be overwhelming” and that “we will be a great deal more like Monterey and Carmel with only vestiges of what once was.”

Progressives at the time, led by Patton, had come away with some big victories in establishing greenbelt zones to fight rampant and indiscriminate growth and development. Many of those quoted in the Sentinel story predicted that outside wealth might “bigfoot” its way into Santa Cruz and put enormous pressures on middle- and working-class families.

One felt that some areas of the county would be informally separated out as neighborhoods for “service workers and servants.” Only architect Jim Pandolfi nailed it when he said, “If we maintain the greenbelt and don’t expand the city, the increase in affluence is going to shift the less affluent to Live Oak, then Watsonville, and ultimately out of the county.”

John Laird, then a Santa Cruz city councilmember and now the California state senator representing much of the county, gave a prediction in ’85 that is only now taking shape into something real. The big fight ahead, warned Laird then, “will be whether Santa Cruz will build upward,” adding, “I think there will be some victory for growing upwards.”

For decades, such a thought seemed quaint and off-base. But Santa Cruz is now in the midst of a spasm of upward growth with several construction projects under way, several more moving forward to groundbreaking, and several more on top of that in the early planning stages. Almost certainly, in the next five or more years, the height of buildings will be a point on which many in Santa Cruz will hang their deepest concerns and their wildest fantasies about the city losing its character.

Today, as viewed from 1985, looked pretty bleak, at least from some of the most forward-thinking minds in the community at the time. When looking at the downtown development, the proposals for the new library, a high-rise hotel downtown and a luxury hotel at the beach, and a new sports arena surrounded by “skyscrapers,” it’s tempting to see the future in similarly sweeping terms. No one is powerless in shaping what’s yet to come. But forces we might be able to predict will influence the future in ways we can’t predict.

The future’s a slippery thing. It’s likely to be both more dire and less so than we think it’s going to be. Those living in 2050 are likely to chuckle at how misguided we are today in anticipating what’s going to happen. Is that comforting? Or terrifying?

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