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Friday, March 8, 2013

Make Santa Cruz Rad

What's the connection (if any) between weirdness and violence? Recently, a cultural struggle over the character and fate of Santa Cruz has escalated in tone and pitch. Yes, it's gotten ugly at times, but it has also opened up the opportunity for people to weigh in on what we want this place to be like. A healthy dialogue about the cultural character of a county could lead to some interesting futures. First, I think it's important to discuss some of the key terms of the debate and to isolate some of the main topics of concern.

One of the statements that informs this debate comes from a bumper sticker sold by Bookshop Santa Cruz that reads "Keep Santa Cruz Weird" and has unfortunately set up one of the poles from which arguments issue forth. The statement is unintentionally loaded with ironies. It evokes an off-putting kind of leftist conservatism. What are we some sort of exotic bug collection? What exactly does it mean to keep a place weird? I'm not sure if the writer was playing a joke at our expense or if they just fell short of the mark but using a pejorative to describe how you want a place to be makes about as much sense as a doctor telling you to have a sick day because it's nice outside. I'm all for using slang, but in certain contexts some words work better than others.

Weird is a word that connotes an abject condition. Weird is undesirable. Weird is worrying. If an ingredient looks weird, then you keep it out of the food. Weird is suspect. The only reason anyone would want to keep a place weird is because what passes for normal is so plainly awful. A street with a diversity of architectural styles is more appealing to me than a block of cookie-cutter condos, but do we do ourselves any favors by calling eclectic variety something that's weird?

We've been hung up on this word, but we don't have to remain stuck. There are other options, including: unique, special, different, and eccentric. We should ask the question: what is really characteristic of this area? Santa Cruz has gone through a lot of changes in my short lifetime, so I understand people's anxiety about needing to resist the monoculture that threatens to engulf us all. In order to promote and preserve our unique assets and values we have to identify them, though. 

As soon as you make this shift, it becomes clear that there's a better way to enter into the debate. I don't think we want to "Keep Santa Cruz Weird" as much as we want to "Make Santa Cruz Rad." Santa Cruz is one of the epicenters of surfing, skateboarding, mountain-biking, organic farming, medical marijuana, and progressive politics. These things, along with the Boardwalk, put us on the map. They make us distinct in relation to other places. Whether or not you consider them to be normal or weird is not the point. The point is that they are key to the culture of this place and they represent us better than a word that is so easy to use as a scapegoat. Homelessness, drug-addiction and mental illness are also part of Santa Cruz's culture, but those are social problems, not a source of civic pride.

In order to find the best way forward, we need to ask the question: what makes Santa Cruz rad? Then, we'll be able to put our energy to better use finding ways to promote and encourage the growth of these positive aspects. If people decide to take up the slogan "Make Santa Cruz Rad," then we'll also have a reminder that a culture is a dynamic process that is continually made and remade. Cultural evolution is as likely as rain, but unlike the weather we have a say in how our culture changes. This is our county and we are some awesome people, so let's make Santa Cruz Rad.

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