On a spring day in Santa Cruz, visitors have a perplexing opportunity: to see a city thriving and shrinking, all at once.
The thriving is no great surprise, really: Santa Cruz sits on a handsome perch at the northern edge of the Monterey Bay, neighbored by redwood forests. It has been attracting heat-fleeing visitors from inland California since at least 1907, when the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk opened.
That amusement park might still be the city’s most widely recognized attraction. I love the sight of its lights and scaffolding at night, and if you remember the 1987 movie “The Lost Boys,” you’ll recognize it as a hangout for a vampire gang led by Kiefer Sutherland.
If you find your way there, whether it’s summer or not, you’ll see that Santa Cruz is dominated by surfers, tech workers and students at UC Santa Cruz. For good reason, the city carries a reputation as an artsy, woodsy, liberal enclave. Despite the pandemic, ambitious and distinctive restaurants have multiplied in recent years, including Copal (see below), Vim and Bad Animal, a restaurant-bar-bookshop hybrid that I hope to hit on the next trip.
So how is the city shrinking? One of the area’s greatest challenges is coastal erosion, accelerated by climate change. This shows up in frequent road-repairs along West Cliff Drive after winter storms, as waves eat away at the sea cliffs. In the Pleasure Point neighborhood and elsewhere, local leaders have tried to blunt the sea’s force with rip-rap and seawalls. (In Santa Cruz-adjacent Aptos, the state announced Feb. 16 that it would tear down the storm-damaged Seacliff Pier.)
This is a common California issue: On average, one study found, the state’s coast is losing 2 inches per year. Santa Cruz’s share of that erosion just happens to be particularly spectacular.
In other words, the longer you wait to see Santa Cruz, the less of it there will be.
Here’s a look at 17 things a visitor can do in and around Santa Cruz, all of which I’ve tried in recent months.