Photo by Heidi Nicola

Transience in Santa Cruz
Part One: The economy

By Fhar Miess
The Alarm! Newspaper Collective

In this series, I address the role of transience in Santa Cruz—how it affects our community economically, politically and psychologically. To accomplish this analysis, however, requires a redefinition of transience which includes more than the narrow colloquial version of “the transient” limited to homeless vagabonds. Without this redefinition, it becomes far too easy to scapegoat the homeless for the problems stemming from a much broader and more systemic transience.

Transience, in a very literal sense, is a perennial phenomenon in Santa Cruz, and it is by no means a new one. The Ohlone tribes, who were likely the first people to settle here, are said to have migrated between the mountains and the low wetlands seasonally, as the weather and availability of food changed.

As broad-leaved plantain (which some call “White Man’s Foot” because of the way it tended to spring up wherever settlers tread) began to populate the area, seasonal migrations took on a slightly different character, but they were still determined, to a large degree, by shifting weather and availability of natural resources.

As those resources—mostly forests—became denuded at the end of the 19th Century, tourism began replacing the resource-intensive manufacturing base that had come to define the Santa Cruz area. It was still a very transient set of communities, but that transience was driven less and less by seasonal weather changes and more and more by market fluctuations.

It’s interesting to examine what we mean by “transient” in this historical context. Most people in Santa Cruz, when asked to point out a transient, will look about for the nearest person they can identify as being homeless. In a sense, they are right. In one—somewhat superficial—respect, the homeless in Santa Cruz are transient much as the native Ohlone were: their need for shelter and the shelter options they choose are largely determined by what the climate dictates.

This climate, however, is very different from the climate known to the Ohlone before missionaries and settlers arrived. Contrary to the local natural climate, which was (and is) ideal for human habitation and cohabitation, our present climate is marked economically by inflated housing costs and deflated wages, with the availability of both being determined to a large extent by a much more significant transient population than the homeless: namely, the student and tourist populations.

For those who are homeless, it is also a social climate marked by violence. The Homeless 2000 Needs Assessment survey for Santa Cruz County, conducted by Applied Survey Research, indicated that seventy-six out of 811 people said they had been physically beaten, sixty-five said they had been robbed and thirteen had been sexually assaulted. The Santa Cruz Police Department noted in a memo that homeless people are more likely to be victims of crime than the housed.

The survey also noted that more than three quarters of respondents had lived in Santa Cruz County for over five years. Almost thirty percent grew up here. Respondents’ biggest daily problem, after lack of work or income, was transportation, which indicates that their transience is more of an unpleasant necessity than a choice.

But this is only one sliver of the transience that characterizes our region. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the agricultural sector accounted for some 12,940 documented workers in the county in the peak growing season of 2000, with only 4,469 employed that winter. Many of those displaced are forced to relocate after the growing season.

UCSC students account for some 13,000 people during the school year, but only 2,900 during the summer vacation.

The tourism industry offsets this to an extent. On its own, the Seaside Company and its concessionaires employ over 1,200 people to keep the Boardwalk running during the summer. Many of these are travelers from outside the country, participating in Seaside Company’s “Work & Travel Program” which houses seasonal travelers and employees in La Bahia apartments, displacing the largely student population which resides there the rest of the year. Students planning to stay in Santa Cruz over the summer must vacate to make room.

Photo by Halie Johnson
Liliya serves cotton candy at Seaside Co's Boardwalk

The UCSC community accounts for a large part of the transient nature of our community. In early summer, while the departure of the students allows locals to breathe a sigh of relief for a week or so until the tourists show up in droves, it also strains the region economically. The housing market goes totally out of whack as students who live in town try to find subletters before they leave town for the summer, and students who live on campus or in seasonal housing such as La Bahia try to find off-campus housing, and often for longer than just a summer sublet will allow. The job market goes through similar spasms.

Graduation marks another period of transience, where many will venture over the hill to find decent-paying jobs. Many of these graduates will stay to live on this side of the hill. When they do find high-paying jobs, particularly in high-tech fields, this exerts an enormous amount of pressure on housing costs and availability in Santa Cruz County, as well as other counties to the south and east.

This climate is what prompted the National Association of Homebuilders in January to label the Santa Cruz/Watsonville housing market the least affordable in the nation (we have since dropped back down to third place, after San Francisco and Salinas).

UCSC Chancellor MRC Greenwood’s overhaul of the institution to make it a “Gateway to Silicon Valley” can only exacerbate this situation. It is evident, between increased funding priorities for applied sciences and engineering and the gutting of the Narrative Evaluation System (NES), that the UCSC administration is bent on turning the University into a well-oiled machine to churn out skilled workers and bases of knowledge for the Silicon Valley.

Manuel Schwab, who advocated the retention of NES during the 1999-2000 school year, described the battle this way: “One of the issues that gave the NES fight much broader significance beyond the desire for a certain intellectual atmosphere was that many of us realized that quantifiable evaluation was one way to facilitate the transition of students from the intellectual laboratory to the ‘real-world’ workforce.

“It was yet another method to make it difficult for us to think of ourselves outside of the career track,” he said.

Still, the University administration boasts of its contribution to the community through money students, faculty, staff and visitors to the campus spend in Santa Cruz County. From July 1, 2000 to June 30, 2001 it valued this contribution at $413.8 million. While a portion of that money goes toward well-paid workers, particularly in the construction trades, members of the campus community spend nearly the majority of it to support low-wage positions in the retail sector.

Those same retail workers are the ones to serve travelers when the transient demographic of Santa Cruz changes from students to tourists. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics records from the year 2000, the retail sector is the second largest employer in Santa Cruz, after services, with the lowest average weekly wage of any sector at $374. The largest portion of employers in the retail sector is eating and drinking establishments, with an average wage of $232 per week (of course, these are statistics for documented labor)—hardly a living wage in Santa Cruz. Even I make more than that (barely).

Merchants all over Santa Cruz County depend on revenues from tourism, but their particular brand of transience is even more insecure than that of the campus community. If it’s a bad year, whether due to recession or fears of terrorism, merchants become neurotic at the prospect of lost revenues. This neurosis surfaces in the form of proposals for draconian ordinances in shopping districts, where that other population of transients—the homeless—already complains of constant harassment by law enforcement. Results from the Homeless Needs Assessment Survey of 2000 indicate that over 15 percent of respondents listed “problems with police” among their most troublesome daily problems.

It seems ironic for merchants to blame problems caused by the capriciousness of Santa Cruz’s tourist transients on some of Santa Cruz’s most stable transients—the homeless. It is particularly ironic when one considers that those same merchant’s wages and hiring policies (transient student and youth populations are favored over more stable residents who are less likely to accept such low wages) encourage—more than any other sector—the sort of economic climate that forces people out into the weather.

In Part Two of “Transience in Santa Cruz”, I will focus on the political apparatus that solidifies much of what happens on the economic level into policy and bureaucratic practice.


Transience in Santa Cruz
Part 2—The Politics of Transience

By Fhar Miess
The Alarm! Newspaper Collective

Last week, I examined the role of transience in the local economy of Santa Cruz. In this installment of “Transience in Santa Cruz,” I’ll be drawing attention to the political apparatus that both encourages, and is determined by, that transience. Readers may remember from the last installment that I conceive of transience not primarily as the homeless and the transient poor, but as tourists and students.

In the late 1920’s, as Ku Klux Klan chapters grew around Santa Cruz, Fred Swanton, Santa Cruz Mayor, industrialist and town booster, lead caravans promoting the area’s tourist attractions, most of which he had built himself (or, more accurately, paid others to build for him).

In 1933, during the last year of Swanton’s five-year mayoral term, he transferred title on a few acres of public land at the current location of the Boardwalk parking lot and some of its rides from the City to the Santa Cruz Seaside Company. The Seaside Company has owned and operated the Boardwalk since Swanton himself bankrupted the operation in 1915.

Santa Cruz politics has changed a lot since then. Certainly, one would hope that a KKK rally would not last long here these days.

But, in other ways, the old guard is still very much in power. According to maps from the 1850s, the land that Swanton sold to the Seaside Company was below the “mean high tide” level, in what are called “tidelands”, properties owned by the State of California and held in trust by the City of Santa Cruz. According to the State Constitution, those tidelands should never have been transferred to any private party.

Map provided by Phil Baer shows tideland properties in cross-hatched area.

In 1998, activists challenged the City Council to file suit against the Seaside Company to reclaim the land and restore the tidelands to natural habitat for Coho and Steelhead. The San Lorenzo Estuary, which was largely filled in after the construction of the river levee, is deemed essential for the ability of the fish to survive upon entering the briny waters of the Monterey Bay. Apparently, the State Lands Commission found the evidence compelling enough to offer to back up the City if it were to take the case to court.

The City Council ceded eighty percent of the land to the Seaside Company in October of 1998 rather than suing for the entire property. But a few months later, a new council—populated by Kristopher Krohn who had been elected partly on his pledge to advocate for the return of the land to the City—reversed the decision. Unfortunately, according to Beach Flats resident Phil Baer, the weight of the tourism industry giant leaned hard upon the professional city staff (City Manager Richard Wilson and City Attorney John Barisone) who advise the council. The city staff in turn leaned on the City Council. “My observation is that the City Council rarely, if ever, does anything other than what the staff suggests and advises that they do,” he says.

Metro Santa Cruz reported on July 4, 2001 that the council held private negotiations that summer with the Seaside Company. Despite vigilant protests from activists and claims of violations of the Brown Act, which mandates open access to public meetings, the council eventually dropped the case.

Tourist transience is big money in Santa Cruz. Former Santa Cruz Mayor Mike Rotkin estimates that between one-third and two-thirds of Santa Cruz tax revenues come from the tourism industry. The City Admission Tax, which comes primarily from the tourism industry and the Boardwalk in particular, accounts for about $1.5 million of city tax revenues annually. The City also levies a Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) on hotel patrons, which accounts for over $3 million annually, and sales taxes from money spent by tourists amount to millions more. When it comes to local politics, that big money talks, and—as the tidelands case illustrates—often behind closed doors. Baer notes that the Seaside Company exerts “this quiet, behind-the-scenes pressure that you can never seem to trace exactly, but things always seem to go their way.”

The City spends big money to keep tourism in Santa Cruz as well. Upwards of $400,000 per year is allocated from the City’s General Fund to support the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau (CVB) which promotes tourism in Santa Cruz. The primary benefactor of this subsidized advertising is the Seaside Company with its various tourist attractions.

But city subsidies for the tourism industry are not always so direct. The City also contributes significant funds for public works (which go toward cleaning up sidewalks and beaches, etc.) and police protection. “A lot of our police efforts are directed towards tourism,” says Rotkin. “When you put police officers on Pacific Avenue or in the beach area, that’s pretty much tourist-related.”

Several people I spoke with would like to see some hard numbers detailing the amount of money that tourism actually brings to the Santa Cruz community as well as the social, environmental and economic costs of accommodating tourists. Those numbers are hard to come by. In the course of conducting interviews for this series, I have found politicians and bureaucrats alike reluctant to offer solid figures on either the costs or the benefits. I was lucky to get approximations.

Fred Geiger, an activist who follows the Seaside Company and the local tourism industry, had a few things to say about it. “I don’t think the business community wants to have that kind of information out there because people might decide that it’s simply not worth it,” he says. “Many other towns have condemned these types of operations [like the Boardwalk]—Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Venice, Long Beach—because they bring blight to the community.”

Photo by Fhar Miess

Of particular concern to activists is the sort of vehicle-intensive “day-tripper” tourism attracted to the Boardwalk which contributes little to the local community except reduced air quality, increased noise and traffic, and drunken rowdiness. Folks like Baer and Geiger claim that much of this day-tripper tourism precludes lower-impact, “conceivably beneficial” tourism, not to mention the health and sanity of locals.

Student transience
There is, however, a dearth of political will to move away from tourism as a local tax base. “I don’t think anybody is thinking that there’s some other industry that’s going to replace tourism in Santa Cruz,” says Rotkin. But he does note the way in which Santa Cruz’s economic and political establishment of the 1950’s dealt with the lack of any off-season industry by pushing for the location of a UC in town.

In some ways, though, they ended up shooting themselves in the foot. “I don’t think they understood the political impact of bringing a major university here,” says Rotkin. After all, the voting age was still 21, and students were not allowed to vote outside of their home districts for some time. Vietnam-era state and federal legislative changes reversed those conditions. This, in combination with the student body that was attracted to one of the most radical experiments in higher education at the time, led to a strong progressive shift which gave the town the nickname “The People’s Republic of Santa Cruz”.

Santa Cruz still carries that reputation across the country—undeservedly so, according to many. Contrary to the high ideals which originally put people like John Laird, Mike Rotkin, Mardi Wormhoudt and others into local government, Baer now describes the City Council as a “dynasty”. “The local politics are so entrenched that you’re basically choosing between incumbents and former council members, selecting from this handful of people who can get elected any time they want and just sort of pass it back and forth between each other because we have some regulation on the books that no council member can sit on the council for more than eight years,” he says. “They then have to take a two-year break, and then they can go for another eight years, on and on until they’re senile and attending council meetings from the retirement home.”

To a large degree, this state of affairs can be attributed to the transience of the political powerhouse that is the student body. Eight-year term limits do little good in a population with at best a four-year attention span. “As much as I like the students and the university and higher education,” says Baer, “in general, I don’t think of the average UCSC student as being particularly cognizant of what’s going on in city politics or what the impacts are of the votes that they somewhat casually cast.

“I think they get played by the people who are influential up there [on campus], notably Mike Rotkin,” he says. “Their vote is being used by people to do some things I’m not sure students would really want done if they understood how it was really playing out.”

What Baer is referring to is the myriad controversies that Rotkin, who teaches a class on Marxism at UCSC, has gotten himself embroiled within. Rotkin, along with councilmembers Scott Kennedy, Cynthia Mathews and Mike Hernandez consistently found himself in hot water with local activists over issues such as the Beach Area and South of Laurel Plan, which included converting La Bahia apartments into a convention center, an expansion of the Boardwalk and the razing of affordable housing in the Beach Flats, among other things. The plan was meant to “revitalize” (many would say “gentrify”) the area and bolster tourism.

The Rotkin-Kennedy-Mathews-Hernandez council majority also came under fire for supporting the Gateway Plaza and Costco developments. Rotkin, who is running for a fifth term in November, cites this as an attempt to take advantage of a potential non-tourist tax base and stem the flow of capital out of the community into big-box havens such as Fremont and Sand City. Community activists countered that these developments would only support low-wage jobs and the profits of huge corporate chains.

Those other transients
When asked what the city had done to mitigate the tourism industry’s tendencies to draw down wages in the area with the proliferation of low-skill, poorly-paid jobs, Rotkin responded, “It’s led to people thinking that we need to help try and support organizing so that people in those industries can organize and provide an economic defense for themselves.” As evidence, he cited a case in 1981 in which, as Mayor, he supported a strike at a local hotel. He was hard-pressed to cite more recent examples, but noted that the City requires that contractors pay prevailing wages in the building of city developments and that, had the La Bahia Conference Center idea gone through, the City would have required the employer to pay prevailing wages.

The City’s recent passage of the Living Wage Ordinance, which requires the city and its contractors to pay their employees an annually-indexed “living wage”, indicates that—at least ideally—the City Council is in support of decent wages and workers’ rights to organize on the job. While this may tend to exert an upward pressure on regional wages, it will likely be limited to workers specifically identified in the ordinance. There are some notable exceptions, such as the Santa Cruz Community Credit Union, which this spring voted to tie their lowest wages to the city’s annually-indexed “living wage”. Unfortunately, those workers in the largely tourism-driven retail sector are least likely to share in the ancillary benefits.

When it comes to material, systemic support for decent wages and working conditions, the City’s record is not so impressive. Continuing no-strings subsidies for the exploitive tourism industry are a notable example. “Police protection”, which, according to Rotkin, comprises a large portion of public subsidies for tourism, is particularly problematic. When asked who it was that was being policed in this case, Rotkin answered “everyone.” However, the casual observer will note that, at least when it comes to Pacific Avenue, the scruffier transients are targeted overwhelmingly over the more well-to-do tourist transients who visit the area. Again, hard numbers are hard to come by on this issue, as law enforcement officials are reluctant to keep records to track it.

Even stricter downtown ordinances and more rigorous enforcement of existing downtown and anti-homeless ordinances can only compound this problem. As tempers flared around the time of the police-instigated riots of 1994, members of the Santa Cruz General Membership Branch of the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW, or “Wobblies”) put it succinctly: “All low-paid waged laborers…are essentially being warned by anti-homeless legislation to ‘play it safe’ on the job so as not to end up on the street.

“The effort to stigmatize and outright vilify an economic circumstance that all waged workers must constantly struggle to avoid is a very useful strategy for keeping labor in line. In Santa Cruz, a worker’s existence is primarily defined by the constant struggle to maintain legal housing where over half of one’s monthly wages may go towards rent. The criminalization of the condition of being unable to pay rent functions as a very real demand that workers remain ever-grateful for current employment, regardless of conditions or pay.

“By securing access to a subdued and fearful service-industry workforce, supporters of anti-homeless legislation (almost entirely bosses) seek to simultaneously sweep the streets of the homeless while assuring that there will always be a willing employee to hold the broom.”

Photo by Fhar Miess

Where to now?
This piece began in 1920’s Santa Cruz, when the Wobblies were as active here as they were in 1994, then struggling against the timber barons in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Tom Scribner, whose bronze statue perches on the Pacific Avenue sidewalk facing the St. George Hotel and whose portrait graces the wall of the Poet & Patriot, was a Wobbly during those times. He devoted most of his life to organizing with the unemployed and downtrodden against the financial system that kept them down. He was later known for his skill in playing the musical saw, which he often did in public spaces. If only our eclectic street musicians were treated with such respect nowadays.

Photo by Fhar Miess

Still, it is positive that we have a statue of an old-time radical and no such visible monument to the racial and class bigotry which ran rampant in the ‘20s in Santa Cruz (at least until Louis Rittenhouse erects—as Bruce Bratton claims he plans to—a commemorative plaque to his grandfather, a major proponent of the “Keep California White” movement). But, we cannot rely on a transient and unrooted student radicalism to maintain the pseudo-progressive majority in Santa Cruz.

For one thing, the political power of the student body is likely to become increasingly fragmented as a new student demographic is brought to UCSC by bolstered Economics and Engineering departments and a waning commitment among faculty to non-traditional education. For another, it is clear that the student body has enormous political power, but that political power will be easily mobilized, as it always has been, to serve the interests of the political elite who have in turn enslaved themselves to the economic interests of the tourism industry.

The solution does not lie in City Government. As Phil Baer notes about his experience in City Council meetings, “It just seems like a predetermined process. You go there, you say your spiel, but you get the sense the decision has already been made.” How we vote matters far less than how we relate to our bosses, our landlords or those who would presume to police us. It also matters far less than how we all relate to each other—the community ties and the alternative institutions we build together.

My next installment of “Transience in Santa Cruz” will focus on how transience affects these interpersonal relationships. It will not appear in the next issue, but rather in the following one, to give all of you time to relate your stories and register your opinions on this topic. Please send us your thoughts to our P.O. Box or e-mail me at


Part III: Taking transience personally

By Fhar Miess
The Alarm! Newspaper Collective

What follows is the third and final installment in our “Transience in Santa Cruz” series. The first two focused on the economic and political expressions of our transient community, but this piece will pursue a fundamentally different tack. The lives and interpersonal relationships behind and beside the statistics and policy now come to the fore.

The man’s lively and flamboyant voice, punctuated occasionally by a smoker’s cough, gave way abruptly to somber tones and choked-back tears. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know this would happen,” he said. “Nobody’s ever asked me that question before.” So what was this question that brought this man, Paul Wagner, to tears? Had this trenchant journalist unearthed some juicy bit of illicit information which Paul was suddenly forced to confront and explain? No, not in the least.

The question, innocent enough, if broached only seldom, was “how has the transience in Santa Cruz—the coming and going of people through your life—affected you personally?”

To be fair, it was at least thirty minutes into the conversation before Paul let himself be so emotionally moved by the question. His thoughts and words meandered over a multitude of issues during that time, from the rise of feudalism out of the Romans’ attempts to curb transience in their vast empire through local affordable housing and transportation issues to the working-class tourism of the Boardwalk.

Paul was quick to get to the root of his class analysis of transience. “The primary reason for transience,” he explained, being careful to distinguish transience from the nomadic wanderings of consistent, sustainable communities, “is economic and social inequality.” Whether it is the transience of students buffeted about by the bureacratic whims of campus administrators, the transience of the mentally ill driven onto the streets for lack of adequate public services, the transience of working folks who must leave town in the face of escalating costs of living, economically and socially, or the transience of tourists who “desperately seek the paradise of their dreams for a couple weeks of the year” in compensation for a fundamentally dissatisfying and isolating daily life, Paul finds fault in any transience driven by economic and social inequality.

And he takes it very personally. “I kind of stay away from the university,” he said, “not because I dislike the students…but [because] it really hurts my heart to get close to somebody—to get close to people over and over again—and to have them leave. It hurts, especially now that I’m in my fifties, where I’m beginning to sense my mortality. I’m aware that I have a limited time and it’s really emotionally painful.” Of course the phenomenon is not limited to the student body. Paul has also seen twenty to thirty acquaintances leave town over the last few years because they couldn’t afford to live in Santa Cruz anymore. “It’s painful to watch good, hard-working people have to leave for economic reasons,” he said. “It’s so tough.” He finds it particularly ironic that “somebody who’s given for their whole life, like a school teacher” should be forced out of the community because of economic conditions.

Eric Gross, a bilingual educator in Watsonville, knows the feeling. While he has decided to stick it out in town himself, he is consistently faced with the frustration of the departure of a few good teachers every year because they can no longer afford living in Santa Cruz County, where the housing market is back to the second least affordable in the country.

Eric’s brushes with Santa Cruz’s transience have spanned several periods of his life. He recalls his days living in cooperative households as a student at UCSC in the late 80s when he “lived in a house with seven people and probably had three leave during any given year, and three new ones move in. It was tiresome,” he said, “constantly interviewing, putting up flyers, explaining the ropes to people, having to teach new people how things work, and then sometimes getting evicted or having to leave because the rent went up or something.”

Eric then went on to describe a trip to Chiapas, Mexico, as a political organizer, where he discovered communities where “you could do way more than borrow a cup of sugar from your neighbor, you could trust your life with them and make life-long commitments with them.” Coming back to Santa Cruz was something of a shock. “You couldn’t even borrow a cup of sugar because you didn’t know the neighbors’ names, and no one expected to know their neighbors’ names,” or even at times one’s housemates’ names.

“It engendered this sense of helplessness,” he said, and “it fit the personal depression I often felt when people would leave and move out of town.” The frequency of these experiences proves taxing. “I’m the kind of person who likes to be rooted in a place and relationships, but I don’t feel like I can allow myself to expect that.… The vast majority of [relationships] fail to get to a certain depth, because of the transience, or because of the suspicion or the fear of transience.”

“There’s a real sense of sorrow that pervades my interactions with people.… I got in the habit of being really guarded all the time—I didn’t want to get too emotionally attached to friends because they would just leave. I don’t like it. I don’t like the transience.”

Eric’s response is not so different from many people I’ve spoken with. “Boy, the loss of friends,” Paul lamented, “…it’s really disrupted my life. It’s really given me a sense of distrust, a buzzing in the background: ‘is this person going to be around’… It makes life untrustworthy—this whole thing with so much transience.”

What’s more, this distrust tends to produce a dismissive attitude among long-term locals to new-comers as a group. “I really hate the way we treat people here,” Paul told me. “I lived in New York City for three years and I rarely saw people treated as badly as we treat each other here on a regular basis. We’re so quick to judge, we’re so quick to condemn, we’re so quick to snarl, so quick to sneer and not even listen to other people. And a lot of that is the transience. A lot of that is that we know that there are so many people around who don’t have a permanent stake in the community, so we can objectify them.” The City Council’s passage of downtown ordinances targeting “anti-social behavior”, ordinances which primarily effect the transient and nomadic, is a prime example.

And this often manifests in more overtly political ways. “We’re just using people here in so many ways,“ said Paul. “The left is as bad about it as the right. The farm workers are of interest to us [only] if we can organize a strike around them.” Whether it is immigrant populations, the homeless, students or the ordinary working class, people in all sectors of our community find themselves the objects of political agendas and personalities, and those who are transient are most vulnerable to this treatment.

Eric also makes note of how the transience in our communities has lead to an unrooted brand of activism. “There’s a lot of involvement in this town in issues,” he said, “but there’s not a lot of commitment to place in a more permanent setting.” This results in a focus on foreign-policy issues, despite the fact that Santa Cruz is a small town nowhere near the State Capital, let alone the nation’s Capital. Eric couldn’t help but notice that “for people so active, there’s a lot less activism around, say, neighborhood issues.”

His own experience in political organizing was telling. He went from issue to issue, whether it was homelessness, anti-nuclear work, environmental activism or organizing around police brutality. “Sometimes I kind of liked it,” he said, “because it fit anarchist theory of things being around only so long as they were useful for those who were doing them. But the longer I remained in town and started to think of myself as a Santa Cruzan, the more I started to feel like this was not the best way to make change. We were constantly re-inventing ourselves, but not moving forward.”

But he has decided to stay, to put down roots and learn to recognize the effects of transience through consistent relationships with his students and their families and to gain insight with them into how to combat the destructiveness that comes from being tied to a marginalized migrant workforce.

In Watsonville, Eric places transience squarely at the nexus of one of the most devisive regional issues: affordable housing versus ecological conservation. “How can you keep adding housing—adding population—if you don’t have enough water for people to drink and one of the main industries in the county is agriculture?” he asked. “It’s a fundamental contradiction the way it’s practiced, and of course, there are sustainable solutions, but they’re not even on the radar screen. But, if people are committed in the long term to a place, those solutions are more likely to be found and tried.”

“Of course,” he added, “capitalism doesn’t help that.”

This force of capitalism which Eric blames for reducing the land and natural resources to commodities is the same force which Paul blames for reducing people to the objects of political and economic agendas. Transience, as I have been using the word throughout this series, is not fundamentally the quality of moving from place to place. It is not the wanderlust of the young and the restless. It is that set of economic and social relations which consistently uproot people from the land beneath them and isolate them from one another. In short, it is one peculiar expression of capitalism, and in Santa Cruz, as we have seen, it is an expression which destroys communities and spreads a pall of sadness and distrust over our lives.

There are those among us, however, who have managed to find a niche for themselves which allows them to embrace a certain kind of nomadic transience, a “hobo spirit”, as several people I interviewed called it. Contrary to the transience which tears people apart, the transience they revel in brings people together. “A lot of the community is informed through travel and the transient experience,” said Douglas Cronyn, who eventually found in Santa Cruz, after arriving in 1989, a community in nomadic groupings of people.

He notes that despite the frequent unstable wanderings from dumpster to free box, from couch to tent to forest squat, from bicycle to public transportation to freight train, from one gathering or potluck to the next, these nomadic groups are remarkably rooted in place and in community. The survival of these groups is dependent upon cooperation, communication and a commitment to one-another.

Interestingly, those most able to enjoy a transient lifestyle are those who find for themselves spaces that are least subject to the strictures of capitalism and the laws of the state. Whether it is through enclaves of forest squatters, dumpster-diving co-ops or couch-surfers’ unions, many have found community, real sustenance and often a genuine connection to the land by refusing the shiny things offered by economic participation and resisting the billy-club of state institutions.

Unfortunately, this is not a viable alternative for most, or even a small minority. For one thing, it depends on the sustainable and conscientious use of those supple spaces which capitalism has largely overlooked and the state has mostly ignored—a shrinking habitat indeed. However, it does point us in the right direction, toward relationships built on trust, mutual respect, communal aid, and a recognition that no one solution is perfect for everyone. They are relationships built upon commitment to place—even if it is the variegated places of nomads—not upon values which judge a person by their purchasing power and shut them out if they don’t pass the test.

It saddens me that Paul Wagner, a man in his fifties, has never had the question posed to him, “how does Santa Cruz’s transience affect you personally?”. It saddens me further that it takes the work of an amateur journalist such as myself to get this conversation going. This is a sign, to me, of a community fundamentally out of whack. And until we can come to envision Santa Cruz’s transience—and the social and economic relations of which it is an expression—as anything other than inevitable, there will be no solution to the sadness and alienation it brings to our lives and our communities.

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