It’s about that time of night: eleven o’ clock — maybe 11:45 on a lucky night. Less inebriated attendees sense it will happen any minute. It’s sudden but predictable: knock on door, music stops, expletives are hurled, beers fall out of hands — the cops have arrived to break up yet another Santa Cruz house party.
This recurring scenario seems to be something that students have grown to accept. It has become an unavoidable part of attending college in a city that refuses to be called a ‘college town’.
“Basically, the university and the community have been in conflict since day one,” remarked city council member Ryan Coonerty, former mayor of Santa Cruz and legal studies lecturer at UC Santa Cruz. “Both sides have a distrust of each other almost completely.”
Most students can sense that they are not always unequivocally welcome in this small coastal city. What may not be as clear, though, are the exact roots of this acrimonious relationship.
UCSC third-year Uday Mathur says that as a student and member of the Sigma Pi fraternity, he often feels like an outsider in Santa Cruz.
“As students and fraternity members we’re not very accepted,” Mathur said. “When I wear my [Greek] letters in town I stand out — and not in a good way.”
Coonerty explained that the geography of this town, as well as its history, both play a role in the equation.
“If anything causes the tension it’s just that geographic reality of not having specific neighborhoods where students can live like students,” he said.
In addition, Coonerty explained that some residents have objected to the existence of UCSC since its founding in 1965, but often for opposing reasons.
“When the city was recruiting for the university to come here, [more conservative residents] thought they would be getting a football team and city growth was considered a really good thing,” Coonerty said. “Then the university came and it turned out to be a very different university than what Santa Cruzans thought it was going to be.”
Other residents, who tended to be more politically liberal, opposed any university coming to Santa Cruz, rejecting the idea that the city needed to grow.
“It’s hard to be in politics here because the university has historically been disliked by the most conservative and the most liberal residents,” Coonerty explained.
Nevertheless, years later, the university remains.
Santa Cruz Neighbors, a local nonprofit group, is at the forefront of local efforts aimed at relieving tension between residents and students.
The organization, founded in 2000, seeks to foster good relations in the community by engaging students with their neighbors and holding community forums where residents can discuss their concerns.
“I’ve heard every possible story from neighbors saying, ‘Help, help, help!’ and this is how the Loud and Unruly Gathering Ordinance came to be,” said Deborah Elston, founding member and president of Santa Cruz Neighbors.
Party Blues: The Loud and Unruly Gathering Ordinance
Santa Cruz may not accept the college town moniker, but it’s still home to numerous college students and their parties, which has long been a curse to their neighbors.
“A couple years ago student parties were a large number of [the city council’s] complaints,” Coonerty said. “Both the size of the parties and also some of the impacts such as noise, parked cars, trash, etcetera”
The Loud and Unruly Gathering Ordinance, more commonly referred to simply as the party ordinance, was passed by Santa Cruz City Council in 2005 to combat these problems.
Upon a noise complaint from a neighbor, the ordinance allows police to issue a warning for any house that throws a party as a first-time offense. These houses are then flagged for 12 months, and subsequent offenses result in fines.
Many students believe the ordinance creates an “us versus them” mentality, pitting off-campus students against their buzz-kill neighbors. Santa Cruz Neighbors president Elston insists that the ordinance was created to do just the opposite, however.
“We look at it as an opportunity for better communication,” Elston explained. “Prior to the ordinance, there were no tools for police or students or neighbors to [use] if something got out of control.”
June Coha has been a Santa Cruz resident since 1968, and has lived in a neighborhood close to campus for over 20 years. Coha estimated that in any given year, five houses on her street off of Western Drive may be occupied by students, and if each hosts two parties a month, that amounts to ten nights a month where she is kept awake at night.
Coha also said that engaging students and voicing her concerns directly to them is always her first course of action.
“Calling the cops is a last resort for me and I won’t do it unless I’ve talked to [the students] first,” Coha said. “I hate that it’s us versus them, but with the disparities in lifestyle I don’t know how it’s going to work out.”
Ben Gesing, a second-year UCSC student and the social chair for Sigma Pi Fraternity, agrees that engaging with neighbors is an effective way to prevent the problems caused by differing lifestyles. He feels that the party ordinance goes slightly overboard in its punishments, though.
“This isn’t a college town — Santa Cruz has been around a lot longer than UCSC and it’s not okay for us just to barge in on that,” Gesing said. “The basic problem with the party ordinance, though, is that you can’t legislate morality. College kids are going to keep partying.”
Amid other concerns, Gesing believes the fines specified by the ordinance, which increase with each offense from $250 to $500 to $1000, are too egregious to be applied to struggling college students.
Mathur echoed his fraternity brother’s dislike of the ordinance.
“It’s a bit heavy-handed and harsh,” Mathur said. “And we haven’t stopped throwing parties — nobody has.”
Councilman Coonerty understands students’ concerns, but he noted that actual implementation of the ordinance isn’t quite as harsh as some might assume.
“I think it would be silly to say students have embraced the party ordinance,” Coonerty said. “When its matched up against the reality though, which is that very few people are getting cited and that its mainly being used as a tool, I think in that way it has been effective.”
While a Santa Cruz free from UC students might make for quieter neighborhoods on Friday and Saturday nights, most agree that the culture and atmosphere of the city would be markedly different without the presence of a major institution of higher education.
Bill Tysseling, the executive director of the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce, explained that the commercial influence of the student population on the city is significant.
“The mix of businesses would be substantially different if students were not here,” Tysseling said. “There would be fewer businesses that are entertainment-oriented, such as movie theatres, music venues and even bookstores.”
Bookshop Santa Cruz, a locally-owned store that has been perched on Pacific Avenue since 1966, has seen both the benefits and downsides of doing business in a university town.
Casey Coonerty-Protti, sister of Ryan Coonerty, took over ownership of the shop from her father, who bought it in 1974. Coonerty-Protti explained that being in a university town has helped Bookshop Santa Cruz remain profitable amid the shift toward purchasing books online as well as an overall national decline in independent bookstores.
“For an independent bookseller to thrive it needs to be in an environment that’s debating ideas, and the students and professors bring that to the community,” she said.
However, Coonerty-Protti concedes that the presence of students means the presence of chain store competitors, such as Borders, which opened on Pacific Avenue about ten years ago.
“One segment where we lost sales [when Borders opened] was among students because they’re used to seeing a Borders in their hometown, so they go there,” Coonerty-Protti said. “I wish students would think about supporting businesses that are unique to Santa Cruz and that can help them become Santa Cruzan while they’re here, instead of a large multi-national corporation.”
In addition to the stimulus provided by student pocketbooks, a landmark 2007 agreement drafted by UCSC Chancellor George Blumenthal and then-Mayor Coonerty placed greater financial responsibility on the university to compensate for its massive strain on local resources.
“The university actually agreed to provide some subsidies for services like fire and water to the city, and also to participate in repairing some streets and providing transportation subsidies to Metro,” Tysseling said.
Coonerty explained that he and Blumenthal, who is the first UCSC chancellor to also be a longtime Santa Cruz resident, drafted the agreement with the intent of finding ways that the university could lessen its overall impact on the city.
“It’s not just about paying their fair share, it’s about actually doing things that improve life here,” Coonerty said. “[The city] gave UCSC incentives so the more traffic they reduce, the less they have to pay, and the more students they house on campus, the less they have to pay.”
Won’t you be my neighbor?
If goodwill is to prevail despite the drastically different lifestyles of residents and students, active engagement from both sides will undoubtedly be key.
In an attempt to foster community engagement, Santa Cruz Neighbors enlists the help of two student interns from the Good Neighbor Initiative, part of UCSC’s Office of Government and Community Relations. These interns run outreach programs and provide resources to students and residents alike.
Sarah Finder, a second-year student and Good Neighbor Initiative intern, focuses her efforts on educating students before they move off-campus.
“We target on-campus tenants and begin teaching them that when they move off-campus they have to be respectful and responsible,” Finder said. “It’s an ‘us and them’ situation and not an ‘us versus them’ anymore.”
Coonerty observed that, in fact, students and residents get along more often than they realize.
“I think the reality is that the tension is more loud,” he said. “If you have one interaction where someone says something negative to you because you’re a student, you’re going to remember the one negative one rather than the twenty positive ones. The positive ones are everyday events in which we all live harmoniously together.”
Chamber of Commerce director Tysseling agrees with the notion that it’s not all tension, all the time. He holds a more measured view of the daily interactions in Santa Cruz.
“Obviously when you live with a lot of people in a small space you’re going to have problems, but don’t mistake that for a general judgment about UC students,” he said. “It could just as easily be the farmer down the street that’s taking your parking space.”
On Sunday, October 4th Santa Cruz Neighbors and the Good Neighbor Initiative will host ‘Santa Cruz Neighbors Night Out’ — a series of block parties hosted throughout the city to promote friendliness and familiarity among all residents. http://www.santacruzneighbors.com