Reverberations of Loma Prieta

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Courtesy of the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History
Courtesy of the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History

“It was a really hot day in October,” reflected UC Santa Cruz alumna Susanne Ban DeRisi in her journal. “It was what we Californians jokingly refer to as ‘earthquake weather.’”

At 5:04 p.m. on October 17, 1989, the earth beneath Santa Cruz shook for about 15 seconds. In those seconds, three died in Santa Cruz, and downtown — called the Pacific Garden Mall at the time — was flattened. It was the earthquake that stopped the World Series and collapsed a section of the Bay Bridge.

The Loma Prieta earthquake shook at a magnitude of 6.9, rattling the entire Bay Area and killing more than 60 and injuring nearly 4,000 along the north coast. With an epicenter in the forests of Aptos along the San Andreas Fault, the earthquake caused over $6 billion in damages and left many Santa Cruz businesses destroyed.

“[We] camped out on the East Field that night with thousands of other students. Hundreds of students waited in line for hours to make a phone call home,” DeRisi said. “The frequent aftershocks were upsetting. No one slept much. In the morning, the sun rose enormous and red over the East Field. The skies were hazy with smoke and dust from the city below.”

UCSC only suffered minor damages, from broken windows and shelves to cracks in the ground and fountains. The Pacific Garden Mall wasn’t so lucky.

As smoke and flames rose from downtown and helicopters circled overhead, many people felt a sense of hopelessness, DeRisi said. While the earthquake was horrific and devastated the majority of downtown, for many small businesses, it provided a clean slate to remake the Pacific Garden Mall into the downtown Santa Cruz seen today.

After the earthquake, a group of Santa Cruz residents and business owners gathered to plan a new downtown. Made up of 36 officials and community members, the group, known as “Vision Santa Cruz,” was the heart of the restoration effort.

On Nov. 19 at 5:04 p.m. the Town Clock was reset in a symbolic ceremony of renewal, former county supervisor and environmental attorney Gary Patton wrote in an online journal.

“We have lost those pieces of history that composed our present. Some of us lost our lives as our city came apart,” Patton said in a speech to the city shortly after. “It raises questions. It raises questions what history we [will] make.”

The Question of Rebuilding Downtown

After the earthquake, most of the chain stores left Santa Cruz, and it was up to the local, independent shops to rebuild much of Pacific Avenue. For Bookshop Santa Cruz, however, closing its doors was not an option.

At the time, Bookshop Santa Cruz was located next to Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company, which is still open today. When the earthquake hit, an inner brick wall fell and collapsed into the adjacent shop, killing two customers.

City officials permitted Neal Coonerty, the owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz at the time, to go inside the remains of the destroyed store for 15 minutes after the earthquake to grab personal belongings and documents — and also something much closer to his heart.

“He grabbed the rocking horse from the kids section — that generations of kids had rocked on — it was a symbol for the store, and then he came running out in those 15 minutes,” said Casey Coonerty Protti, daughter of Neal Coonerty and current owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz.

After deciding that he was going to rebuild, Neal Coonerty asked city officials for a longer period of time to collect books. Once more safety evaluations and stabilization were complete, he was allotted 48 hours to recover as much as he could from the store. Coonerty then took to the radio where he talked about the rocking horse and announced the plan to recover and collect the books buried under the rubble.

“People like myself who have lived in Santa Cruz both pre and post-earthquake have a fierce love for this quirky town,” said Nancy Lenox, retired UCSC Financial Operations officer. “I, along with many others, spent hours watching and photographing with tear-filled eyes through the chain link fence that surrounded the downtown of my Santa Cruz for so long.”

Residents were required to sign a liability waiver that warned against going into the shop and stated that if there was more damage done to the building and someone was injured, the city wouldn’t rescue them.

“We showed up the next day and 400 people were there,” Coonerty Protti said. “They had all signed the liability waivers and they put on hard hats, formed a human assembly line, went into the store in the dark and pulled [everything] out.”

Many other stores — like Logos Books & Records and Pacific Cookie Company — were devastated by the earthquake but were able to rebuild because of community and business support.

“We lost that location as a result of the earthquake, but we were able to resume thanks to Erik’s Deli. [At night] they made [the space] available to us after they had finished,” said Pacific Cookie Company owner Larry Pearson. “We were able to stay serving customers and generating revenue. We built a robust relationship with the community — without that support it would have been very difficult [to rebuild].”

The majority of the businesses at the time either closed their doors or faced crippling debt to keep their shops running during the aftermath of the earthquake.

“However horrific the earthquake was and how much debt we went into, and how much people had to sacrifice, I don’t know if we would have survived the competition and everything in the future if we hadn’t had that experience,” Coonerty Protti said. “The community feels that they saved us, and rightly so, like they own a part of the store.”

Tenting Up Downtown

If stores don’t have a holiday season, they are guaranteed to go out of business, Coonerty Protti explained. Since the earthquake was so close to the holiday season, it was important that the stores have somewhere to sell and bring in products.

Shortly before Thanksgiving, city officials provided large white pavilion tents to temporarily house the stores through the holiday season. The tents were 5,000 square feet — just slightly larger than a basketball court. Even in the tents, Bookshop Santa Cruz was set up to look like the old store to give it a familiar feel.

But the working conditions were difficult, Coonerty Protti said. The employees would experience fluctuations of extreme heat and cold inside the tent while working near port-a-potties outside of the small space.

“For three years, all of us — Zoccoli’s, everyone — worked out of these pavilion tents and we moved into this space and again people volunteered to move the books over and lay out the store,” Coonerty Protti said. “When we knew the tents were coming, we had no money. How do we pay [our employees]?”

Struggling to find funds to keep the store running, Bookshop Santa Cruz hosted a used book sale, where over 1,000 people donated their old books — many people even bought the books back just to make a donation.

“When we had future battles and challenges then, the community was like, ‘This is my store, I need to support this,’” Coonerty Protti said. “It has defined who we are and we will continue to do that. It’s the essential story of Bookshop Santa Cruz and downtown.”

Downtown: Then and Now

“Did the earthquake change Santa Cruz? Absolutely. But I wouldn’t call it better or worse — just different,” Lenox said. “Some businesses didn’t survive the economic aftermath of the quake, but others moved in to take their place — downtown has always been a changing landscape.”

Similar to today, downtown was a destination mainly for families. Shoppers, tourists and university students flocked downtown during the day, but at night it was a ghost town, said Pearson, owner of Pacific Cookie Company.

“The old Pacific Garden Mall was distinguished by overgrown trees, 60 varieties of trees that grew very successfully,” Pearson said. “But the problem was at the end of the day it was not a place people perceived as safe, especially at night. For us there was no evening business. Since the rebuild, a huge portion of our business is done at night.”

After the earthquake, the overhanging tree canopy lining the streets was cut. Many more sidewalk cafes were put in, as well as extra-wide sidewalks for a more pedestrian-friendly street.

“I personally like downtown better now, there are a lot more restaurants that are interesting and fun to eat at,” said UCSC head swimming coach and longtime Santa Cruz resident Kim Musch. “It was an old funky downtown. Now it is geared toward tourists but it is a little bit more vibrant and there is more stuff going on.”

While there were chain stores before the earthquake, the majority of downtown Santa Cruz is limited to only a few chains, like Forever 21 and Starbucks.

“The best downtown experience is one in which there are some stores that people know and appreciate like commercial popular chain stores, but the vast majority of stores are locally owned, unique and different, they make a downtown that is unique to this place,” Pearson said. “That is very much the way our downtown has developed.”