What’s our vibe? Can Santa Cruz learn from Miami Beach?

It’s a bit embarrassing to admit, but before just a few months ago, I had never visited Miami or South Florida. Frankly, considering Florida’s flamboyant flirtation with fearmongering and the presence of a certain spray-tanned attention hog at Mar-a-Lago, it was a bit of a surprise that I chose 2023, of all moments, for my first visit. But I’m glad I did, because it’s a wonderful place and I had a great time.

But I also learned a few things about how a city’s personality and charisma is reflected in its look, its aesthetic, its sense of what’s possible in public art.

As a naive tourist, I was certainly able to sense a unique character in the region’s art and architecture, particularly in Miami Beach, where the glorious chic look of art deco lives more vibrantly than any other place in America.

Once back home, it got me wondering. Beyond, say, the Pacific Ocean and the Giant Dipper, does Santa Cruz have a dominant aesthetic or image that’s easily discernible to an outsider? What color or image or style do people associate with Santa Cruz? And, more practically, what cool aesthetic idea or look from some other place like Miami could work in Santa Cruz?

Such a notion is particularly relevant now given that Santa Cruz is in the throes of some big changes brought about by the ambitious plans for development that could make the city look and feel radically different in just a few years. Santa Cruz is in the midst of a remodel, so it’s time to ask: What can or should the city or its residents do to assert its personality in the public sphere?

There is, obviously, a lot of angst when it comes to the new construction going on in and planned for Santa Cruz, for many reasons. Many folks in town believe it will obliterate any trace of personality the city has left. But much of that comes from a lack of imagination. All we can imagine now are the big buildings, massive, generic, alien. But we can’t say what will grow up around those buildings that will provide an imprint of those who will live there.

The new development, of course, includes outdoor public spaces, specifically a series of “paseos,” pedestrian passageways between streets and between the downtown and the San Lorenzo River that will essentially function as canvases on which Santa Cruz can express itself in some way.

Sure, the developers and investors of these properties will have a lot more say in what becomes of these common spaces.

Artist Abi Mustapha poses with her mural on Cathcart Street in Santa Cruz

With many talented local artists like Abi Mustapha, anything may be possible in the realm of public art in Santa Cruz.

(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

But that shouldn’t stop us from asking the question: What would you like to see in the realm of public art in the Santa Cruz of the future? What have you seen in your travels that could serve as an inspiration for our area’s myriad artists and designers to bring some personality to all this new construction? Send us your ideas, your photos, your dreams for the city’s new aesthetic. Send them to news@lookoutlocal.com, subject line “vibe.”

OK, so Santa Cruz can never be Miami Beach, and that might be a good thing. Miami Beach’s aesthetic begins with architecture, and in Santa Cruz, that ship has probably already sailed. Santa Cruz’s architecture is too much of a hodgepodge as it is, and that sense of architectural inconsistency is going to be only more pronounced with the new buildings. One friend said to me that depending on murals or sculpture to enhance generic architecture is no different than “putting lipstick on a pig.” But, I would add, sometimes putting lipstick on a pig can be fun.

Here’s one idea: The lifeguard towers on the beach at Miami Beach are real eye-catchers, expressed not just with paint, but with design. Each is unique and each is a wonder in its own right. They are — can it be possible? — fun. These are things that Santa Cruz has in plenty. They are, in fact, characteristic of Santa Cruz, but why can’t they also be iconic of Santa Cruz?

Who cares if Miami Beach did it first? This is an imminently steal-able idea. (When it comes to artistic ideas and their “steal-ability,” geography is a big factor. Miami is another coast, another ocean. I say that gives us the green light.) Imagine giving lifeguard towers over to local designers and artists with no more of a mandate than to make each of them a one-of-a-kind attention grabber. Even if the city could not or would not pay for such a program, imagine the fun-raising possibilities (and the fun-raising possibilities).

The best street art in Miami is behind an admission charge at Wynwood Walls.

The best street art in Miami is behind an admission charge at Wynwood Walls.

(Wallace Baine / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Miami has also taken urban muraling into a new realm with Wynwood Walls, a bedazzling “street art museum,” which gathers together many of the greatest artists in the genre in one place. It kind of defeats the purpose of murals by putting them behind a gate and charging admission. But, at the same time, it compels people to really examine mural art and be aware of its power. Maybe Santa Cruz could be a promising spot for something similar.

It’s not like Santa Cruz today is bereft of public art. It’s got plenty. The amazing and ambitious “Sea Walls” project of 2021 brought some dazzling imagery to Santa Cruz, which was already a mural-friendly city. But “Sea Walls” brought a cohesiveness to the city’s public art, all themed on marine life, rendered in the various murals from different artists in everything from hyperrealism to surrealism, from the political to the playful.

The weird thing about public art is that it becomes functionally invisible to residents after a while, but that doesn’t make it any less compelling to visitors. Some Miami Beach long-timers are likely to shrug at things I found dazzling. It’s possible, even likely, that Santa Cruz already has a public-art profile in the greater world that locals don’t think much about. But it can always be enhanced and upgraded. It can always reflect a changing Santa Cruz. “Sea Walls” doesn’t get enough credit for the freshness it brought to the city’s aesthetic.

Santa Cruz already has an abundance of public art. What other ideas might sprout amid the new construction downtown?

(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Of course, a mural project like “Sea Walls,” or a reimagining of the city’s lifeguard towers, those can be big lifts for a community. But public art doesn’t have to be big, complicated or expensive. A few years back, my wife, Tina, and I were visiting South Korea and we ventured out to experience the seductive and colorful Gamcheon Cultural Village in Busan (Korea’s Miami). It was there Tina saw a beautiful rendering of a giant fish made up of small planks of painted wood. She stole the idea outright, came home and engineered a similar art piece with the participation of dozens of other people, and erected the new fish in the tiny town square of Aromas, where we live, and where it still stands today. Fun in its creation, beautiful in its execution, and iconic in its symbolism of community. That’s the essence of great public art.

Sure, Santa Cruz in a few years is going to feel and look a lot different, and that newness is going to be off-putting, even alienating for some people. But in the wake of all that newness, much like a new house, community personality will eventually begin to emerge to reflect the people who will make the new Santa Cruz home.

But right now is the time to dream, to envision, to at least consider the possibilities. Let’s do it together. Drop us a line — news@lookoutlocal.com — perhaps from your travels and let us know what you’ve seen out in the world that could blossom in the new Santa Cruz, whether it’s a big public project, a new business, or the inspired work of an individual. The window of possibility is now open.

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