I’m down in California for a few days while my middle daughter attends a basketball camp at UC Santa Cruz. It’s been a pleasant trip, so far. And a window into the Golden State’s economic devolution.
If you’re not familiar with it, Santa Cruz is located on California’s central coast, south of San Jose and north of Santa Barbara. It’s a short drive from Carmel, where Clint Eastwood once served as mayor, and the famous Pebble Beach golf course. Some people consider this area the most scenic in the world.
Santa Cruz is the University of California’s “hippie” campus. A late addition to the UC system, Santa Cruz allows students great leeway in the courses they take; at one point, it offered a variation of the Great Books program that emphasized reading primary documents from various points in history, but that program has either vanished entirely or atrophied so severely that it’s unrecognizable.
The school’s sports teams are called, with knowing irony, the Banana Slugs. While most UC campuses compete athletically at the NCAA Division I level, the Slugs compete at the more laid-back Division II level.
When I checked my daughter in to the camp, I recognized parents of the aspiring college athletes — not the individuals, specifically, but their type. Driven, detail-oriented and deeply involved in their daughters’ prospects. They knew all about the head coach’s background and repeated his camp’s promise of an intimate setting and individualized attention to each young player. True to this promise, the coach was there when we all arrived and took a few moments to chat with each player and her family.
Some of the parents did recognize each other, literally. They compared notes about camps as far away as Texas and the East Coast. And these plugged-in parents were impressed that, even though the UC Santa Cruz camp is relatively small, it has attracted a corporate affiliation with the athletic gear giant Nike.
“We went to the Stanford camp and it’s just a factory,” one carefully-appointed mother said. “I mean, you can tell right away which girls they’re interested in. The rest are treated like cattle.”
There are two strategies among parents of young basketball players for drawing the attention and scholarship money of college teams. The first strategy is to put the player on a private club team that plays in tournaments and exhibitions to which college coaches and recruiters are invited. The second strategy is to attend summer camps hosted by target colleges and hope that the player makes a good impression.
At least twice, I saw trim middle-aged men wearing tie-dyed t-shirts climbing out of German cars that cost more than most people’s houses.
The two strategies tend to be mutually exclusive: the first is, in my opinion, somewhat passive; the second, a little more proactive. And the parents pursuing each tend to reflect the corresponding attitude.
After I checked my daughter in, I kissed her goodbye for a few days and headed out. There’s an important line between being involved and being a pushy “helicopter” parent. Even though my daughter’s just 16, I want her to stand on her own.
The city of Santa Cruz is pretty, perched on hills immediately above the Pacific Ocean. It has a mix of classic California bungalows and larger, vaguely Victorian houses. The commercial blocks demonstrate the carefully composed shabby chic common to high-end college towns. No Starbucks . . . but lots of locally-owned, even more precious coffee shops, with chalkboards announcing specials and damning — suicidally — the 1%.
The people are carefully composed, too. At least twice, I saw trim middle-aged men wearing tie-dyed UC Santa Cruz t-shirts climbing out of German cars that cost more than most people’s houses.
I was staying a few miles south in Watsonville, where I was able to Priceline a decent hotel here for less than half of what I would have paid for a worse place in Santa Cruz.
Watsonville is a working-class place aspiring to the middle class, full of big-box stores and chain restaurants. And, while Santa Cruz is predominately white, Watsonville is overwhelmingly brown.
There are long lines for just about everything in Watsonville — at the grocery store checkout, at Starbucks, at the bank. Getting dinner at a Panda Express, I instinctively asked the woman across the counter for dos entrees because that’s how everyone in front of me had done it.
Watsonville’s houses are smaller and more cheaply built than those up the road in Santa Cruz. The cars are older and more likely to be dented or discolored. In general, Watsonville has more in common with inland agricultural towns like Gilroy or Fresno. Most of the residents seem to be simple people, content with basic material comfort.
Watsonville has a number of big, ugly modernist government buildings. Its library, especially, looks terrible. The outside walls are adorned with giant faces, meant to represent the local “community.” The city is heavily Hispanic, so it’s no surprise that most of the giant faces look that way; but there are almost as many black faces pasted on the library. And I’ve seen few black people in the city or its stores and restaurants.
Most of all, the giant faces are ironic — and not in a knowing way, like the UC Santa Cruz Banana Slugs.
In my business, I’ve watched libraries shrivel up as a market segment, rendered less relevant by the Internet and cheap ebooks. In their fear of irrelevance, they’ve resorted to all sorts of odd outreach efforts. The giant faces on the Watsonville library are a fundamentally illiterate way to try to draw people into a place that’s about reading. And, in this inappropriate illiterate appeal, the faces are profoundly condescending.
The Porsche-driving leftists in Santa Cruz may be interested in reading hand-lettered coffee shop menus laced with wordy political screeds, but Watsonville is more interested in shopping at Target. When the economy in California eventually recovers, I suspect that recovery will have more to do with Watsonville than Santa Cruz.