Watsonville

Alexander Cockburn

The place I’ve called home for the past year or so is a motel just off Route 1 as it heads down the Pacific coast from Santa Cruz to Watsonville. Late on the night of the earthquake a friend called me from where she lived near Carmel, an hour’s drive south, to tell me what had happened. It was early the next day with me, since I was in southern Ireland, having just buried my mother. God was having a busy month of it. Aside from Hurricane Hugo and the earthquake, He had found time to direct a few cows into the path of a train carrying pilgrims to a shrine at Knock, in County Clare. Why put the pilgrims on a train to pray to Our Lady of Knock if He was going to detain them with injuries after the train crashed into the cows? He must have planned it out, right from the moment He created Knock, centuries ago.

It was hard to get news of the earthquake’s damage directly from my motel, but secondhand reports indicated it was still standing. When I got back the following week the kind Dutch ladies who live next door had cleaned everything up. In my kitchen there was a bucket full of broken crockery and the remains of Robespierre’s head. I had plaster-of-Paris bas-reliefs of Robespierre and Saint-Just hanging on the wall. At a shock of 7.1 on the Richter scale Robespierre, who believed in the Supreme Being, plunged from the wall. Saint-Just, who probably agreed with Fouché that the words ‘Death is nothing but eternal sleep’ should be posted at the gates of all French cemeteries, dropped too, but stayed in one piece. I could have applied to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for money to buy a couple of teacups and a new Robespierre, but it didn’t seem worth the trouble. Around the motel, residential and catering to the lower end of the income scale, the fear was that the owner would himself use FEMA money to upscale the place and throw everyone into the street.

A couple of days later I went for a walk round Watsonville with my friend Frank Bardacke, who has lived there for 17 years. You would not have known it from the daily newspapers – initially at least – but Watsonville, about eighteen miles from the epicentre in the Santa Cruz Mountains, had been hit the worst. Of 765 buildings destroyed in Santa Cruz County, 333 were in Watsonville, as were 553 of the 2438 buildings countywide suffering major damage. We walked along Lincoln St and at first all seemed well, aside from tumbled chimneys announcing the folly of building with brick in California. Then there’d be a swath of disaster: boarded-up windows, porches askew, red tags on the front door indicating that the places were done for. With a house as with a person, the dividing line between life and death can be almost imperceptible. We’d look at an apparently healthy house marked with the fatal tag, and only after a minute or two see the skewed twist to the roof that meant the quake had bounced it off its foundation blocks and broken its back.

For my mother’s funeral my brothers and I had rejected the vicar’s suggestion that lessons be taken from some ravings in Isaiah and the Book of Revelations. My brother Patrick read the parable of the sower instead. Its lesson of prudent husbandry was spelled out in Watsonville. Was it fate or carpentry that had stricken some houses and spared others? Watsonville is a Third World town, like West Oakland low on the news agenda as reporters preferred to gather round the First World destruction in the Marina district of San Francisco. Being a Third World town, Watsonville is cheaply built, and though the price of a handful of nails would have meant foundation posts securely toenailed in, a lot of the poorer houses were just resting on their pier blocks until the tremors pushed them off.

Prospect, where Frank and his family live, is a nice-looking street: typically working-class in a mostly working-class farm town; single-storey wood houses, a bit of lawn out front. On Frank’s block the earthquake knocked out five houses, which had nine Mexican families living in them. By such a count you can reckon that Watsonville’s population, officially thirty thousand, is probably almost twice that number. Throughout the town, garages behind Victorian, Maybeck-style houses had held families paying $400 a month to sleep among the vermin, getting their power from the main building, into which more families were crammed. So as the earth shook and the shacks fell and some of the working poor upgraded from garage slum to emergency quarters under canvas, even the local newspaper, the Register-Pajaronian, felt emboldened to concede that the earthquake, a ‘natural’ disaster, had merely highlighted the entirely human disaster of a town which, by the laws of motion of late American capitalism, had long ceased to provide affordable housing for the people from whose labour the wealth of the town derives. When the tremors stopped, people saw that the earthquake had posed more strongly than ever the question: what sort of a town is Watsonville to be?

Two hours south of San Francisco, Watsonville is at the head of the most productive vegetable-growing area in the world. Between May and October each year, as the mists roll in from the Pacific, the area produces about 80 per cent of the fresh vegetables consumed in the United States. But for the past ten years, as the seasons passed by, economic pressures have been building towards upheaval just as surely as the tectonic plates grinding against each other along the fault lines through the Santa Cruz Mountains.

In the old days, a decade ago, Watsonville faced south down to the fields of the Salinas Valley, whence came truckloads of vegetables into the frozen-food plants. Today, as Frank wrote in the excellent local bilingual monthly El Andar, it lives in the shadow of San Jose, one hour north: ‘Computer production has crept over Highway 17 into Scotts Valley, and in the last ten years housing projects have shot up on the north side of town, peopled by folks who come to Watsonville to sleep by the Pacific Ocean, leaving low-paid computer assembly workers to live in the smog and drink the polluted water of what was once the Santa Clara Valley. We now seem to sit not at the head of the Salinas Valley but at the foot of the Valley of Silicon.’

Agricultural land worth $18,000 an acre is steadily being converted into building land worth anywhere from $55,000 to $110,000 an acre. And gleaming in the eye of every booster in town is the utopia promised by the powerful manipulators of real estate: a bedroom suburb with shopping centres where once the spinach grew, the working class pushed into joblessness or over the coastal range into rural slums in the Central Valley, or back into Mexico.

In the days after the earthquake, developers in Santa Cruz County raised their eyes unto the heavens and counted the blessings of the Lord. As he strode past the shattered and condemned buildings of Pacific Garden Mall in the centre of Santa Cruz, a developer named Louie Rittenhouse exulted to a reporter from the Monterey Herald:

We’re going to bring Santa Cruz into the 20th century. As the City Council was saying the other night, some things that were tolerated in Santa Cruz will no longer be tolerated. Like panhandling and sleeping on park benches. Over is over. The earthquake shook up the old political system in Santa Cruz.

The ‘pro-social, old growth’ values, Rittenhouse proclaimed, are gone. In their place will come taller buildings, hotels of magnificence, a convention centre.

In Watsonville the City Manager, John Radin, toured the streets, civil engineer in tow. Radin dreams of a Watsonville renewed in the image of Santa Rosa, a metastasising node on the lymph glands running north from San Francisco. To observant citizens there seemed to be a politically coherent pattern to Radin’s allocation of red tags. Down would go the International Senior Centre for poor people, and down would go other venerable obstructions to progress. Here was the civil engineer hired by Radin ready to certify with his red tag that such was the sensible course for a city properly mindful of the life and limb of its citizenry. Let loose the wrecker’s ball – as in Santa Cruz, where it took just such a ball several hours to fell the supposedly fragile landmark Cooper House.

Radin’s joy was not unalloyed, however. The small farm town he’s been managing is politically sophisticated. A few years ago the workers in the packing houses held solid in an 18-month strike. Earlier this year the Supreme Court ruled that Watsonville’s system of citywide elections was unconstitutional because it discriminated against Chicanos. Although the vast majority of the population is Mexican and Chicano, only one Chicano has sat on the City Council, and he is a real-estate agent. New forms of representation now promise to give some voice to the Mexican and working-class neighbourhoods in the town.

In Watsonville it is not the official candidates, right or left, who lead the way. After the earthquake some homeless workers planted their tents in Callaghan Park, right in the centre of town, where visitors from Marilyn Quayle to Mick Jagger to Cuauhtemoc Cardenas could spot them. City officials implored the people to remove to sanctioned refuge on the edge of town, out of sight and out of mind. The homeless stayed put. Here was the place to which people suspicious of government agencies could bring relief parcels. Here was the political pressure of visible deprivation, as opposed to the obscured hell of a garage shack behind a picket fence.

I walked through the park with Frank. There was a crowd round someone who had come to hand out a load of supplies. Others were standing near the bank of public telephones where for a while after the quake people could make free calls to Mexico. Frank chatted in Spanish with a friend who told him that though the people were spending their days around the tents, they were sleeping in a house across town. ‘Why?’ Frank asked. ‘It’s cold,’ the man answered matter-of-factly. Like many of Watsonville’s astute inhabitants, he understood how to use symbolism. Here, with the unauthorised tent city, was a chance to coax opportunity from disaster, maybe to prize a trailer home out of FEMA.

Up the road in Santa Cruz the homeless similarly seized their chances. As the doors of an earthquake-relief shelter opened, they hurried in. Three days later officials booted them out, angered that a respectable disaster should be exploited in this disreputable fashion. In fact, a large part of official emergency procedures are exercises in containment of potential political upheaval. Vested authority understands the seditious solidarity generated by an earthquake, which reminds people as forcibly about social foundations as about the frailty of houses just resting on their pier blocks. The quakes in Managua and Mexico attest to that.

The official rescue crews were pulled off the job fairly early on. When a 57-year-old longshoreman called Buck Helm was found by workmen alive under the Nimitz Freeway rubble 84 hours after the ‘last’ survivor had been removed, the Police asked that the Helm rescue not be reported, lest it raise false hopes. (Helm eventually died a month after the quake.) Right after the earthquake skilled construction workers, all volunteers from local union branches, showed up to help with rescue efforts at the Nimitz Freeway and were turned back by Oakland Police Department on the grounds that they were not ‘official’. The authorities spoke loudly of their fear of looting, even as many from the black, working-class areas of West Oakland were clambering up on the collapsed freeway and helping people to safety, often at great risk to their own lives. Oakland Police arriving on the scene actually threatened these rescuers, still clenched on the belief that black persons at the scene of a disaster could only have malfeasance on their minds.

Such class and race focus was maintained in much of the coverage. Reporters clustered in the relatively prosperous Marina district, where houses were consumed by fire because there were not enough utility workers to turn off all the gas mains after the earthquake. The shortage was a result of a cut in property taxes a few years ago: here at least the rich were finally consumed in the fires of their own civic indifference. The houses were later threatened by the liquefaction of their foundations, since the whole neighbourhood sits on landfill. Only days later did the press make its way down to Watsonville. In the wake of Hurricane Hugo, victims in South Carolina noted the same sort of selectivity. Most of the coverage was about the damage to Charleston, even though it was the flimsy trailer homes and small fishing skiffs of the poor that were mainly destroyed.

Watsonville and the earthquake pose one of the central political questions in the US in the late Eighties. The earthquake left somewhere between two and three thousand people homeless. Meanwhile, ‘executive townhomes’ are rising off Pennsylvania Drive at a starting price of $176,000 for two bedrooms; this in a town where according to the official count 17 per cent of the residents live in overcrowded conditions – and the real figure is probably twice as high.

West of Watsonville, along the sea’s edge, is Sunset Beach, and the condo complex of Pajaro Dunes: mostly empty second homes of San Franciscans, sometimes rented out for corporate retreats. Between Pajaro Dunes and the town stretch artichoke fields worked by people who have nowhere to sleep but their cars. Everyone in Watsonville can see the class geography, and the quake has brought to the surface the earthly potential of an act of God. At what point should the town declare eminent domain and seize developments like Pennsylvania Drive and Pajaro Dunes to house its people? Saint-Just knew the answer.