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10.14.09

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Phaedra

Photograph Courtesy Stephen Kessler
Torn: For the staff of The Sun, the earthquake issue was bittersweet: a triumphant collective effort and the last printing of the paper.

The Sun Also Goes Down

An earthquake memoir

By Stephen Kessler


IT WAS HARD not to take the earthquake personally. That October Tuesday, my newspaper, The Sun, which I had started three years earlier in a surge of journalistic urgency and entrepreneurial folly, was on deadline, preparing to go to press the following morning. That week we were running a dining feature and were trying out some new food writers, including the editor (me), who contributed a short piece on the pleasures of cooking with olive oil, garlic and onion. But I was distracted by less appetizing realities: our business manager, Cherie Maitland, had informed me earlier in the day that we, as a business, were broke. We didn't have enough money in the bank to cover payroll.

As publisher and principal shareholder in the corporation I had founded and raised the capital to launch, and as the one who had gone back again and again to investors in search of additional operating funds, I was in despair as to how our staff of 15 was going to receive, as due on Friday, paychecks that wouldn't bounce. As an employer, I couldn't imagine a more distressing scenario than to leave my company's workers up a creek. It was a horrible feeling, and I had no idea what more could be done about it.

How had I gotten into such a mess?

When I returned to Santa Cruz in 1972, after being away for a year following grad school at UCSC, I discovered Sundaze, an investigative yet also highly imaginative underground newspaper that included among other things in its weekly format a full page of poetry. Sundaze was a great read because, in addition to doing the serious work of snooping out and exposing corruption in the body politic, it was also funny and unpredictable in its experimental journalism. This was a moment in the larger culture when a lot of conventional assumptions were being called into question, and the Sundaze gang, led by publisher Lee Swanson and editor Patrick Fox, was taking a local newspaper into zones of daring reportage and creativity previously unknown in Santa Cruz. As a rebellious young poet I was smitten with what Sundaze was doing, and soon I was publishing poems in there and contributing satirical prose under pen names like R. D. Pickle and The Champagne King.

The Paper Chase
The Sundaze sank in 1976, and that summer the Independent took its place. The Indy had some of the spirit of its predecessor, and some of the same people, but it resembled a more recognizable kind of radical newspaper, and appeared to have more of a normal business model. I started writing book reviews for the Indy, and the arts editor, Buz Bezore, liked my writing and soon had me doing a weekly column called Words. When editor Richard Cole departed, Buz's domain moved to the front of the paper, and he immediately installed me as an op-ed columnist with instructions to write about whatever interested me.

After initially resisting such a weighty assignment, soon enough I was hooked, and when, a few years later, the Indy folded and was succeeded in 1981 by the Express with Buz at the helm, I was on board from the beginning. Five years after that, with the Express in a deathward spiral due to problems with the IRS among other pathologies, I--having put up my little Soquel Valley farmhouse as collateral for a loan to buy new typesetting equipment--was called in by the board of directors to try to rescue the business. The board removed the current management and installed me as editor/publisher, but too late, and in a matter of weeks we had to put the paper out of its misery.

By then I had discovered that making a newspaper was serious fun, and at that time--before the Internet and its myriad digital gizmos--the printed word in a lightweight, disposable (or recyclable) form was by far the most vital medium for information and community dialogue on everything from politics and culture to entertainment and food, from arts and ideas to gardening and health. By 1986 Santa Cruz, having been transformed over the preceding couple of decades from a sleepy conservative out-of-the-way town to a vortex of progressive politics and offbeat artistic activity and University-fueled intellectual vigor, had shown that it needed a paper like the Express as an alternative to the Sentinel on one hand, with its sclerotic Republicanism, and the Good Times on the other, with its "lighter than air" philosophy of publishing nothing that might trouble a potential advertiser. The Express had been a paper you could actually enjoy reading because Buz's genius as an editor was to find good writers and turn them loose to write.

Now what would we do, writers and readers alike, without the Express? Having saved my house from foreclosure by paying off that loan, I should have had the good sense to retire from the newspaper business and go back to being a poet. But I was in too deep; like most of my colleagues, I was addicted to newspapering. Immediately a group of ex-Express staffers began conspiring to create the incarnation of Santa Cruz's next alternative weekly. Somehow I got it in my head that if the new paper was adequately capitalized, organized and run like a real business rather than some kind of clubhouse, it might actually have a chance of succeeding--that is, surviving.

And so, The Sun was born. We published our first issue on Sept. 11, 1986, just a few months after the Express had gone down, and we'd taken over the lease of its offices upstairs at the corner of Cedar and Union streets, above what is now Caffé Bene. From my corner desk I had a fine view of the passing show outside, and as I slammed out editorials on my 1974 Adler manual portable (the same machine on which I am typing this) I could watch the parade of local characters enacting their daily dramas. I loved the job despite the stresses of losing money week after week, and not being able to afford a health plan for the employees, and having to put up with angry politicians and activists and merchants who regularly complained that our agenda wasn't in line with theirs, and the various other aggravations of running a small business. In addition to writing and editing I was the boss, and therefore the rabbi in residence, the house shrink, the authority figure, the mediator, the person on whose desk every crisis landed.

On Oct. 17, 1989, the crisis was that we were out of money. Only a deus ex machina could save my ass--or whip it definitively.

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Photograph by David Alexander
The Sundance Kids: Left to right, Sun managing editor Elizabeth Kadetsky, editor and publisher Stephen Kessler, associate editors Roz Spafford and Tim Eagan and arts editor Mark Zepezauer

San Andreas Waltz
That afternoon our ace reporter and managing editor, Elizabeth Kadetsky, had asked me to pick up the prints of some photos she needed for a story she was finishing. At 5:04pm I was standing at the counter of Bay Photo Lab in Soquel when the shaking started. As a California native who had experienced many earthquakes, including the Northridge tremor of 1971 that jolted me out of my bed in Malibu, I was accustomed to taking them in stride, but this time the agitation was violent and prolonged enough to send the half-dozen people in the shop darting out into the parking lot to avoid being hit by falling objects. I stood there as the ground was rocking and rolling--not knowing the epicenter was just a few miles away in Nisene Marks State Park--then had to crouch into a four-point position to keep from being knocked off my feet.

When the shaking finally stopped after what felt like minutes, my first impulse was to re-enter Bay Photo and ask for the prints--we were still on deadline--but the manager said no way: their equipment was all on the floor. Driving back into town, as I approached Santa Cruz I could see pillars of smoke arising here and there. Highway 1 northbound was closed past the Fishhook, so I took the Ocean Street exit and was surprised at how many plate-glass windows had shattered. Clouds of whitish dust were hovering over the Pacific Garden Mall, and by the time I made it back to the office it was clear that what had just happened was not your average earthquake.

Inside the office the worst thing was that the water cooler had fallen over and Brooke Towne, our office manager, had cut herself on the broken glass. Otherwise everyone was in one piece, if acutely rattled. Elizabeth--with whom I was living at the time because, after working at adjacent desks for a year, we had fallen in love--had of course instinctively dashed out into the chaos of Pacific Avenue with her notebook and pen to report the story. The power was out, buildings had collapsed, parts of town were burning, everyone was spooked and we were obviously not going to make our deadline, so we called it a day and, rather than seek her out on the battlefield, I awaited the return of my reporter-inamorata.

Broken Hearth
She turned up as the sun was going down, and we tried to drive home to our place in Soquel Valley, but roads were closed and we had to take a detour up Highway 17 and then across various back routes through the mountains over to Old San Jose Road. When we finally made it to our house on Hoover Road--a mile-long private lane with some dozen families in residence--we found a domestic disaster: the Gold Rush-era redwood farmhouse, the one that had withstood the quake of 1906 and various storms and floods in the years since, had been knocked askew from its wooden foundation and appeared, in the dimming twilight, to be slightly tilted.

The floor was far enough out of level that I could barely force open the kitchen door, and we beheld on entry a gaping void in the center of the house where the granite fireplace had stood. The chimney had plunged through the living room floor and was now a pile of masonry in the basement. An acrid smell of charred brick, spilled kerosene, dead ashes and mortar dust pervaded everything. My library was mostly on the floor, or in the basement among the fireplace stones, pictures had flown off the walls, and from the kitchen shelves dishes and glasses and food had been flung all over the room. Dusk could be discerned through the big hole in the ceiling.

I felt oddly calm, beyond shock or distress, as if floating above the catastrophe.

With dead wires everywhere and telephones out, we didn't go to work the next day, but Thursday I posted a note on the office door calling for a meeting Friday morning. It was clear to me the paper could not survive this cataclysm: aside from our own fiscal problems, our downtown advertising base had been devastated, so even if we'd had the means to make it through the immediate aftermath, the businesses we depended on for cash flow had crises of their own to cope with. So I broke the news to the staff that we would put out one last issue and call it quits. I asked each of our writers to cover the earthquake from a personal angle, geared to their particular beat, and told our regular visual artists to give me images of their own visions.

Spectacular Sunset
Over the course of the next five days we put together The Sun's best issue ever, a document that in its unabashed subjectivity--each contributor offering a unique perspective on what had happened--caught in words and pictures a true-to-life account of the city's most apocalyptic event since the 1955 flood. I'm still proud of that issue, which I recently reread to find completely gripping in its immediacy, and of the team of writers and illustrators and ad designers and salespeople who rose heroically to the occasion, despite whatever personal trauma they had experienced (and, during production, re-experienced whenever the building trembled with an aftershock).

Elizabeth wrote the feature, a diarylike account of the days immediately following the quake; Geoffrey Dunn turned in an op-ed piece on the people of Santa Cruz as its resilient heart and soul; Venise Wagner, our bilingual South County correspondent, reported on the damage in Watsonville; Roz Spafford critiqued the media for their ghoulish pursuit of the story of the two workers, Shawn McCormick and Robin Ortiz, killed under the collapsed walls of the Coffee Roasting Company across the street from our offices; Robin (Somers) Schirmer examined the psycho-emotional fallout of the event; I wrote in my column about the hit my home had taken and the strange relief I felt about losing my business; Rob Brezsny, in addition to his usual astrology column, wrote a dreamlike account of a temblor in the collective unconscious; and arts editor Mark Zepezauer reported on the earthquake's cultural repercussions.

Artists Futzie Nutzle, Tim Eagan, Elizabeth Williams, Karl Vidstrand and Diana Moll and photographers Chip Scheuer, Holger Leue and David Alexander delivered some of their most arresting images. Our art director, Mott Jordan, made a witty adjustment to our banner so that the final N in SUN was knocked off-kilter, and Kevin Jewell and Scott Dunn, our ad and editorial designers, dealt elegantly with the larger-than-usual 36-page issue, which our sales staff--Diana Mayo, Kathy Edwards, Jeff Howitt, Pablo Reiter and Yvette Cadeaux--had made possible against all odds. Traffic coordinator Elisa Pederson coolly managed the hectic flow between the advertising and art departments. Perhaps most remarkable, our typesetter, Rosemary Balsley, swiftly transcribed the text of the entire issue with scarcely a single typo.

We also had nearly three full pages of letters, some reflecting on the quake, some responding to stories in recent issues, some lamenting the news--already going around--that this would be the last our readers would see of The Sun. We ran 21 letters in all, evidence of our key role as, among other things, a community bulletin board.

In my full-page editorial, headlined "The Sun Also Rises," I tried to downplay the loss of our newspaper, putting it in perspective next to the greater tragedy of lives lost and the millions of dollars in physical destruction suffered by so many, and by the economy as a whole. I also optimistically invoked the history of local weeklies that had arisen one after another over the previous 20 years, assuring our readers that sooner or later another paper would take the place of The Sun.

Going, Going, Gone
But in trying to contain my own sorrow and disappointment over my failure as a publisher, and to console our readers who had avidly picked us up each week and appreciated our sharply distinctive take on the news and the life of the community, I wrongly compared the loss of The Sun to that of the several cafés that had been flattened, suggesting that a newspaper, like any other cultural institution or public venue, was an important gathering place but not an irreplaceable one.

The truth is, almost any newspaper, even now, plays a vital role in the life of a community, and the loss of such a publication gravely wounds that community's political, cultural and intellectual health. I had come out of the peaceful Soquel hills into the turmoil of downtown media wars to found The Sun because I felt that Santa Cruz, with its literate citizens and liberal politics and abundant artistic talent, deserved something better to read than was then available. I wanted to evolve from a soloist composing my own improvisations into a conductor who could coordinate the various excellent players I had worked with over the years, and any new ones who might turn up, into a tight journalistic ensemble, an orchestra that could both echo the sometimes cacophonous music of the community and help refine it into a more harmonious sound, setting a tone of rational discourse and creative thinking.

What I couldn't have known at the time was that the end of The Sun--or more precisely the Loma Prieta earthquake itself--was a watershed moment in local history after which nothing would be the same. The Pacific Garden Mall, an elegantly landscaped meandering one-lane one-way street where pedestrians and trees far outnumbered cars and little locally owned shops dominated the commercial ecology, would not return to its funky, intimate, villagelike form. And when, in time, the dust cleared and the new buildings were up and the street was straightened back into just plain Pacific Avenue, and the Gaps and Borders and Starbucks and multiplex megacinemas moved in--and meanwhile the high-tech gold rush boomed and Santa Cruz real estate became unaffordable for anyone who didn't drive a BMW--the town would evolve into another stage of maturity.

Spirit of Santa Cruz
For better and worse, downtown changed into a distinctively Santa Cruzian but more conventional small-town urban model. It feels like a much bigger town now, and though one still runs into familiar faces, it's easier to be anonymous, as in a city. Even if The Sun had survived the seismic shakedown, the city it served was so transformed that I don't know whether we could have sustained the kind of intimacy we shared with our readers. The civic atmosphere was altered, and there's no telling what kind of paper we would have become.

There are those old-timers who complain that Santa Cruz isn't the way it used to be before the quake. But quake or no quake, nothing is ever the way it used to be--ask what's left of the retirees who, in the 1960s and 70s, saw their peaceful little town overrun by college students and transplanted professors and blissed-out hippies--so that's the kind of loss people just have to learn to get over. As journalists during a 20-year period of major creative agitation, we certainly didn't think our job was to preserve the status quo, even if the status quo, such as it was, seemed pretty cool at the time. What we were trying to do--at papers like the Sundaze and the Independent and the Express and The Sun--was to give back to Santa Cruz the best of itself and be a bonding force for its anarchic spirit, keeping the community on its toes while opening people's minds to unimagined possibilities. Those papers were fun to read, and as an editor (and publisher) I felt it my duty to make our pages indispensable sources of "news" you wouldn't find anywhere else.

We caught hell from the left almost as often as from the right because our angle of vision was truly independent. (Our marketing slogan was "Independent. Locally Owned.") Would-be but never-were advertisers constantly complained that we were too serious, too political, too irreverent, too intellectual, too literary, not business-friendly enough, too demanding of readers' time and attention--never mind that some 50,000 people kept our pages open long enough to read them and thus give the ads more exposure than if skimmers were just flipping through to check the show times. We didn't have the material ambition to fully realize that a newspaper is more than a public service or vehicle for spirited debate, but is also a commercial enterprise that ultimately lives or dies by how it makes its way in the marketplace. Though my father had been a successful salesman and eventually CEO of his own company (so presumably I had some entrepreneurial genes), I never did fit that model, and clearly I wasn't fooling anyone, least of all my fellow business owners. I was a writer--worse, a poet--with all the defects of those sorry species.

So as I watched from my office window the swarms of tourists and voyeurs observing the ruined buildings being razed by gigantic machines and carted away on the backs of enormous trucks, I had to admit I was lucky to have lived through this cataclysm. It was exciting to be part of such a historic ordeal and to have something useful to offer as a record of an unforgettable moment: an account in print that, 20 years later, surely at least a few locals still have stored in their private archives.

As I put my house back together over the next months, and closed down the business, and prepared to resume a more purely literary agenda, I felt grateful for the privilege of having ridden out the epic rise and fall of the most ambitious and costly project I'd ever embarked on, and for the honor of putting out our final issue as a testament to our purpose. Though we failed commercially, and thus failed in our long-term effort to serve the community as we'd hoped to, for those three years we reflected and affected the life of our town in all its complex character.

And out of our ruins rose what you're reading now.

Stephen Kessler is the editor of 'The Redwood Coast Review.' His most recent book, a translation, is 'Desolation of the Chimera' by Spanish poet Luis Cernuda.


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