Thursday, February 5, 2009
Compared to its neighbors, Seaside isn’t known for lefty politics, tree-hugging or indie art. But in a downer year for most Peninsula cities, Seaside saw a resurgence of grassroots community building– a sort of Renaissance for a city that has struggled to define itself since the 1994 closure of Fort Ord. Last fall, the Peace Coalition of Monterey County moved its Peace Resource Center from a tiny office in Monterey to a spacious, sunny building on Seaside’s Fremont Avenue, where members aim to reach out to a more diverse population.
“We are trying to tie in as a resource for all the groups in the peace community,” says PRC volunteer Sylvia Shih, a volunteer staffing the center on a quiet afternoon.
“SEASIDE’S BEEN COMING UP. IT’S NOT JUST THE AUTO MALL.”
The PRC tabled at the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration, held a Kwanzaa teach-in and a Cuba night, and hosts English-Spanish language classes. The center, which offers free book and movie loans, also provides meeting space to groups including the Green Party, Central Labor Council and Sustainable Monterey County.
SMC’s newest branch, Sustainable Seaside, started meeting last March. Organizer Kay Cline’s eyes light up at the mention of the group’s Jan. 26 meeting, where instead of the usual half-dozen participants, more than 50 people– including three city councilmen and the assistant city manger– packed into the Oldemeyer Center’s Blackhorse Room to hear two Seaside planners discuss environmental policies.
The group brings a green hue to city that hasn’t organized much around ecological concerns. “It feels like we have some momentum going,” Cline says. “I would like to see us taking leadership.”
Next door to the PRC, the year-old Seaside Yoga Sanctuary hosts yoga classes, health workshops and the shoeless Seaside Community Dance Boogie. It’s the first venue of its kind in town, according to co-owner Laura McKinnon, and business has exploded.
“What’s up with this side of the Peninsula?” she asks, blond hair cascading toward her crossed knees. “We need it out here.”
Last year also saw the opening of the Alternative Café, an edgy art gallery offering hip toys and art books, coffee and free wi-fi.
“Seaside’s been coming up. It’s not just the auto mall anymore,” says café barista Maggie McKenna, brewing lattes as the sun spills through the window from Fremont Avenue. “The neighbors are surprised to see something like this in Seaside. This place represents a movement that’s happening here.”
The growing market in New-Agey arts is driven, in part, by the return of homes values to more affordable levels. The median Seaside/Sand City home price soared from $160,000 in 1998 to $670,000 in 2006, according to Sandy Haney, CEO of the Monterey County Association of Realtors. But in 2008 it fell back to $326,000, driving a record number of home sales.
“From a demographic standpoint, I would think that you have a much younger generation in Seaside compared to surrounding cities,” Haney says.
In another promising turn, the city is getting safer. According to 2008 statistics from the Seaside Police Department, gang violence is down 33 percent, domestic violence 22 percent and auto theft 29 percent from 2007 levels.
“Seaside is definitely not the city that it used to be in the ’70s, ’80s and into the early ’90s. We were the lower-income population, the service workers,” says Mick Vernon, Seaside’s deputy chief of police. “Fifteen, 20 years ago it would have been an anomaly to see a woman pushing a stroller down the street. Now, it’s the norm because of the sense of safety in Seaside.”
Social service programs deserve some of the credit for that shift. On Jan. 30 The Village Project, an African American-focused family resource center, hosted its grand opening next to the Seaside Post Office on Broadway. The center’s state-funded services include child, family and adult therapy, with a focus on under-represented communities.
The Village Project aims to dissolve the senses of cultural distrust and stigma that often surround behavioral therapy, says Clinical Director Mel Mason, seated under an assemblage of framed certificates on his peach office wall. “While we are African American-focused, our doors are open to everyone,” he says. “Money is not an issue. We always work out a way for folks to be seen.”
As Seaside activism flourishes, one challenge may be merging the “old-time” Seaside organizers, who have focused largely on social justice and education, with newcomers targeting on the environment, according to Mayor Ralph Rubio.
“With the resurgence of the Democratic initiatives we’ve seen happening and with Obama coming in, there’s a renewed interest in community issues,” he adds. “I think that’s a great thing.”