Last week, we took it upon ourselves to once and for all solve the forever-niggling question: Arcata or Eureka, which is the superior specimen? The two cities have been duking it out since the 1850s when they were mere get-rich-quick settlements looking to profit off the gold rush in the mountains. And historian Jerry Rohde likes to particularly note that Arcata (called Union, initially) was nothing like today’s Arcata -- in fact, the group that settled on the Arcata side of the bay included six unsavory men who’d killed a bunch of Indians down in the Sonoma area, and a couple of them killed more Indians once they got to Humboldt. Also, the Union group tried to take over Eureka, but the Eureka group resisted. So there goes the moral edge, historically speaking, for Arcata.
Union/Arcata excelled as a miners’ supplier, at first, says Rohde, while Eureka found its niche in toppling redwoods into rivers and floating them down to the bay to a half dozen mills. Arcata eventually built its own mills, for Douglas fir. And, Arcata held the county seat -- until Eureka wrested it away. Arcata got the university. Eureka had more buildable land for residences. Arcata grew farmers. Eureka spawned a fishing fleet. Arcata became progressive -- freakishly so, if you ask some people. Eureka retained a mainstream steadfastness -- tweakishly so, if you ask some people. Eureka spiffed up Old Town. Arcata “incubated” entrepreneurial endeavors, as long-time Arcatan Alex Stillman puts it. Eureka built a nuclear power plant. Arcata became a nuclear weapons free zone. Arcata built a sewage-cleansing marsh. Eureka built a mall. Arcata’s small, cozy, chainstore-scarce and walkable. Eureka’s got what you need and has big-city appeal. Arcata’s got the Crabs. Eureka’s got Redwood Acres. Eureka smells like rancid fish guts in some places, poopy wood pulp in others. Arcata smells like shit -- pardon, fertilizer -- in the spring. And on blahbiddy on.
But who’s better?
Well, some people like statistics, so we’ve worked up a few for you. Others prefer a subjective approach. But that’s trickier. It can require, let us say, equal parts reflection and drink -- both found in abundance in each city’s heart.
The Alibi, on the Arcata Plaza, 4 p.m., Thursday. Among the rank of bars on this side of the square, this is the one hipsters gravitate to.
Inside, Deric Mendes, a familiar local musician, is tending bar. He says it’s a tough question, who’s better. He was born in Fortuna and moved to McKinleyville when he was 11. Since then, he’s lived in Eureka and Arcata. “There’s a good sense of community in both places,” he says. “I like Arcata’s neighborhoods better -- it feels safer here.”
One time, Mendes says, when he lived on 14th and E in Eureka, someone banged on his door at 4 a.m. “So we go out there, open the door, and this guy has a stab wound to his head. I said, ‘Do you want me to call the police?’ And the guy took off running down the street holding a hand to his head. We also had a woman come to our door once and say, ‘They’ve released the poison gases, we’re all going to die.’ We gave her a glass of water. She went away, and shortly after that we saw her talking to a telephone pole. There was another guy who lived in the park -- we called him Snoopy, because he was always laying on top of the little wooden house in the play area.”
Mendes lives in Arcata now.
“I love Arcata, but I find it absurd sometimes,” he says. “I was doing an open mic, when I worked at Sacred Grounds, and some kids came over, some Earth First! protesters, and said ‘Come over to the plaza for a protest.’ I told them protesting on the plaza is like mooning a proctologist.”
One day he was crossing the plaza and some Food Not Bombs kids hassled him. “I was going to get Fair Trade coffee at the Co-op -- locally owned -- and they stopped me and tried to give me free coffee instead. They said, ‘You’re giving money to The Man.’ And here they probably bought their coffee from some corporate place, whereas I’m supporting the local guy.
“And when I was in high school, I joined the Earth First! movement here. I’d gotten a leather jacket from my family, I think an uncle, and the people in the Earth First! movement -- their dreads, their cliches -- they wouldn’t accept me.”
Steve LaBelle, a 30-something with close-cropped hair, sips his beer. He says he’s lived in Arcata and Eureka but now lives in McKinleyville. “Out of the three, I prefer McKinleyville,” he says. “When I went to school here in the 1990s, Arcata was so cool. The town has changed so much. It used to be real tolerant. Now, they still think they’re tolerant, the local people, but they’re not. They’re tolerant to the Plazoids on the square … who come here all high and mighty and welch off people with jobs.
“I just…nah, I don’t want to say anymore. I don’t want to sound like a redneck.”
Still, LaBelle says he’d recommend Arcata over Eureka, for living. “My friends are from SoCal. If they were going to move up here, they’d be coming here for clean air and trees. Not Fourth and Fifth Street.”
A couple of doors down, inside Everetts Club, 5 p.m. A moldering rank of wall-mounted ungulate heads guards the cool dark, and the late afternoon regulars, an older set of retired profs, shopkeeps and self-employed types, have assembled. Linda Puzz, co-owner of Everetts, gets right to the point: “Actually, I prefer McKinleyville,” she says. “Cleaner. No homeless.” She gestures toward the shut door, beyond which sunshine blazes this summer day, gently basting numerous pods of layabouts loafing raggedly with their backpacks on the plaza’s groomed lawn. “I don’t like this crap on the plaza,” Puzz says. “It’s not the Arcata I grew up in.”
At the other end of the bar, four middle-aged guys dressed in jeans nurse PBRs and fruity cocktails.
“There’s a problem here with the transients,” says Guy No. 1. “Camping in the forest, hanging around the plaza.”
“Arcata doesn’t have the speed freak factor, the crime factor, the drug factor that Eureka has -- probably because of the university,” says Guy No. 2.
“Diversity,” says Guy No. 3.
“But I’ve never lived in Eureka, so I couldn’t say which is better,” says Guy No. 2, backpedaling.
“Arcata is by far the best,” says Guy No. 3, who lives in Kneeland. “Nobody really likes going to Eureka -- more traffic, the gas, it’s a pain in the ass. We all do it, but it’s a pain in the ass. The government’s there, the mall’s there, and there’s Picky Picky Picky.”
“The shopping is better in Eureka,” allows Guy No. 2.
“You can’t buy a pair of pants here,” says Guy No. 4.
“You can buy some hemp-sown wear, if you like,” says Guy No. 3, prettily.
The Arcata Plaza, 6 p.m. A man on a bench plinks a mandolin. Suddenly a string quartet and an accordionist march to the center of the plaza to play. In the layabout pod closest to the bars, leaning against his backpack which has a cell phone hooked to it as well as a yellow Pub Ale can with a big daisy poking out, is 37-year-old traveler Yediy. He’s got silky long strawberry blonde hair and a red beard. A couple of his companions have dreads. Another eats peanut butter out of the jar. Yediy says he’s just passing through. And that not everything is as it seems.
“Usually I live in a bus and drive up and down the coast,” he says. “This time I flew out from Phoenix and took a bus from Medford. I own several properties in Arizona. I like to travel. Everybody thinks that everybody out here is a drug addict, that they’re down on their luck. But a lot of people are out here by choice.”
“Yeah,” says the young woman in the group. She’s wearing fishnet knicker stockings and multi-colored knee-high tights. “It really is the life. All your food’s free, you don’t have to work for The Man.”
“Oh yeah,” says Yediy. “People will leave leftovers on top of the garbage can for us.”
“There’s a million different ways to eat for free,” says the woman.
“The community here is receptive to us,” says Yediy. “They don’t shun us. A lot of storeowners like us -- they know we keep an eye on their stuff. If somebody tried to steal from a store, we’d catch ’em.”
Sure, he says, some people look at him and his friends and say, “‘Ah, stupid scumbag, get a job.’ But I know what it’s like to bust my butt 18 to 20 hours a day. I don’t want to do that anymore. You’d be amazed by how many people out here are multimillionaires. They might ask you for something to eat just to see what kind of person you are.”
So, Arcata or Eureka? “I don’t have much to say about Eureka,” says Yediy. “I just don’t know of any facilities there. I mean here” -- he sweeps a hand at the tidily maintained plaza -- “it’s like, ‘Welcome.’ The community here obviously likes us.”
F Street Plaza, Old Town Eureka, Friday afternoon. The wind’s blowing from the south, tinged with salt, and a man crosses F Street engulfed in a stream of rainbow soap bubbles pumping from a machine by the Sea Around Us shop. “You see ’em too, right?” he asks a person crossing the other way. “You see ’em? The bubbles?” The passerby nods. “Good,” says the man.
In the cobbled plaza, kids chase pigeons and play in the decorative fountain, the woman with the jewelry stall smokes a cigarette, and a man strums a guitar atop the fountain’s circular platform. In a short alley leading to a parking lot, three grubby looking men sit on a curb between a Dumpster and the public bathrooms.
“The cops are meaner in Eureka,” says Blain Sutton.
“You can’t sell a leather coat in Arcata,” says Jim Stark. “But you can cross the street there without getting run over.” He was run over once here in Eureka, riding his bike -- claims the cops interviewed everyone but him. “They just left me in the road because they thought me a ‘transient.’ I’ve been in Humboldt County for 30 years.”
“I live in Eureka,” says Sutton. “I just don’t have a roof over my head.” He lifts a hand and casts his eyes heavenward. “The sky, sis.”
The third guy, Jay Laughton, says he’s a traveler, not a transient. “I’m here because my 5-year-old daughter lives here,” he says. He gets up, says, “I’m going to go see if that guy has a cigarette,” and walks into the busy plaza. When he comes back a few minutes later, he’s laughing. “I asked him if he had been to Hawaii, because he’s wearing a shirt from there. He said, ‘Yeah.’ Then I asked him for a cigarette, and he said, ‘I’m just a tourist.’”
Laughton says he’s been living outside for 15 years -- half his life, in fact, ever since he left a childhood home inhabited by drug-addicted, abusive parents. “I don’t use drugs,” he says. “I do like beer.”
Meanwhile, the other two have disappeared together into the men’s bathroom. They’re in there a long time. Laughton says, “I really like Arcata, myself. But it’s gotten kind of violent. Up in Redwood Park, the pirate crew -- they like to fight. It’s whoever goes down first. See who’s toughest. And down at the [Arcata] plaza I’ve heard it’s gotten pretty crazy towards nighttime. Eureka -- I feel pretty much safe here. At night I go stash myself way in the tall bushes. And I feel that the tourists are more kind in Eureka than in Arcata. I think that’s because there’s so many kids panhandling there, and they’re more aggressive.”
The Shanty, Old Town Eureka, 4 p.m. Clint Capehart takes his pint of Steelhead from the fanciful dark interior of the bar -- red chandeliers and tin stars sparkle from the ceiling -- outside to the patio. He’s been in the army the past decade, and is now finishing up a forestry degree at Humboldt State. He’s lived in Eureka a year.
“Actually, I tried to find a house in Arcata, but I couldn’t,” he says. “I lived in my car a month, looking for a place. I did not want to live in Eureka because it looked like Tweakerville.”
But he likes Eureka, after all. “I think I like the ‘scene’ better here,” he says. “I'm 31, and there’s a little more of an older crowd here, a little more mature. I mean, I definitely live across the street from some drama, but…. It’s easier to make friends here. After the army, I grew a beard. Then I shaved it -- I went home, and my family was weirded out because I had a beard. After I shaved it, though, in Arcata people treated me differently. Maybe I didn’t look as ‘down.’”
Inside, Chris Colland, drummer for the band Eureka Garbage Co., has settled in at the bar with some books, including a David Bowie one, and a vodka cranberry tonic. “That’s funny, just yesterday we were talking about this, about Eureka and Arcata, because of the music scene,” he says. “There’s always been a mock rivalry between Arcata and Eureka, since the early ’90s at least.”
He says he and his friends would start up bands just to mock Arcata bands.
“But then we would notice that the Arcata folks took this seriously, and unfortunately it’s not much of a joke anymore," says Colland. "We’d be baiting them, then they’d usually take the bait, and then they’d say, ‘Well, screw you!”
Colland laughs. He breathes mockery. “It’s all a fucking joke.” But then he slips, says sincerely, “I think there’s this underlying love, though.”
Still, he prefers living in Eureka. “It’s ‘more real,’” he says, self-mockingly.
Or is it?
“I moved here from the Bay Area as soon as I turned 18,” says Colland. “My friends said, ‘Dude, this place is like a David Lynch film. It’s funny, it’s scary and it’s weird. Come up and check out this place. You would not believe it -- it’s a downtrodden cultural mecca of weirdness.’”
In the middle. Meanwhile, in Eureka, artist Michael Woods -- who lately has been setting up his easel in Old Town, and was painting a scene of the F Street Plaza fountain last Friday -- lives in one but prefers the other. “Definitely Arcata,” he says. “I have lived in both for many years. There’s fear in Eureka, and there’s no fear in Arcata. Arcata is a high self-esteem city, and Eureka is a low self-esteem city. Arcata’s a college town, so there’s more of an openness. When people have information and knowledge, there’s a confidence. In Eureka, you get too far away from that. Here you can get that feeling of prolonged hopelessness. I feel Eureka needs me. It needs good people. It needs some happiness.”