Whose Arcata?

From pot growers and transients to goats and the affluent, a city struggles to find its identity



It's one of those incredible late-summer days in Arcata when the air is so crisp and the sun so brilliant that the plaza looks almost comical, like someone jacked up the color saturation in Photoshop: the royal blue sky, the rainbow umbrella on O'dogs hot dog cart; the flowerbed splotches of magenta foxgloves and frosty mauve violets. And that lawn! That lawn, which gleams rich and vibrant as wet paint, is scattered with people -- two different kinds of people, actually, groups that, if you look closer, are so dissimilar, so distinct in attire and demeanor, they could hail from separate dimensions.

In the central circle, a small crowd of couples and families gathers around a folk singer strumming her guitar. They sprawl on blankets, tap their feet on concrete flower beds and recline in folding chairs, munching sandwiches. A mom, dad and little girl trot hand-in-hand across that vivid grass. Mid-stride, the girl lofts into the air, dangling from her parents' arms, then lands on rubbery legs, wide-eyed and giggling.

The other group seems indifferent to the sun and the music.  An agitated man with thinning hair inspects a gutter in the northwest corner. "I'm looking for cigarette butts," he mutters to another man nearby. A guy in a tattered army surplus coat lifts a paper coffee cup out of a trash can, peels back the plastic lid and, finding it empty, chucks it back in. Sitting on the northern curb, across from the seedy gauntlet of Ninth Street's "Bar Row," a man and woman in rumpled clothes glare at a group of police officers. "Now there's four of 'em," the woman says indignantly. "Don't they have somethin' better to do?"

Arcata, perhaps more than any other town in the county, prides itself on community. It boasts walkable streets, social enlightenment and a calendar chock-full of festivals and farmers markets. The plaza, with its stern if ineffectual chaperone, a nine-foot bronze statue of President William McKinley, attracts a diverse assortment of humanity -- including an inordinate number of glassy-eyed Deadheads, hoop-twirling flower children and waylaid wanderers. It's a city that's defines itself as open-minded and culturally sensitive, even if those ideals are mostly expressed through Earth flags and Namaste stickers.

But some say that the vibe in Arcata has been changing, that the town's residents have been dividing into hardened little sections like sun-baked mud. There's the new breed of profit-hungry marijuana growers, callously destroying rental properties and attracting crime. There's the transient and homeless population, attracted by the town's welcoming attitude and systematically wearing out that welcome. And there are the business owners and homeowners, financially invested residents who are sick of feeling harassed and intimidated. Or who have have succumbed to NIMBYism, as their critics charge.

"I see a lot of friction," said business leader and City Councilmember Alexandra Stillman, whose first stretch on the council spanned from 1972 to 1980, including four years as mayor. "We have value frictions going on."

Stillman's generation shaped Arcata's dominant identity. With leadership from the likes of Dan Hauser and Wesley Chesbro (both of whom went on to serve in the state Assembly), they transformed a conservative mill town into an offbeat outpost for environmental revolutionaries who believed, long after their peers had grown disillusioned, that they could help save the world. Environmentally innovative and politically pugnacious, Arcata earned the nickname "Berkeley of the North."

Yet the emblematic achievements of that generation, including the Arcata Community Recycling Center (established in 1970), the wastewater treatment system in the Arcata Marsh (opened in 1985) and the nation's first Green-majority city council (elected in 1996), are now beset by modern complications. The recycling center's financial stability was rocked by the recession, leading the county Board of Supervisors in June to award the bulk of the center's business to a Willits company. The marsh's wastewater treatment ponds have entered a jurisdictional limbo that's jeopardizing its permitted status. And the late-'90s Green Party coup, which some pundits expected to launch a nationwide trend, proved to be more about labels than ideology (Arcata's Democrats, Greens and independents can be indistinguishable).

As the emblems of Arcata's specialness lose their rallying power, the town's sense of a communal personality has likewise been diluted. "Arcata's identity has kind of dwindled," said Mary Lou Bertolini, who with her husband owns the Art Center, an art supply store on the plaza. "It's not as eco-groovy or user-friendly a town anymore."

Facing rampant pot production, a lawsuit over its recent panhandling ordinance and an array of divisive social issues, Arcata is in the midst of an identity crisis, struggling to figure out what kind of city it will be for the next generation.


Brenda Bishop was sitting in the crowded bleachers of the Arcata Ball Park this summer enjoying a Humboldt Crabs game, when a man next to her lit up a joint. Right out in the open. She was stunned. Imagine if this guy had lit a regular cigarette, she thought. People certainly wouldn't tolerate that. Yet this guy was brazenly smoking marijuana in a crowd that included families and the elderly. "Everyone sitting in that area got very agitated and frustrated," Bishop said. But they didn't say anything.

So Bishop took it upon herself. She asked him to stop, or at least leave the park to smoke. "He was very aggressive, said this is his right, he has a 215 card." Fed up, she left the game herself.

An Arcata resident since 1978, Bishop is now the executive director of the Arcata Chamber of Commerce. And though she was reluctant to admit it, given her job, she said Arcata has definitely changed for the worse. Visitors tell her the town is not very friendly, and she agrees. "We tend not to be very kind to each other. I think we've become very reactive, very divisive and negative. ... There's definitely something in the air." Numerous factors have contributed to the decline in manners, she said, including a general coarsening of popular culture, but she feels that nothing has been more damaging to Arcata than its permissive attitude toward marijuana. "Tolerance run amok," she called it.

It's not the medical marijuana dispensaries, "who are Chamber members, believe it or not," Bishop said. No, her beef is with the greedy indoor growers who have infiltrated the town since the passage of Proposition 215, aka the Compassionate Use Act of 1996. These people, she said, are "destroying our town and our community. And it hurts me at a level that I can't even describe."

In recent years, Arcata's cannabis fame has morphed from a low-level (albeit international) nudge-wink esteem into a mainstream cautionary tale about the dark side of quasi-legalization. In profiles like A&E's "Pot City, U.S.A." and The New York Times' "The High Life," Arcata has been described, to one extent or another, as a town overrun by indoor weed growers who've brought with them plagues of electrical fires, mold damage and violent crime.

While many of the reports have been overwrought, it's true that the marijuana boom has had profound impacts on Arcata -- not all of them negative. "We have to recognize -- and I think we do recognize in Arcata -- that our economy didn't suffer so bad [during the recession] partly because of marijuana," said Councilmember Susan Ornelas. But the black market has had negative consequences too, mostly related to grow houses. It's hard to know just who started offering estimates of how many of Arcata's homes have been converted to indoor nurseries; estimates range from one of every six houses (a figure attributed to "law enforcement officials" in the A&E special) to two in five (says the New York Times piece mentioned above, again citing "law enforcement officials.")

Curiously, these rumored grow houses don't seem to be gobbling up electricity to keep the grow lights on. Arcata's residential electricity usage is actually lower than most other cities in Humboldt County. According to data obtained from PG&E, Arcata homes averaged 516 kilowatt hours last year. Only Fortuna (514 kWh) and Eureka (493 kWh) were more efficient among the county's seven incorporated cities. To some extent those numbers should be taken with a grain of salt. City size plays a major role because larger cities tend to be more energy efficient on a per-household basis. So the Journal also examined how much electricity usage has increased in each community in recent years. Again, Arcata came out near the bottom. The city's average electricity use per household increased by 4.5 percent from 2006 to 2010. Only Trinidad did better, increasing just 3.6 percent. Rio Dell's rate, by comparison, jumped a whopping 38 percent.

Still, any city in Humboldt County should be graded on a curve: As the Journal reported last year ("The Climate-Killers Inside," March 11, 2010), the county's residential electricity usage has skyrocketed since the late 1990s while the rest of the state's levels have remained relatively flat.

Former Councilmember Michael Machi said the industry has shifted from being a source for supplemental income into "total commercialism." Rental houses are being turned into indoor nurseries, which is especially problematic in Arcata where the cost of housing is already inflated. "These houses are out of circulation for the rental market," Machi said. "That's driven up the prices. It makes [Humboldt State] students go farther away, and they have to live in more substandard housing. That's had pretty large, wide-range effects that have rippled out into the community."

Bishop, the Chamber of Commerce director, said that the unofficial stoner holiday of April 20 brings the wrong kind of tourists to town. "When 4/20 rolls around you'd be amazed at the people we see at the Chamber," she said. "People who've come to town come here to the Chamber [expecting] to buy pot."

For the past two years, Arcata officials have severely cracked down on the annual festivities, which once drew hundreds if not thousands of glass-pipe-wielding revelers to Redwood Park. Last year, city employees spread manure on the main field and barricaded the park's entrances while police officers assembled en masse to deter people from entering the public park. (They informed pedestrians that the day's event had been "canceled.")

As production has reportedly increased there has been a commensurate escalation of animosity surrounding the pungent plant. Just ask Kevin Hoover, editor and publisher of the Arcata Eye. He's been threatened with boycotts, maligned in his own paper and even subpoenaed to court for reporting on grow houses. "When money's involved, all bets are off," Hoover said. "It doesn't only change people's motivations, it changes their very perceptions."

Councilmember Stillman said this decline in communal respect has extended into the broader population. "We've lost that basic caring that we had a while back," she said.


The marijuana debate isn't the only place where Arcata residents have noticed a decline in friendliness. The flash of outrage that accompanied Cypress Grove Chevre's plan to build a large goat dairy on the Arcata Bottom -- and that quickly caused Cypress Grove to abandon that plan ("The Goat Test," July 28) -- led many residents to decry the protesters' blatant rudeness and to speculate about a rise of NIMBYism.

Stillman said Arcata certainly has its share of NIMBYs, though she doesn't see it as a particularly new phenomenon. "There's that whole thing that happens where people come to town and they don't want anyone following them," she said.

Not everyone thinks that Arcata is getting meaner. Councilmember Ornelas, for one, doesn't buy the premise that the city's manners have devolved. "I think it's as friendly as it's ever been," she said. "I was just talking to one of my grandson's friends, an 11-year-old who was like, 'I love Arcata! It's such a great place!'" Asked if she thought the city was growing less tolerant politically she responded, "Some people might say the panhandling ordinance means we're not liberal anymore. I disagree with that. We looked at it as a way of protecting the rights of everyone here."

Ah, yes, the panhandling ordinance. With the possible exception of grow houses, no recent issue has better exemplified Arcata's agonized struggle to remain compassionate without being a pushover. The challenge, from the city's perspective, was figuring out how to curtail what had become rampant, sometimes aggressive begging without infringing on Arcata residents' revered right to free speech.

The long-simmering problem finally came to a head in October 2009, when the city council asked staff to draft an ordinance limiting where and how people were allowed to ask for spare change. Complaints to the council, police and city staff had reached a crescendo, with some residents saying they'd simply given up on going to the plaza. The panhandling, they said, had gotten completely out of hand.

In March of 2010 the council narrowly passed Ordinance No. 1399, which outlawed "aggressive" panhandling and established geographical restrictions, prohibiting begging within 20 feet of any store entrance, ATM, bus stop, intersection or foot bridge, among other limits. But now the city is being sued by Arcata resident Richard Salzman, whose lawyer alleges that the geographical limits violate the First Amendment.

Panhandling is another arena in which one segment of Arcata has turned against another, causing conflict not only in the city but within individuals. "I'm super torn. I really am," said Rebecca Lacasse, a lifelong local who has worked in a number of businesses on and near the plaza. She recently opened her own, a tiny garden supply/seed shop/nursery called Eden, just off the plaza. She could barely stand to hear herself complain about the new-style marijuana growers and the panhandlers -- such clichés! And yet ... that's what she deals with on a daily basis.

A brief side-story: After Lacasse applied for her business license, a woman from the planning department called her up, concerned. "She asked if I was growing pot or selling pot because I had put myself down as resale/nursery," Lacasse recalled. "The fact that somebody would ask me that just seemed rude and odd -- kind of cutting off a conversation at that point. I've lived here my entire life and you're gonna ask me if I'm growing or selling pot on the plaza? Give me a break."

Back to the main point: Lacasse's conflicted feelings about transients and panhandlers have been influenced by firsthand trauma: In 1998 she witnessed a stabbing on the plaza. A transient man, who had been distributing white pride pamphlets from the post office, attacked a mixed-race couple walking through the plaza, Lacasse said. He "gutted" the man and slashed the woman's face, she recalled.

Lacasse, who had just arrive to the plaza on her way to work, ran to the woman and held her, using a scarf to stop the bleeding. She later had to face the attacker when she testified in court. And though the two victims survived, Lacasse has struggled to recover emotionally. "It was the most horrible thing I've ever been through," she said. She knows her experience was an anomaly, yet other people have stories, too.

"There have been so many really, really shitty things that have happened around here, and they've stemmed from that [transient] population," she said.

If any group still maintains a glowing estimation of Arcata, it's the homeless themselves. "I think it's a great place," said a man hanging out with a group of transients outside Toby & Jacks bar last week. He asked to be identified as Robin. "This is the only other place I've found besides where I'm from that feels like home."

His friend, who goes by Hippie (yes, really), agreed. "Just earlier today the Endeavor gave me a whole bunch of food -- different kinds of bread, some peanut butter and nice, warm, friendly smiles," he said.

The Arcata Endeavor -- a name that's stuck despite a 2009 rechristening as The North Coast Resource Center -- is a frequent scapegoat for the city's panhandling and transient problems. Residents say the homeless resource organization has kept its doors open too wide, and that by offering to feed all comers it came to be dominated by belligerent layabouts.

Nearly everyone the Journal spoke with for this story, however, including NCRC Executive Director John Shelter, said there have been marked improvements in the way the organization operates, as well as with the transient "problem" generally. The homeless people served by the group now do more in the community, working on employment readiness by fulfilling contracts with the California Coastal Conservancy, the Harbor District and other agencies. "We grew up," Shelter said. "We left our adolescent years behind."

Shelter remains offended by the city's attitude toward its less fortunate residents. "We've criminalized the homeless," he said. Regarding the panhandling ordinance he lamented, "I hate when we create laws against people who are begging. ... Most of our people are defeated by lack of hope."

Paul Pitino, a councilmember from 2004 through 2008, said that in Arcata, like the rest of America, the gap between the haves and have-nots is widening. "It's great for the affluent," he said. "I mean it just gets better for them here in Arcata. And for us who aren't that way, we have to struggle for it."


Last Friday the plaza was again voluntarily segregated into groups. Robin and Hippie and their crew congregated in front of Bar Row, leaning against the cyclone fence between the Alibi and Toby & Jack's. A leather-heavy crowd with copious piercings and loaded backpacks spread across the northwest corner, lounging in languid circles. On the southern half of the square, families with strollers spread tablecloths on the soft lawn for an afternoon picnic. Sitting on a corner bench, a man shook the last morsels from a can of beef stew into his upturned mouth.

It was just three days before the start of the fall semester at HSU, and there was a third variety of people strolling around and through the plaza: incoming students, accompanied by their parents. Most of them will leave in a few years, but a few will stay in Arcata. So will some of the transients. They'll find jobs and places to rent. Families that have been here for years will pick up and leave, and other families will move into their houses. And the city will keep changing.


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