The year is over and it’s time to look back at Lookout’s most memorable stories of 2023, which included everything from futuristic helicopters to mastodon fossils.
Am I the luckiest person in the world? There’s a pretty solid argument that says no. But in the 831 area code? I think I got a real shot at that one.
My job — what I get paid to do — is to talk to people, listen to their stories, be a willing audience as they articulate what is really meaningful to them, then share that with readers … and do it in an endlessly creative, often eccentric, different-drummer, allergic-to-boring place like Santa Cruz County. Beats flipping burgers, I’d say.
That’s a big reason (but not the only reason) why I love the last week of the year. I look at it as an opportunity to relive some of my experiences working as a journalist during the previous year. The grind in this business always requires you to put aside the last story and turn your focus to what’s next. But for one moment anyway, I can look back with (mostly) fond memories of the times I learned something new about this proudly distinctive community.
And I’m certainly not the only one. I am merely the most graybeard of Lookout’s team of otherwise energetic and talented young reporters. As a staff, we look at 2023 with a great sense of accomplishment. It was not merely just another year at Lookout, which launched in the fall of 2020. It constitutes a third of our lifetime as an organization.
Our goal as writers and reporters is to learn something we didn’t know before, in the hope and expectation that our readers will learn something too. So what did we learn, collectively, in 2023?
For one thing, I learned that names matter, especially when you’re talking about a certain area of Santa Cruz. Perhaps unwisely, we dove into the yearslong Midtown-vs.-Eastside debate, not to necessarily emerge with one definitive answer, but at least to figure out where so much of the passion is coming from. I interviewed many folks with either some significant stake or history in the part of Santa Cruz east of the San Lorenzo River and found nearly a different answer with every interview. Personal conceptions of local geography turn out to be nearly as individual as fingerprints. Who knew? Though it was the story I wrote that generated the most responses — questioning everything from my intelligence to my morals — it was also my favorite.
Similarly controversial, with perhaps much higher stakes, was my exploration of the question: What is the new emerging downtown Santa Cruz going to feel and look like?
That story came from a perception that many locals were convinced that the new downtown — which will emerge in the next decade with several new housing complexes, a new hotel, a new library and perhaps even a new sports/performing arts arena — would be ugly, over-urbanized and/or counter to Santa Cruz’s image of itself. I was struck by the sizable psychological gap between, for example, the city’s dazzling, almost utopian visions of the San Lorenzo Riverwalk between Soquel Avenue and Laurel Street and many locals’ decidedly darker and more pessimistic ideas of what’s coming. And, of course, this is an ongoing issue that in 2024 will become even more front and center in the city’s imagination.
I also had the chance to bring readers along on a few eye-opening experiences. In late June, I was one of hundreds of people invited to witness the public unveiling of the possibly game-changing air taxi to be manufactured by Santa Cruz’s Joby Aviation. I was thrilled to be on hand as the next evolutionary leap of the helicopter, a concept that first emerged from the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, took flight for a demonstration loop around the Marina airport. It was like gazing into the future.
A few weeks later, I found myself in Kaiser Permanente Arena in downtown Santa Cruz to watch a spectacle that, by contrast, sometimes felt like gazing into the deep dark past. It was a big MMA (mixed martial arts) title fight, featuring almost a dozen individual bouts, all culminating in the main event that included Santa Cruz’s hometown hero, veteran fighter Daniel Compton. By the end of the nearly four-hour event, I had become inured to seeing blood and was fascinated by the bizarre contrast of people (women as well as men) beating each other to a bloody pulp then falling into each other’s arms in a genuine expression of solidarity and respect. I’d be willing to wager that I was the only person who witnessed both the Joby launch and the MMA fight. (Um, along with my colleague and buddy Kevin Painchaud.)
Mostly, though, I’ll remember 2023 for all those moments I got to visit with compelling and accomplished people and share their triumphs, including novelists Nina Simon and Peggy Townsend, activist Isabel Contreras, skateboard master Judi Oyama, bookseller Andrew Sivak, author Lara Love Hardin who shared her amazing story of redemption, and graphic designer Steven Matteson, whose new typeface “Aptos” became the default font for Microsoft products, among many others.
I was also proud to launch our series “The Shapers,” focusing on those individuals who have had the broadest and most profound effect on how many in Santa Cruz County live today. The series has included former city planner Ceil Cirillo, the late philanthropist Rowland Rebele and artist Marcia McDougal, with plenty more coming in ’24.
But I’m not only a writer at Lookout, but a reader as well. And there were plenty of memorable stories from my colleagues. Our education writer, Hillary Ojeda, guided us all through the corn maze that was the Cabrillo College name-change controversy. You might remember the absorbing story from Christopher Neely about a giant and ancient tooth from an Ice Age mastodon found on the beach at Rio Del Mar. (Later, my colleague Max Chun reported on an ancient find of another kind.) Max also had the assignment for perhaps the most talked-about story of the year, that of the super-aggressive surfboard-stealing otter we all came to know (and love?) as Otter 841. And I still occasionally think about Lily Belli’s piece on where our takeout orders really come from (spoiler alert: It’s kind of a ghost story).
There are countless other stories of local curiosities and controversies that I haven’t mentioned from Lookout’s vaults in 2023. And, taken as a whole, they point to even more to come in 2024 — an election year, a crucial transition period toward a new downtown Santa Cruz, a time of perhaps big weather events, major accomplishments from local artists, activists and academics, and all kinds of unanticipated happenings. Let’s see where it all takes us together, shall we?
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