Is Santa Cruz a free-expression zone?

A young man called me last week, claiming responsibility for a mild kerfuffle in downtown Santa Cruz. A couple of weekends ago, he and his conspirators went downtown to run a kind of artistic tolerance experiment on Pacific Avenue. They handed out sidewalk chalk to passersby and encouraged them to do an impromptu kind of public art.

[photopress:street.jpg,full,alignright] So, for a brief while the sidewalks, streets and buildings of Santa Cruz were festooned with a temporary kind of graffiti. The man didn’t want to be identified, in case there was some kind of reprisal for his actions — is there a statute for handing out chalk? — but insisted everything was benign.

I walked down Pacific Avenue the next morning and saw only the smallest traces of the chalk art. But the whole episode brings up a pertinent question about Santa Cruz, which considers itself a haven for the creative: Are people doing chalk drawings on downtown streets creating valuable art, or defacing public property? Or, does it depend on what they’re drawing?

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4 thoughts on “Is Santa Cruz a free-expression zone?

  1. I hate to write this [insert sound of face slap], but it depends on the content.

    I’ve seen chalk art that was truly artistic, in the sense of being highly skilled and professional. It’s actually an art form, and you can find some shown on the Internet. Such art is roped off, not walked upon.

    Otherwise, chalking things was something that kids did for Halloween, at least in my generation. That, and hopscotch.

    Free expression is not the issue. There are numerous ways one can express oneself, and graffiti in any form has no place except maybe in times of sudden (not habitual) public protest.

    This is related to the “broken windows” theory of crime prevention, which you may have heard about in the case of Giuliani and New York City. The concept is that the presence of a lot of little no-nos enables bigger no-nos. When an area is free of little no-nos, it creates the visual impression that bigger no-nos will not be tolerated. I beleive the term “broken windows” comes from an urban phenomenon where there were abandoned factories. Over time, the local scruffs would gradually break the windows (I am familiar with this phenomenon from back east). Thus, the presence of broken windows readily suggested that an area was on the skids, that nobody cared, and that could be used as a staging ground for bigger crime.

    It is related to why holes in the Santa Cruz downtown area, after the earthquake, were a community problem.

    Chalking may be described as artistic expression. But then, window breakers would say that they are merely practicing for the ball field.

  2. Interesting question. Don’t think I buy into RobtA’s slippery slope argument. Sort of like the trickle down argument by giving the most wealthy Americans huge tax breaks, it will all just eventually trickle down to the rest of us.

    What the heck. Chalk for a day. As long as it wasn’t offensive and had the cooperation of business owners… why not? We need more stuff like that in Santa Crux.

    Not stuffy rich people with their dogs demanding dog parks and hating the homeless.

  3. So there is a great exhibit in the lobby of the Museum right now of the Guerilla art group, Truth in Advertising. The group basically defaced billboards in a very proffessional way so that you almost didn’t recognize that they had been vandalized unless you looked twice. but replaced the ads with subversive political messages. Legend has it (and maybe someone has some history here and knows if this is true) that the ad companies complained that the defacing of billboards had to stop and pressured city council to do something about it, so city council outlawed billboards.

    I guess the analogy here is that it is illigal to chalk on the sidewalks in Santa Cruz. maybe if this kind of criminal activity continues we can outlaw sidewalks.

  4. MP: That brings to mind a humorous true story. Years ago, before I went to France as a tourist, I studied French. I spent about a week in one provincial town that also had a university (rather like Cruz, without the beach).

    One day, I noticed that a new billboard appeared to have a grammatical error (I was of course sensitized to French grammar, at that point). The following day, I noticed that someone had come by and spray-painted the correct grammar. It was a high billboard, so it required effort to get there.

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