Bruce Van Allen, 45 Year River Advocate

Dear Jane,

I sat down with Bruce Van Allen this week and asked him to tell me more about his 45-year advocacy for the San Lorenzo! There is hardly a committee or a project related to the River that he has not participated in during these years. To hear about Bruce’s life is to understand a lot about the history of the River and the difference that the dedication of one person can make.

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Bruce Van Allen

As an activist and politician both, Bruce is one of those unusual people who seem able to sustain enthusiasm for public service through many decades of both setbacks and successes. Since arriving in Santa Cruz in 1970, at age 20, with leftist politics and a hippie pony tail, he has thrown himself into one cause after another, one political campaign after another. But the cause which captured his heart almost as soon as he arrived in Santa Cruz in 1970, and has continued to engage him for almost five decades, is the fate of the San Lorenzo River.

Known to many as “Mr. River”, Bruce has never lost his determination to bring back the San Lorenzo’s habitat values and make the river a more people-friendly and aesthetic area as it flows through the center of Santa Cruz.

Bruce arrived in Santa Cruz in 1970, just 15 years after the infamous flood of 1955, which drowned Santa Cruz in floodwaters, and brought the Army Corps of Engineers marching in to remedy the situation. Bruce remembers his earliest response to the river’s malaise. “I was looking at the river and feeling that there was something wrong in having such a damaged stream in a region celebrated for its natural features. I heard from somewhere that this used to be a major fishing river. But the fish were all gone by the time I got here. It was so barren. You would be shocked. It reminded me of the Los Angeles River, except that it wasn’t all concrete. It just got me!”

SLR_barren_levees_webIn response to the Flood of 1955, The Army Corps had pushed forward a plan that included a series of levees and channel alterations that would supposedly protect the City from a 100-year flood. The design developed by the Corps was the blunt instrument approach that was current at the time. The channel of the River was straightened and narrowed, and its bed dredged down to be deep enough to hold high flows. The channel banks were lined with rock riprap to provide stability and keep their sand and clay cores from eroding.  After construction of the levees, no plants or trees were allowed in the channel in order to eliminate the ‘roughness factor’ that could lead to turbulence and potential logjams. By the time the project was completed in 1960, it was considered the ultimate in engineered flood protection.

Rip Rap on Bank
Bruce Van Allen

Many people like Bruce were horrified at the results.  “The river had essentially been turned into a rock-lined ditch, an utter wasteland.  Post-flood construction had built all the new buildings with their backs to the river, creating  the river as a back alley.  The levees were still covered with thick, heavy rock, with barely any vegetation. When you see the photos of that time, the entire banks of the levee are  long white stripes cutting through town! And the riverbed itself was plain sand because all the vegetation and sediment build-up had to be constantly removed. There were no trees on the river except on the benchlands, the only park-like area left along the whole river below Highway One. Even the big trees there now, the sycamores and cottonwoods, were teeny. This was all according to the requirements of the Flood Control Project of the Army Corps of Engineers.”

Bruce remembers with an amused smile his first inspiration for the denuded river. He decided that what the river needed was sculptures created with discarded neon signs! He had just left UCLA where he had fond memories of the expansive sculpture garden there. “When I looked at the treeless levees, my first vision was that maybe it could be a place for art. Santa Cruz had several years earlier passed an ordinance requiring that all billboards and large neon signs be taken down. In 1973 the grace period for keeping signs ended. For a period you saw trucks hauling these old signs away from sites all over town. I had met a guy who had bought up a lot of those old signs, signs with flashing cocktail glasses for instance. I thought it would be cool to set these up as sculptures along the river!” That idea didn’t fly.

Bert Muhly

In 1973, Santa Cruz elected its first neighborhood activists and environmentalists to the City Council, Bert Muhly, Sally Di Girolamo, and Virginia Sharp. Bert had become a local hero by fighting a development which would have put 30,000 homes on the site that is now Wilder Ranch State Park.

Gary Patton
Gary Patton

This was followed not long afterwards by the campaign to Save Lighthouse Field which came to a head in 1974 with a ballot measure that successfully stopped the construction of a shopping center and convention center along West Cliff Drive and propelled Gary Patton, one of its main leaders, into County office. Bruce jumped into both campaigns as “a face in the crowd.”   Along with other activists from the anti-Vietnam War and civil rights struggles, he saw first hand how organizing methods from these struggles could be applied to local environmental threats. “A lot of people in my generation were saying, ‘Whoa, we just made a big difference by getting organized. Let’s keep doing that!’”

Bruce kept thinking and talking about the San Lorenzo River. But at that time no one was particularly interested. The attitude, according to Bruce, was that it was seen as a lost cause, just a set of problems for the City. People said, ‘it’s a flood danger, it’s expensive for the Public Works Department to maintain all of its pumps and drains, and there were more urgent issues.” Bruce then threw himself into organizing artists and craftspeople to establish an Open Market for local crafts’ sales downtown, and then turned to organizing the Santa Cruz Art Center, a cooperative of studios and galleries controlled by the artists themselves. Concerned about increasing rental costs, he then began organizing tenants around rent control, work that put a measure on the ballot in 1978 and again in 1979, both times failing by narrow margins.

With some political experience and visibility on his side, Bruce cut off his ponytail and ran for City Council. By that time environmentalists, neighborhood preservationists, advocates for increased local social services, feminist health and anti-rape activists, and tenants had knit themselves together in the early stages of what became the Santa Cruz progressive movement. In March, 1979, at 29 years old, he became the one of the youngest people to have ever been elected to the Santa Cruz City Council. And in 1982 he became the second youngest Mayor in Santa Cruz history.

page smith
Page Smith

“When I got on the Council, I started raising the issue of the river again. By the time I was appointed mayor, I realized that people came to meetings called by a mayor! I managed to drum up a little more interest in the river. At about the same time, former UCSC founding professor Page Smith had also gotten interested in the river. And there were some people like my friend Fred McPherson from the San Lorenzo Valley who joined in.

Page, Fred and others, in fact, had actually put on a River Encampment in 1976 in the San Lorenzo Park benchlands, partly to celebrate the U.S. Bicentennial, but also to draw attention to the River. A few years later the William James Association, Page and Eloise Smith’s non-profit arts organization, sponsored a grant written by a homeless guy named Billy Quealy to explore the river’s potential. The grant paid for a world class design firm, Danadjieva and Koenig, to come to Santa Cruz and look at the river and tell us what they thought its potential was for Santa Cruz. The consultants came up with an incredible plan but the grant was tiny so all they could give us was their notes and a slide show. There was no official report or plan that you could do something from. This was completed and presented to the community not long after I was elected to the City Council.”

Unknown“With one of my interns, Shelley Poticha, now Director of Urban Solutions at the Natural Resources Defense Council, I started taking the slide show around and making presentations. The slide show argued that there was at least urban design potential for the river.The consultants had gone upstream where they saw the beautiful area called the Garden of Eden, just south of Felton. They said ‘we have to reproduce that down here.’ They had these ideas, but they came from a very European mentality in which nature was valued but it was totally shaped and cultivated. The European mentality didn’t have the same kind of ‘leave the wilderness alone’ thing that we have here.  It wasn’t about habitat, but about capturing beauty from the more natural parts of the river and reproducing that down here. This was more about aesthetics and urban design but there was enough in there about the birds and the fish and bugs that kept me kind of going.”

Bruce went off the Council in 1983 but kept holding meetings. In 1984, Mayor Mardi Wormhoudt said, “We have got to do something about this river.” She appointed a river task force, with Bruce as the chair. The Committee included people with a broad range of interests, including Charles Canfield of the Seaside Company, Gary Griggs, the coastal hydrologist and geology professor from the University, Woutje Herrick, Bud Prindle, a prominent realtor, environmentalist Linda Wilson – fourteen in all. Dave Bockman, the local leader of the Sierra Club and a very dedicated environmentalist took part in most of the meetings. I had to use all of my skills in getting diverse people to reach consensus, and in 1987 we unanimously recommended a plan to the City Council that combined habitat restoration, flood protection, and integrating the river into the surrounding cityscape.”

This opened a new chapter in the river’s recent history and is a good place to end this first portion of the tale.  In a future blog I hope to tell the rest of the story about how Bruce’s role as river advocate has continued down into the present day, including years of service on several task forces and committees whose cumulative work yielded the San Lorenzo Urban River Plan in 2003, the current document governing the management of the River. (Click the ‘Links’ tab on this blog to find a copy of this document.) I’ll tell you more about some of the amenities on the river that owe a lot to Bruce’s work -like the pedestrian bridge near Highway One and the section of the walkway by Beach Hill that connects the Beach Flats area with downtown Santa Cruz. I’ll also tell you how Bruce stepped in as a key mediator in some tense moments in the history of our City’s relationship with the Army Corps of Engineers!

During the last couple of years, as the City has shown a renewed interest in developing the recreational and commercial potential of the River, Bruce has sought a balance between the City’s development goals and the priorities for habitat protection and enhancement. Aware  that the broader community might only support  environmental protection if they saw the river as an asset rather than a wasteland, Bruce has supported re-visioning the River as a safer and more friendly place for people. But Bruce also has a strong commitment to the protection of the environment.  He does not own a car, and can be seen bicycling everywhere in Santa Cruz.   Consequently, and at some political risk, he has chosen to offer his support to those individuals and groups who have recently opposed recreational programs that threaten the wildlife of the river.

I will write more in a future blog about Bruce and the unfolding political history of the San Lorenzo River. Stay tuned.

Best to you, Jane! Keep flowing with the River and with history.




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