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The Leftmost City: Power & Progressive Politics in Santa Cruz

Contents of this section

• Introduction

• History of Santa Cruz

• Progressive Politics in Santa Cruz

• Former supervisor Gary Patton's commentary on The Leftmost City

• Other reviews & commentaries on The Leftmost City

• Links & further reading about Santa Cruz

Videos

• How UCSC Became Unique

by G. William Domhoff

From the late 1960s until recently, Santa Cruz, California was the most politically progressive medium-sized or large city in the United States. An unlikely confederation of socialist-feminists, social-welfare liberals, neighborhood activists, and environmentalists stopped every major development project they didn't like after 1969, and controlled the city council from 1981 through the beginning of the 21st century. Berkeley, Burlington, Madison, San Francisco, Santa Monica — none of them had as progressive a government for as long.

By 2010, however, the progressive coalition was in decline due to a lack of burning issues and new ideas to energize it. Long-time activists had accomplished their local goals, and there was no new generation of activists to replace past leaders. The two or three remaining progressives on the city council try to coexist in an increasingly uneasy relationship with three conservatives and one centrist — elected in 2006, 2008, and 2012 — in the name of neighborhood safety. With the threats that developers once posed to neighborhoods (due to their expansionary plans for the downtown and tourism) now safely in the past, the progressives who won office by promising to save neighborhoods are now portrayed as "neglecting" neighborhood issues. This is not only an irony, but it fits with the importance of neighborhoods in understanding challenges to any local power structure.

Since most cities are usually controlled by real estate developers and their buddies, Santa Cruz is a good test case for comparing theories of urban power. Atypical cases are helpful in eliminating theories from consideration if they cannot explain the unexpected events.

That's why Richard Gendron and I wrote The Leftmost City: Power and Progressive Politics in Santa Cruz (Westview Press, 2009). It concludes that the growth coalition theory of urban power is the one urban theorists should build on because the basic political conflict in Santa Cruz pitted downtown landowners and real estate developers against neighborhood activists, who unexpectedly triumphed because they had the help of faculty, staff, and students at UC Santa Cruz — the most liberal public university in the country — as well as environmentalists who wanted to protect the beautiful coastline from Santa Cruz to San Francisco. We then point out the weaknesses of the three main alternatives to growth coalition theory: public choice theory, urban Marxist theory, and regime theory, which are also discussed on this site.

The book has been called "important" and "accessible" for undergraduates, and useful in classrooms because it is "well written and jargon free," according to a review in Teaching Sociology by James De Angelis of Ohio University. Former Cleveland planner and long-time Cleveland State University city planning professor Norman Krumholz, one of the deans of the planning profession, says that it is "brilliant" and "an exceptional book that is a pleasure to read" because it is "written in a way that is clear and lucid, free of posturing and jargon." San Jose State University political scientist Terry Christensen, who has written perceptively on urban politics for 35 years, is almost as laudatory, concluding that the book is persuasive in its critique of the reigning theory of urban politics and "gives us a deeper understanding of politics in American communities." He likes the fact that it introduces students to the four main theories of urban power through the presentation of such an interesting and unique case study — where the underdogs actually won for a change.

This Web site can be considered a supplement to that book for those who want to know more about the history of the city and the political leaders who have run it. It also provides information on other books and Web sites about Santa Cruz.

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About Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz is a picturesque city of 58,000 people on the Pacific coast, 75 miles south of San Francisco. It may not be paradise, but it's a very attractive place to live compared to many American cities. Nestled on a ten-mile strip of coastal shelf land between the heavily forested Santa Cruz Mountains to the north and the shorelines of Monterey Bay to the south, the city has