Last week my colleague Tarmo Hannula unveiled the first entry of a column I will be eagerly awaiting to read each month: Pajaro Valley, Past & Present. The column will be a deep dive into one of Watsonville’s many historic buildings – or an aspect of that property’s facade – that has survived the test of time.
If I were Tarmo, I would not know where to start. There are enough historic remnants scattered throughout downtown Watsonville alone to fill multiple jumbo-sized phone books (kids, a phone book is what we used to find a phone number before Apple put the power of God in our hands). And, like Tarmo said in his initial entry, I’ve never had the idea to dive deeper into those historical remains until the Pajaronian moved downtown last year.
I’ve driven through downtown Watsonville an uncountable amount of times, and I’ve also walked down the ever-changing Main Street plenty too, having grown up on nearby Rodriguez Street and attending Watsonville High School and Cabrillo College. But I’ve never had the time—or urge—to delve into the history of the buildings and locations that loom over the speeding cars on the highway thoroughfare and surrounding streets. It’s impossible to look at some of these buildings and not have questions about their creation and the history—the mischief, successes, failures and change—that followed their construction.
For example, did you know that President Ulysses S. Grant and women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony stayed in the Mansion House when it was a hotel in the late 1800s? Millennials, that would be the equivalent to President Obama and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez coming to town. Generation Z, that would be the equivalent to [insert YouTuber here] and [insert Instagram influencer here] visiting Watsonville—I’m kidding, please don’t cancel me. Obviously, those tidbits—which I learned while writing about the Mansion House last week—only scratch the surface of the history at one location.
That rich history—more than 150 years worth—is not being celebrated as it should be. It should be center stage, as one of the city’s main attractions, but, instead, it’s a forgotten side note in a traffic-heavy mess where everyone is too busy looking at their phones to stop and enjoy antiquity of a past era. I perused the City of Watsonville website to see if they have a guided walking tour of downtown, and found only a downloadable pamphlet that briefly describes 13 locations in the corridor, including the Mansion House, the City Plaza, the Lettunich Building and a few others. I found this under the website’s “Watsonville Attractions” section, which also features short features on the Apple Crate Murals and the wetlands surrounding the Nature Center.
I find it absolutely puzzling that the city does not offer or has not partnered with a local organization to create a recurring weekend historical walking tour of downtown Watsonville. Perhaps the city can work with the incredible volunteers at the Pajaro Valley Historical Association to lead the tours, or maybe it can reach out to history professors/students at Cabrillo College and UC Santa Cruz with ties to Watsonville who want to earn some extra cash to lead the tours.
For years, decades really, the city has said it has tried to bring people downtown to promote and support businesses that have struggled to find foot traffic. As a longtime Watsonville resident, I can’t say I completely agree with this. Sure, there is a new ongoing effort to revitalize the corridor with the Downtown Specific Plan—a document that will rethink the type of developments allowed in the area—and the city has also created a few new yearly events that bring folks into the heart of Watsonville, the Wine, Beer and Art Walk and the Music in the Plaza being chief among them. But the weekends without these events leave downtown’s streets mostly dry of people, and don’t support the riches already available—but largely uncelebrated—to members of the community.
We can sit around and wait for plans to be developed and implemented over the next few years, or, in the meantime, we can try to come up with ideas and solutions to bring people back downtown with the tools we have today. Take your pick.
Contact Pajaronian Managing Editor Tony Nuñez at [email protected]