But even with the trolls, many residents and tourists came to enjoy the shops, the coffeehouses, stopping to rest on wrought-iron benches next to brick flower planters and gaze at the redwood-forested mountains in the distance. In 1989, Pacific Garden Mall merchants had hoped to ring up nearly $100 million in sales in 1990.
But then, a year ago Wednesday, the earth shook. Within minutes two-thirds of the mall's graceful stone and masonry buildings had collapsed or were damaged beyond repair. After the shock wore off, the trolls scattered.
Now Santa Cruz residents are debating whether in rebuilding downtown they can, and should, make the trolls disappear for good by following the trend of replacing public spaces with private places.
"The earthquake has given us an opportunity to fix the problems that came with Pacific Garden Mall," said City Council member Joe Ghio, a businessman running for re-election Nov. 6.
"I think we need to make the congregating area be on private property so people can be moved along," Ghio said. "You can't do that on public property
because then people have a right to congregate."
Which way Santa Cruz goes on these questions may be determined Nov. 6, when four of seven City Council seats will be decided.
Santa Cruz, a hotbed of political activism, twice has had a socialist mayor. The old business-based power structure that ran the city is history. Business supporters hold only two seats on the seven-member panel. Five seats are held by often squabbling progressives and liberals elected with strong backing from University of California, Santa Cruz, students and faculty.
The progressive faction is virtually guaranteed to remain in power. But recently its most popular candidate, Bookshop Santa Cruz owner Neal Coonerty, split with it on a key issue. He opposed letting charities build wooden platforms over some low-lying land near the now-wrecked mall so homeless
families could camp there during the coming winter.
That split may signal a coming shift in policies that conservatives like Ghio believe coddle the trolls and encourage their presence.
Bankers are watching this election. How they view the results will be critical to the rebirth of downtown.
The City Council has approved the first seven rebuilding projects for downtown. Only one, on a side street, has financing. The other projects, according to everyone interviewed here, cannot secure loans because banks fear that without troll-control new investment would be unsound.
Today the Pacific Garden Mall looks like London after the blitz, the latest victim of geological progress as Los Angeles inexorably inches north to San Francisco, a journey that will take eons.
Bulldozers have hauled away the rubble from more than one-third of the buildings, including the mall's crown jewel. Cooper House was the marble- stepped old courthouse with curved bay windows that became a house of boutiques with a sidewalk cafe and a mellow jazz band.
Cooper House is now just another hole in the mall, weeds flourishing in what had been a basement. Ugly chain-link fences surround everything.
Another third of the retail and office space stands derelict, beyond repair. The sidewalks are deserted. Only a few determined merchants hang on, some, like Coonerty, selling their wares from giant white plastic tents they euphemistically call "pavilions."
And while social service agencies report that the number of homeless has grown since the earthquake, during a weekend stroll not one troll begged for money, screamed at unseen demons or even quietly played the guitar in hopes fans would throw money.
But Ghio and many others believe that they will be back, especially if the city makes it comfortable for them.
Many here also believe banks will not make reconstruction loans until a lawsuit is settled over the old St. George Hotel. The three-story building is unsafe because of quake damage and was ravaged by fire one week ago.
But the hotel cannot be torn down because it has become a test case of municipal powers to raze buildings after earthquakes. A final judicial decision may take months.
The St. George owners say they want to build a new single-room-occupancy hotel, but the conservative faction opposes concentration of housing for the poor downtown.
The only issue on which there is broad agreement is that the new downtown will not have a single architectural theme, but like the old one will be eclectic.
"No one is going to re-create what was," observed Coonerty. "The solution has to be to build something contemporary to our times, but eclectic, something that will again make Pacific Garden Mall attractive."
Bruce Van Allen, a former mayor who was part of the progressive wing of the City Council and who serves on a San Lorenzo River task force, wants to create an old European downtown.
He has proposed strengthening levees so that offices, shops and apartments can front the river and add new charm. His vision includes single-room housing above downtown stores so the poor do not need cars or as much public transit.
John Lisher, the Chamber of Commerce executive director, likes Van Allen's proposal but thinks life without automobiles is a "romantic ideal."
However the election goes, bookseller Coonerty believes the downtown will again rise and charm visitors. "Ten years out I think business people will be lining up to get into downtown," Coonerty said. "Remember, our customers didn't disappear, only our building did."
And, for now at least, the trolls.