Many a blue moon hath passed since the old days of HSU students coexisting with millionaire weed criminals and attending psychedelic-themed harvest parties in the forest on the full moon.
The Arcata plaza, once a bustling mecca of culture and community, is now a shadowy remnant of its former self. Whether from COVID-19, cannabis legalization, changing of the tides or a hellish concoction of all three, the Humboldt County community has regressed from happy hippie haven to sullen farm town and in not much more time than it just took me to describe.
I began attending Humboldt State University in the fall of 2015, about a year before marijuana was legalized for recreational use in California. When I arrived in town for the first time, it filled me with the warmest feeling of togetherness and glee, comparable only to falling head over heels in love.
My first time attending the Arcata Farmers Market, I witnessed children laughing and playing in the sunshine, street performers and fire spinners entertaining the crowds with a huge smile on their face. There were vagabond travelers smoking six-inch-long joints right in the middle of the square. Live music and block parties could be found in every neighborhood on every weekend. Obama was president. Nobody had a care in the world.
“If I’m ever describing Arcata I say it’s like a golden vein. A little golden vein of music right in the middle of California,” said Nick Flores in a 2015 interview. At the time, Flores was in a popular local band called the Smooth Weirdos with two HSU students. All three have since left the area.
Fast-forward 2016 California legalized cannabis for recreational use. About two years later the price of a pound of weed plummeted overnight. Generally speaking, a large portion of Humboldt County’s population had their income cut in half. People got desperate. A lot of people got robbed or killed. That did not just apply to farmers either. Trimmers making $200 per pound one day made $100 per pound the next day, which made several of them hang up their scissors.
Many trimmers and farm hands were from other countries, colloquially referred to as “trimmigrants,” and were deterred from ever returning once the jobs did not pay as well. Suddenly, there were no more foreigners coming into town on the weekends with five grand in cash in their pocket to blow at the local shops, bars and restaurants.
All the people holding cardboard signs with crude drawings of scissors on them could no longer be seen lining Highway 299 near Willow Creek. Barkeeps and smoke shop owners could be seen for miles around scratching their heads, wondering when, if ever, their customers would return.
At that point, it was starting to become pretty clear the economy was struggling. Even with legal marijuana companies popping up, the jobs were not nearly as available and the ones that were usually paid no more than a restaurant job. Processing cannabis is, unfortunately, not difficult enough to justify the exorbitant salaries people were getting during the heyday of cannabis illegality.
Fast-forward to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and now the students were gone too. This is one of the few college towns rural enough that even one semester of remote learning sending students back to their family homes was enough to cause irrevocable damage in a community that is already half-impossible to access, lacking terribly in basic infrastructure and severely inundated with homeless students.
HSU’s enrollment was in steep decline even before the pandemic, down almost 50% since 2016 according to data recently released by the school. I have to wonder if those numbers will ever reverse even with a polytechnic designation, which the school has predicted will double the student population in seven years. Even if the school’s prediction is correct, there is not enough housing for the students we already have.
Maybe I was just a bit more of an idealist in 2015. Maybe I’m too old and too grouchy. Maybe Humboldt used to be a mecca for illegal activity and these are all just necessary growing pains on the way to a healthier community. Or maybe the magic is just kind of gone. It seems like people are not quite as happy as they used to be.
I know COVID-19 made everybody anti-social, but I would challenge everybody to just be a little more kind. Let’s bring back a little bit of that classic, happy-go-lucky hippie vibe that Humboldt was built on. Otherwise, I cannot envision a future that does not end in the locals getting priced out of living here when the area becomes nothing more than a small-town tourist destination filled with vacation homes and cannabis-themed gift shops.
Patrick, I just read your essay on HSU’s Lumberjack. Well done. On a recent road trip driving down from Washington I decided to stop in Arcata and visit HSU. The first place I went was the town square. I was shocked. I remember the square just as you described it: friendly, colorful, artistic populated by students/hippies (of which I was both!) with the fresh aroma of pot smoke. As a student I lived up the hill in Kneeland where there was a gathering of students and friends living as one. Your article brought back incredible memories of a long-ago past. I’m sorry things have changed for the worse. Arcata/HSU wasn’t always as it is today. I use to love going up to Trinidad Beach. Thank you. Steven Jehly HSU Class of 1972.