It is easy to wax poetic about a circle. Its importance can be found in the cosmos, mathematics, and in analogies to the cycles of life, death and rebirth. Circles are ubiquitous in design from architecture to fashion.
One place they are not common is as the design foundation for cities and urban streets. While examples can be found of circular cities ancient and futuristic, modern ones like the city of Nahalal in Israel are rare. Circular subdivisions and street plans like Sun City, Arizona also stand out as not the norm. Thus, it should not strike anybody as too surprising that Santa Cruz, California, known for its “keep it weird” culture, should be home to “The Circles” neighborhood.
If you live in Santa Cruz, or have visited, you’ve probably encountered The Circles. Located on the city’s Westside, they lay between the main thoroughfare and famous ocean features like Steamer Lane, Lighthouse Point and Natural Bridges State Beach. You can theoretically miss them, but if you veer of the straight and narrow for any reason, you are likely to get sucked into their vortex. It can take an appreciable amount of time to get out. You’re not lost exactly, you just do not move through them as efficiently as you might want; you go in circles!
The neighborhood’s origins date back to 1889 when three businessmen offered land to the Christian Church of California (Disciples of Christ) to build a tabernacle for their annual conventions. The idea was to have a large tabernacle surrounded by roads laid out in concentric circles. The large and imposing tabernacle was built and dedicated on Aug. 31, 1890. The surrounding lots were offered at auction within the tabernacle at $105 to $135 each. The tabernacle was the largest auditorium in town for many years. The development was named Garfield Park in honor of James Garfield, a preacher in the national Disciples of Christ church and also the recently assassinated 19th President of the United States. During an early convention, the official name was changed to “Christian Park,” but it didn’t stick. The tabernacle burned down in 1935 and the lot sat empty until the congregation built the Garfield Park Christian Church in 1958. Still going today, the church is often referred to as “The Circle Church.”
The Circles is largely considered a “marvelous planning disaster” by the architecturally minded. It was developed in a haphazard fashion. Tent homes made of plywood and canvas were common in the early years. The circle pattern also resulted in many odd and substandard-sized lots; many are between 2,000 and 3,000 square feet, while a standard city lot is 5,000 to 6,000. Today you will see many large houses with strange angles crammed into these tiny lots. That said, the neighborhood does have a more cohesive feel than many. It still has a local market and a distinctive laid back and friendly atmosphere; a good thing since it’s so easy to get turned around!
- The Sidewalk Companion to Santa Cruz Architecture. 2005. John Leighton Chase. Judith Stein (Ed). The Museum of Art and History. 2005
- Garfield Park Tabernacle and Garfield Park Christian Church. Daniel McMahon. Santa Cruz Public Libraries Website. http://www.santacruzpl.org/history/articles/29/
- "The Circles" Church Santa Cruz Neighborhood on the West Side. California Coastal Home Website. http://www.cacoastalhome.com/blog/the-circles-church-santa-cruz-neighborhood/
- Institutions in Santa Cruz County 1850 - 1950. Susan Lehman. Santa Cruz Public Libraries Website. http://www.santacruzpl.org/history/articles/31/
- James Garfield Letter 2/16/1858. Wall Builders Website. http://www.wallbuilders.com/libissuesarticles.asp?id=53