[evolve home] [falcon's nest]
santa cruz geeks in the press

by Jennifer Berger
Transcribed without permission
HUES MAGAZINE September-October, 1998

Drive about an hour south of San Francisco and you'll approach twisty, narrow Highway 17 and the Santa Cruz mountains. Technology seems miles away from the lush forest canopies, redwood trees and beach townhouses with peeling paint.

Welcome to the campus where the hot houses are geek, not Greek--University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC). Nestled near Silicon Valley, UCSC is computer-centered, and the common off-campus jobs are at Intel, Apple and other high-tech firms. The big shortage here isn't student housing, but where to house the students' home pages. When campus servers got full, the geeks kicked into gear. They created geek houses off campus with their own servers--and the added benefit of playing and working together.

The first geek houses dotted the map around 1986. Each has its own server (everyone who lives in the Echo Street house has an e-mail address ending with @echo.com, among other perks like room on the server for both personal and professional websites, and the use of chat boards). Although the University provides housing for students, most Santa Cruz geek houses were founded in the gritty, residential areas off campus. They look like any other "normal" house--no antennae, wires or satellite dishes in the front yard, and no framed photos of dearly departed hard drives on the walls. That's not to say that individuality suffers; the Marshmallow Peanut Circus is painted an orange-sherbet color. Most are furnished inexpensively with varying housekeeping standards and three to four bedrooms each.

Garages are filled with out-of-service hardware and tangled telephone wiring. Monitors, CPUs, printers and scanners sit in unexpected places. One house, called the Armory, is wired with 22 phone lines, and even has a computer terminal in the bathroom.

"When I moved into my current house," recalls The Abbatoir's Julia Berger, "it was more important to figure out how to drill holes in the walls for Internet cables than for phone cables."

The high-tech lifestyle has fostered a new twist on the communal living arrangement: the geek houses are usually co-ed and major pooling of funds goes to buying new computer supplies.

But before you imagine a bunch of extremely pale guys with horn-rimmed glasses communicating with the "outside world" solely via their computer terminals, think again. The geek communities of Santa Cruz, and other places like Seattle and San Francisco, have plenty of women who are fools for Centrex ISDNs and T1 lines.

Some women, like Megan Schroder of the Happy Hopeless Hacker House in Washington, got into the scene because their boyfriends lived in geek houses. Others, like Eva Hulse of the Marshmallow Peanut Circus, wanted to be connected to the Internet and to other people through it.

Geek women are colorful, just like their websites--brashly rejecting the ultra-feminine ideal of makeup and 'dos. Most aren't true techie types on the surface; they're more like geek guys disguised as women. Their rooms usually have tall PC and Macintosh towers side by side, with tons of peripherals like scanners, Zip drives and extra-large monitors.

Sure, some geek houses still exemplify stereotypes of Dorks Who Love Computers. The residents talk about old Star Trek episodes, programming code and new space discoveries but have no idea what happened on the series finale of Seinfeld. But most tenants are into the New Geek Order: They use computers primarily to organize in-person social events like trips to the movies, barbeques and lavish theme parties with wacky geek humor. (The Marshmallow Peanut Circus celebrated a member's 33-1/3 birthday with a party called "Vinyl.")

Today, geek houses function as social connections, with communication via computer. So forget phone calls. Even regular old e-mail is inefficient for geeks, compared with the live chat rooms.

Mo Harkness, of the geek house Biodome, explains: "If there's a big movie opening and I'm online, the topic for my chat group is 'who needs tickets,' and everybody says I want however many, and they show up and there the tickets are."

The geek house community renews itself as new people start houses or take the places of residents moving on and out. However, with the nature of electronic communication, a member's geographical location does not define her membership in the geek house. Anyone with an e-mail account on the house server is considered part of the virtual geek house. "Currently, our house is kind of split up," Schroder explains. "But we still hang out regularly and have a web server together, so we still consider ourselves an entity."

There's a Grand Canyon between the house cultures of Greek and geek, where individuality thrives. "Our group may be standing in a circle," Berger explains. "One will be wearing sequins--that's usually me--one will be in jeans, one in full leather because they just rode in on their motorcycle, one in a full suit and one in a Hawaiian shirt. There will be people with tattoos and piercings talking to other people who have never worn an earring." Irene Lubkin likes that atmosphere: "A lot of people who join the community...are overjoyed to be somewhere people accept them for who they are. They don't have to be Barbie doll perfect."

Most of us had a miserable time in high school," Berger says, "Many of us were social outcasts for some portion of our lives so we're making up for it now." In the geek 'hood, she and her sisters finally found a home.

From HUES magazine, September-October 1998

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