Daedalus Howell lives and writes in Petaluma. DHowell.com.
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The Miwok called it "Péta Lúuma." The Spanish reduced it to "Petaluma." I tried to get "Lumaville" to stick when "P-Town" seemed to be gaining ground, only to have the annual bumper crop of teens rechristen it "Deadaluma," just like always. Now, if anecdotal reports prove true, a sizable influx of thirty- to forty-somethings from San Francisco and the East Bay are moving to Petaluma who simply call it "home."
"I hear the story almost every day," says Natasha Juliana, owner of WORK, a co-working space in the city's downtown. "It's gotten comical. Especially young families with young kids and parents in their 30s and 40s. They're coming from San Francisco, the East Bay, and even farther away, like New York and Chicago," she says. "And then we also see a lot of people who grew up here, went away for a long time, had children and have moved back."
What Juliana hasn't seen are people younger than 30 moving to Petaluma. "There are very few twenty-somethings," she observes. This stands to reason, since it's traditionally the twenty-somethings, like my younger self, that flee the suburbs and head straight for the cities.
I split from my native Petaluma 15 years ago on a self-imposed exile to pursue big-city ambitions, only to ultimately wish I hadn't. When my wife was enticed to leave her natural foods company marketing position in the East Bay to take one in Sonoma County, it meant we could move to Petaluma. I could repatriate to my home town. But, as anyone with any years on them will tell you, where you grow up is a time, not a place. Petaluma is barely recognizable to me. Now it's so much cooler than when I was an angry young man—or at least I'm finally able to get over myself and enjoy Petaluma on its own terms.
Actually, make that its new terms.
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Illustration by Trevor Alixopulos
While showing us our future home, the woman showing the house namedropped critically lauded singer-songwriter Sean Hayes, who had moved with his young family to Petaluma only months prior. I'd known and appreciated his work in the city and found his presence on the block somehow assuring. Could the 'burbs be cool?
"Why Petaluma?" asks Hayes, who had lived in San Francisco for 20 years. "Intuition. Mostly my wife's. We were living in a small one bedroom in the Mission in San Francisco. We knew we were going to have a second baby. Decided north. We've been very happy up here—great town."
The Hayeses aren't the only ones who have "decided north" in recent months. Dozens upon dozens of mostly creative professionals, many of whom have young children, are moving to Petaluma. Albeit, all evidence of this migration is unsubstantiated; there is no hard data—yet—just observations made by myself and others. For example, a new preschool opened in Petaluma last fall in which every single student is the child of a transplanted family that moved from the East Bay or San Francisco, mostly in the last year. And this kind of situation arises again and again in local conversations.
Who are these people and why are they moving to Petaluma?
The reasons are myriad but cluster around three primary themes: economic pressures in the surrounding cities driving up the cost of housing; a desire for a community-centric creative and sustainable lifestyle with a bucolic backdrop; and the need to accommodate the spate of kids everyone had when they panicked and realized they were staring down the barrel at 40.
Speaking with some newly minted Petalumans is a bit like watching a supercut of the Manchurian Candidate: "Petaluma is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful small town I've ever known in my life." I've heard the same breathless sentiment coming from my own mouth when asked why I moved here. It's all true, but hearing it aloud helps me believe it, helps me believe that ditching a hip neighborhood in Oakland for the comparatively staid environs of Sonoma County was the right decision. Sure it was, because (a) I always felt 15 years too old for it anyway, and (b) where the hell else could I go to feel even vaguely relevant?
Try as I might to find a Petaluma naysayer for a reality check, none would go on record. They fear, I surmise, as I do, that we might become the twist in a Shirley Jackson story wherein the townsfolk stone us to death. (And not in the "Sonoma Coma" kind of way.)
REDEFINING "SMALL TOWN AESTHETIC"
Prior to moving back, I clued into certain cultural indicators that the city had changed from one groping for an identity (saddled as it was between Sonoma's wine trade and Marin's cultural clinch on what many imagined Northern California to be) to one that's rapidly redefining the potential for a small town to support creativity, entrepreneurism and sustainability in an affordable and family-friendly package.
Take, for example, WORK, where entrepreneurs and freelancers of various stripes get the job done in the heart of downtown—finally, a place where building one's own personal empire is embraced and encouraged. Across the street is Acre Coffee, where one can get single-origin, direct-trade, French-pressed drinks, just as one would at the cafe's San Francisco location. There are three wine bars within staggering distance of each other. The New York Times recently fawned over the city's restaurants. Even the cows and their pervasive stink contribute to the local charm—and you can have them delivered to your door as organic steaks through a community-supported agriculture service. For that matter, food—especially locally cultivated grub—is a big draw.
"It's nicely located, and centrally located. Have you seen the restaurants?" says Don Frances over mason jars of beer from Petaluma's own Lagunitas Brewing Company at Ray's Tavern. The neighborhood hub, with weekly live music and a menu rife with specialty sammies boasting local street names (the Western Avenue BLT is self-explanatory), has evolved from family-owned corner store into microbrew mecca and artisanal sandwich shop.
Frances and his family moved from Davis to Petaluma when he was appointed news editor of the Sonoma Index-Tribune last February. "I want that nice blend of city and country, and we have got it. I like a city that ends—meaning you get to the actual end of it—and this is one," he says. "There aren't that many, especially if you want a city that's worth a damn as a city but not part of some megalopolis that never really ends."
But are we all drinking the Pinot-flavored Kool-Aid and calling it Lagunitas? With its hands on the spigot is the city itself, which has made a concerted effort to market Petaluma and its various attractions to businesses seeking to employ "knowledge workers."
A letter from Mayor David Glass, printed in an advertising supplement circulated last October, declares that "Petaluma has been a center of industry and innovation in the Bay Area for 150 years. Today it's the corporate home of global brands like Lagunitas, CamelBak, Traditional Medicinals, Enphase and Athleta."
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Illustration by Trevor Alixopulos
The approach dovetails nicely with a larger county-wide effort to attract businesses in fields populated by creative professionals, which the Sonoma County Economic Development Board broadly defines as those working in science and engineering, architecture and design, management and finance, education, the arts, and music and entertainment.
Last month the EDB convened a "Creative Arts Focus Group" to assess how it might help this "cluster" become a steady economic driver.
Participants were asked to break into groups and answer questions like "what are the three biggest opportunities for growing/sustaining your business in the next three to seven years?" A consistent theme, writ large on the groups' self-adhesive flipcharts, was the notion of attracting and retaining talent through Sonoma County's copious lifestyle offerings. After all, we're "America's premier wine, spa and coastal destination," as our tourism bureau happily reminds. And, as the southernmost tip of the county, Petaluma is the gateway to this Xanadu.
"I do not have any specific statistics that would allow me to confirm your observations about creative professionals moving to Petaluma," says Ingrid Alverde, the city of Petaluma's economic development manager, via email. "That said, I, too, have met many creative professionals in my work with the city. I can say that Petaluma's quality of life is unmatched in the Bay Area because of its affordable living, mixed with its great location and its historic downtown. Petaluma also has a strong sense of community and many venues for art, music and theater."
Notions of gentrification arise every time a demographic shift occurs in a specific locale. Is that what's happening here? By the strictest definition, no. It was already like this when we got here.
"It feels more real and it doesn't feel so suburban. It's not like suburban sprawl," says WORK's Juliana. "[I can go] four minutes outside of town and be in real working farmland. There's a quality to Petaluma that's really authentic, partly just because of the history and the agricultural history. It has a diversity of people still living here. It's not Mill Valley."
The Mill Valley factor has long loomed over Petaluma. In the '80s there was a palpable sense of Marin County envy—we were so close yet so far away from the money, hot tubs, Beemers and cocaine. The '90s did no favors for Petaluma, resulting in a decade of "alternative" self-deceptions and dotcom dilettantism that made us look like Marin's self-mutilating younger sibling.
It wasn't until this century that Petaluma realized the intrinsic lifestyle value of its rural village roots and embraced it wholly. Couple this with Sonoma County's upgrade from "Redwood Empire" to "Wine Country," and suddenly we're trendsetters. But does influence necessarily lead to affluence, specifically of the kind that would make Petaluma fear it was turning into Mill Valley?
"I have a lot of friends who worry about that," observes Juliana, who is confident Petaluma will maintain its community-driven values. "But you also have to evolve as a town, otherwise you become a desolate ghost town."
Anyway, Petaluma tried gentrification before. The results were meh. In the early aughts, plug-'n'-play developments like the so-called Theater District were designed to emulate the urban density of cities—retail and restaurants downstairs, loft-like apartments upstairs. It's urban design by way of a prêt-à-porter mentality, and may attract a certain kind of Prêt-à-luman, but by and large the recent arrivals are specifically attracted to the older (by a century) west-side architecture and a decidedly small-town way of life.
More to the point, the families moving to Petaluma are not gentrifiers themselves so much as the fallout from the latest waves of gentrification occurring in the urban neighborhoods they departed. Demand for real estate in San Francisco has driven the market into the stratosphere. A three-bedroom fixer-upper in the Glen Park neighborhood near
Noe Valley recently sold for
$1.425 million. Homes in Petaluma can be had for one-third as much, though this is likely to change as inventory decreases.
"Homes are selling as soon as they come on the market," says Martha O'Hayer, a realtor at the Petaluma branch of Coldwell Banker. "Savvy investors are buying their homes now, renting them until they are ready to leave the City and East Bay with the intention of heading here when they are ready for a lifestyle change."
Homes on Petaluma's tonier, older west side start at the mid-$300,000s but can reach a cool million in the prestige neighborhoods in the "number and letter" streets. Comparatively, homes east of Highway 101, where track developments limned by strip malls dominate, hover between $300,000 and $500,000.
Seven months ago, therapist Rachael Newman purchased a home with her husband near Petaluma's downtown. Since the arrival of their son, they were rapidly outgrowing their houseboat in Sausalito. It was time to take the plunge (north—not into the Bay).
"It just felt like the town of Sausalito wasn't really quite right for 'forever' for us," says Newman. "Petaluma feels like a place where we can really raise our children and grow old." She adds with a laugh, "We're a cliché at this point, I guess."
Juliana puts it this way: "Honestly, this is the first place where I feel really at home. I feel like I fit in."
I concur completely. Sweet home Deadaluma, Lord, I'm coming home to you.