Daedalus Howell lives and writes in Petaluma. DHowell.com.
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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."