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Cherry Valley neighbors watch out for each other

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(Editor?s note: This is one in a series of monthly stories taking a close-up look at neighborhoods in Petaluma.)

One very rainy day in the 1990s, Chip Atkin peered outside a window of his family?s home on West Street and noticed that the back yard didn?t look quite the same.

?I saw a new hump,? he said. ?At first, it looked like it could be a snake or the results of a gopher digging there. I went outside, and found to my surprise that someone had dug a ditch.

?Later, I discovered that our next-door neighbor, Doc (Warren) Katen, had dug the ditch to help divert water on our property. He didn?t mention anything to us about it, but that isn?t unusual in our neighborhood ? we all look out for each other.?

Katen, who since 1979 has lived with wife Patricia in the Cherry Valley neighborhood ? named after the many cherry orchards then in the area ? echoes Atkin?s feelings.

?If a family here goes away for a while, neighbors put its garbage out and place its papers on the porch. No one ever knows who is taking care of these things, and no one talks about it. We all simply do it,? he said.

?Families sometimes get together to help our elderly residents with their yard work,? added Susan Rondeau, who has lived on Cherry Street since 1986. ?The people here care about each other, and know they can rely on each other.?

Rondeau, who lives with husband Lance Cerny and their 17-year-old daughter, Marieclaire, feels her immediate neighborhood is very cohesive.

?We were given a welcome party when we arrived, and over time, the neighborhood has become even more cohesive,? she said. ?About 30 families get together to hold a garage sale every year, and we have housewarming parties and annual barbecues. And each year, many of us go Christmas caroling together.?

This cohesiveness was perhaps most evident in the aftermath of the tragic death of the 11-year-old son of Atkin and wife Marjorie Helm. The boy, Trey, was killed instantly when a large tree fell on him at a birthday gathering in October of 2000.

?He was the most important thing in our lives, so this left a big hole,? Atkin said. ?But the whole neighborhood and the rest of the community helped us through this time by offering their support. So many people wanted to attend Trey?s funeral that we kept needing to find bigger and bigger venues. It eventually took place at Petaluma Junior High School.?

While other Cherry Valley residents laud the neighborhood?s cohesiveness, many of them assert that it typically is displayed through a low-key type of caring rather than intense involvement in each other?s lives.

?Cherry Valley is a nice micro community of friendly people. We say ?hello? to each other and look out for one another, but we don?t necessarily drink beer or have barbecues with each other every day,? said Carl Berglund, who has lived with wife Robin in Cherry Valley since 1965.

?We are open and friendly with one another, but we respect each other?s privacy,? added Dolores Bondietti, who has lived with husband Bill on West Street since 1972.

The demographics of the neighborhood have been gradually changing. The neighborhood?s Hispanic population has increased from 9.1 percent in 1990 to 15.6 percent in 2006, and during this same period, the portion of residents over 45 years of age has risen from 30.4 percent to 43.4 percent and the share of households with an annual income of over $75,000 has grown from 15.4 percent to 29.3 percent.

Many of the old residents of the neighborhood have died or moved to rest homes. Katen said that in the past three years, seven to nine houses in a four-block area around his house have sold.

But is this altering the neighborhood?s cohesiveness?

?Not really,? he said. ?Some of the new neighbors are young couples who work 9 to 5, so they?re away from home a lot and don?t have much time to socialize. But a lot of retired people still are living here, and we watch over their places.?

?Several years ago, we started a neighborhood watch group, and our son, Trey helped us to organize it,? Helm added. ?It?s an informal way for people to watch out for each other.?

Many residents moved to the neighborhood because of its ?old Petaluma? feel, affordable homes, closeness to downtown, peacefulness and safety. These residents also often point to the convenience of having Mary Collins Charter School at Cherry Valley and St. Vincent de Paul High School in the neighborhood, and the dog- and children-friendly Oak Hill Park nearby.

?I?ve always loved Oak Hill Park. People chat with their neighbors there, and bring their children and dogs with them. It seems that just about everyone here has had a child and a dog,? Helm said, laughing.

?I like to take my grandchildren to the park,? Katen said. ?It has a playground, basketball court, picnic tables and a dog run, and it?s a great place to socialize.?

Many residents love the neighborhood?s tranquility, in contrast to many other areas of Petaluma.

?I?ve always liked the west side.? Bondietti said. ?I feel safe and secure here, and can walk downtown in 25 minutes. In fact, I used to walk to work.?

?I enjoy the peacefulness of the neighborhood, and I?ve never seen so many different species of birds,? said Laurie Dalbey, who moved from the east side to the west side in 2000. ?I like the schools here more, too.?

?And I can skateboard around here without having to worry as much about cars,? added her son, Mitch, 15.

?This is one of the most beautiful areas on the planet, so I feel lucky to live here,? said Karin Barton, a Cherry Valley resident along with husband Alan since 1978. ?We?re right on the edge of town, not far from the ocean and with plenty of roads for bicycling.?

Some long-term residents recalled the former, decidedly rural nature of the neighborhood.

?When I first moved here, we lived on the last block on the edge of town,? Rondeau said. ?There were stables up and down the street, and horses walking up and down it. We still keep chickens at our place, and in some areas of the neighborhood still can walk a block or two and find ourselves in the country.?

?Our neighborhood still is pretty ?countrified,? Katen added, laughing.

Many long-term residents feel that Cherry Valley has maintained its appealing qualities, while noting that additional homes, as well as increasing street traffic and vandalism, have changed it somewhat.

?The biggest change came when West Street was extended to connect with Paula Lane, so that people could drive through the neighborhood to get to Bodega Avenue,? Carl Berglund said.

?People go so fast we now have a traffic problem,? Robin Berglund added.

Jeff Painter, who lives with wife Pam and sons John, 14, and Wyatt, 11, on Elm Street, says that at least once a day, drivers run the stop sign in front of his house.

?And from time to time, cars on our street get broken into,? he said. ?In fact, recently, the cars of all four of our nearby neighbors were broken into. And four or five times, cars up and down the street have gotten ?egged.?

Some residents of other streets say that such vandalism is unusual, while acknowledging that graffiti has been gradually creeping into the neighborhood.

?It?s been a low-crime neighborhood, and still is,? Katen said.

As new homes in Cherry Valley and nearby neighborhoods are built and many other houses and businesses are renovated, the area?s appearance is changing.

?Some people say Petaluma is getting very yuppie, and now is more like a Marin County city,? Bondietti said. ?This isn?t necessarily bad ? it could take away from the character of the town, but it has to survive,? Bondietti said.

Cherry Valley residents seem hard pressed to recall any unusual occurrences in the city, but two seem to stand out.

?My husband, Bill, used to have a 1960 El Dorado convertible that was well known around town,? Bondietti said. ?He drove it in the Butter and Eggs Day parades and Point Reyes parade, and it was used in weddings. A few years ago, he drove home one day and forgot to put the brake on, so it rolled down a hill into the yard of one of a neighboring couple (Atkin and Helm).?

At first, Bill Bondietti didn?t know what could have happened to his car.

?It ended up tearing up a bush, but it wasn?t damaged at all,? Helm said, laughing.

While this created plenty of excitement, it didn?t quite match the day one Elm Street family?s life changed forever.

?Just after the California lottery began, the Murphy family (which still lives on Elm Street) won $15 million from a ticket bought at Carl?s Market (now Whole Foods Market),? said Carl Berg-lund.

And perhaps the name of Chuck Murphy?s wife provided a foreshadowing of the family?s future luck.

?Her name is Glee,? Carl Berglund said, smiling.

(Contact Dan Johnson at dan.johnson@arguscourier.com)