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Old McDowell Village neighborhood, built in 1952, was first subdivision on city?s east side

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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.)

Plenty of natural beauty ? including hayfields galore ? surrounded Mary Matthias and her family when they moved into a brand new, one-bedroom home on Cortez Drive in 1952.

?There was no McDowell Elementary School, no Kresky Way and no freeway. I?ve seen a lot of changes in our neighborhood, but our street still is pretty quiet,? she said.

Matthias, who was born and raised in Petaluma, moved into the home with her husband, Edward, and daughter, Donna. The couple?s three boys ? Allen, Wayne and Paul ? all were raised there. Edward passed away, and now Matthias lives in the home with Allen and his daughter, Samantha, who represents the third generation of the family to be raised there.

?In my family?s case, the nut doesn?t fall too far from the tree,? Matthias said. ?I work in a Petaluma bookstore, and talk to a lot of people who go to places like New York and Florida to visit their relatives, but I don?t have anywhere to go ? all my children live in Sonoma County. People say I?m lucky.?

Matthias feels particularly fortunate to live in Petaluma, and in the old McDowell Village neighborhood, in particular.

?I can?t complain. It?s been a good place to live,? she said.

She is one of many long-term residents in the neighborhood, which has changed considerably over the decades while maintaining the intimate feel and many of the humble qualities of a slower, more relaxed period. The first homes were built in 1952 on 6,000-square-foot lots with a sycamore tree in the front yard, and about 90 percent of them had redwood frames and an attached carport.

Consistent with the two-tone cars and PaperMate ball-point pens of the period, the redwood-frame homes, which cost less than $10,000, were painted in two colors. The remaining homes were made of cinder block, and were painted in only one color.

Other subdivisions were built in the next few years, and steadily boosted the neighborhood?s population, which consisted mainly of young families. The many young children attended McKinley Elementary School until McDowell opened in the late 1950s.

?When we first came here, my mother stood in the front yard and counted 21 kids,? said Betty Rhodes, who has lived on Coronado Drive since 1969 and raised two children with husband Bobbie.

?We have a scarcity of kids in our area, and I miss them,? said Bob Ausiello, who has lived with wife Sharon on Adrienne Drive for the past 22 years. ?Most of the people in our area are retired.?

While the children have grown up and most of them have moved away, many of the parents have remained ? and gradually, more of them are passing away.

?Over the years, we?ve lost a lot of neighbors who we knew very well,? Rhodes said.

?And when spouses pass away, the neighbors are there to help,? said Pat Smith, who appreciated their heartfelt assistance when she lost her husband, Sidney.

Long-time residents wistfully recall the early days of the old neighborhood.

Josephine Graham, 94, a resident on Cortez Drive, remembers the exact date that she moved into her home ? July 28, 1952. She says that in the 1950s, neighbors were friendly and that wives kept up with each others? business.

?I guess I was the only one who was working, so they let me know all the gossip when I came home,? she said.

As the community developed, rural settings gave way to roads and businesses.

?I can remember when the freeway was a walnut orchard and the Washington Square Shopping Center was a hay field,? said Jean Elvin, who has lived at 1324 McKenzie Ave. since 1952.

The creation of Highway 101 in the 1950s cut into the property of many residents, including prominent manufacturer and inventor Gerald Kresky and his wife, June.

?The state bought 40 acres of Walnut Groves from them,? said Shirley Halvorsen, who since 1972 has lived in a home on South McDowell Boulevard that was part of the Kresky property. ?As recently as last year, people have come by to tell us that as teenagers, they used to pick walnuts here.?

The expansion of South McDowell Boulevard brought much more traffic into the area.

?The traffic is horrible now,? said Norma Woelbing, who raised four children with her husband, Milton, during the 41 years they have lived in a house on South McDowell Boulevard. ?So many cars go by, it?s like 101. We had to double-pane our windows and doors.?

Several residents expressed relief that the city of Petaluma opted to extend Caulfield Lane, on the periphery of the neighborhood, rather than Lindberg Lane, which cuts through its heart.

Despite the drawbacks of increased congestion, all residents have benefited from the neighborhood?s development.

?We?re close to all the shopping centers. I don?t ever have to go to the west side of Petaluma to shop now,? said Betty Adams, who has lived on Reynolds Drive since 1963.

?I like the recent changes that have been made,? said Elena Richer, who has lived with her daughter on Cortez Drive since 2000. ?The streets have been revamped, and there are more places to shop.?

She was attracted to the composition of the neighborhood.

?Most of the families here that own their homes are working class. I like their lack of pretense,? Richer said.

She feels that her street is a good place to raise children.

?We don?t have tons of kids here ? maybe three other families near me have them ? but I feel comfortable on this street. It is relatively safe,? Richer said.

Harlan Osborne, who has lived on Cortez Drive since 1971, says that there hasn?t really been a consistently steady decline in the number of children.

?Over the years, kids have come and gone. Right now, there are no young kids on my block. It goes in cycles,? he said.

Don Bent, who has lived with wife Stephanie on Cortez Drive since 1975, says several homes in the neighborhood have been sold, resulting in additional young families.

?Most of the people renting or buying here are now in their 30s,? he said.

As new families have moved into the neighborhood, its composition has changed. The Hispanic population has risen from 13.7 percent in 1990 to an estimated 36 percent in 2006.

?A lot of our neighbors are Hispanics,? said Isaac Lefkowitz, who has lived on McGregor Avenue since 2001. ?They know how to get together with their grills, and have a good time ? it?s kind of cool.?

Osborne feels that the current residents have actively maintained their homes.

?Overall, they have pride of ownership ? they keep their homes up and paint them, and don?t keep too many cars in the yard,? he said.

Some residents get together for parties, such as Fourth of July celebrations, but many people emphasized that families maintain their privacy.

?People kind of stick to themselves,? Elvin said. ?We are what I call ?fence neighbors?: We talk with one another if we see each other in our yards, but we don?t go out of their way to talk to each other.?

She shares the same general feelings about the neighborhood with many other long-time residents.

?If I had moved away and then had come back 10 or 15 years later, I probably couldn?t have found my way around,? Elvin said. ?Things have really changed.

?But I still like living here.?

(John Jackson and Corey Young contributed to this article. Contact Dan Johnson at dan.johnson@arguscourier.com)