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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.)

As a teenager growing up in the tiny, sleepy town of Bloomfield, Fernando Nugent yearned for the excitement of downtown city life on weekends.

?I came with my friends to Petaluma to have fun. We liked to cruise the Boulevard ? in ?84 and ?85, it was the thing to do,? he said.

Soon after graduating from Tomales High School, the lure of downtown Petaluma enticed him to move there. And 19 years later, he and his girlfriend, Pattie Merrill, have become so rooted in the area that they jokingly refer to themselves as ?Mr. and Mrs. Petaluma.?

?Downtown has kept the unique charm of what old town Petaluma is all about,? Nugent said.

Despite accelerating development, the downtown area ? with its impressive ironfront, 19th century buildings and wildly diverse shops housed in historic structures ? still suggests a cozier, simpler time, and catches the eye of everyone from casual tourists to Hollywood directors. Its intriguing residents flourish in this atmosphere, which like them is becoming more of a rarity as uniform modernization dominates much of American city life.

For the most part, downtown residents are an eclectic mix of self-styled individuals, many of whom are artists and musicians who live in apartments above, below and behind restaurants and other businesses, as well as in the fabled Hotel Petaluma. Unlike other Petalumans, they live in the heart of the city ? an area full of activity, night and day ? and are constantly aware of its pulsating energy.

?Mostly, it?s a fun, happy neighborhood,? said Connie Madden, who has lived with her partner, Wayne Morgenthaler, on Water Street since 2000.

Like many downtown residents, they live in an unusual spot ? a large basement/warehouse below a restaurant that they also use for their work.

?The thing about living in a warehouse is that you can do all sorts of things you can?t do in a house,? Madden said. ?We can have two people for supper or more than 100 people over to dance, and it still feels like home.?

She also enjoys living near the Petaluma River.

?I love to walk around the Turning Basin,? she said. ?You can see the reflection of the boats on the water, and it?s almost always peaceful there ? if someone is rude there, you certainly notice it, because it?s the exception.?

Madden and many other residents and shop owners laud the excitement and accessibility of the downtown area.

?It?s perfectly located for banks, stores and nightlife,? said Mary Skevos, a resident of the Hotel Petaluma on Washington Street.

?The best part of living downtown is going to see a great show at the Mystic Theatre. It?s a family place where you can have a great time,? said Nugent, who lives on Petaluma Boulevard North.

?I like the variety of things here, and there?s more to do now than ever before,? said Claudia O?Flynn Phelps, co-owner of the Aesthetic Approach on Kentucky Street. ?Everything is very accessible ? I can go from a bookstore straight to a pedicure, for instance.

?The quality of the stores is what makes Petaluma what it is. They?re very eclectic, and most shop owners have a great rapport with each other. And the downtown roads have their own antiquated expression.?

Due to the erratic scattering of residents in the downtown area, they aren?t a particularly cohesive bunch. Many of them, such as Nugent, say that their main friends in the area are nearby merchants, rather than other neighborhood residents.

?A lot of great people work downtown, and I?ve gotten to know many of them,? he said.

The Hotel Petaluma is one spot that houses a high concentration of residents. Christina Cercos, who moved into the hotel in April with her 7-year-old daughter, Cheyenne, says that a group of long-term residents there are closely knit, while others are more independent. Skevos feels that most residents there tend to keep to themselves.

?For some reason, living here can be sort of isolating,? said Skevos, who is retired but keeps busy painting and creating pencil drawings. ?People tend to keep to themselves, so you?re alone with your thoughts. Most rooms have only one person in them, so to retain some sort of social life, you almost have to go out to shop and hear music.?

When the Velvet Teen band decided to film a music video, ?The Prizefighter,? at the hotel, they chose her to depict an isolated person.

?The video?s on YouTube. I?m the star of it,? she said.

Skevos, like many other people, is a long-term resident of the hotel. She lived there in the 1980s, and then moved back in 1997 after renting another place with roommates.

?It still probably is the only real affordable housing here for someone who is on a fixed income. For the rent that they charge (starting at $550 per month), it?s a really good deal,? she said.

Cercos temporarily moved into the hotel after living in other Petaluma locations, and has been pleasantly surprised.

?I always thought that I wouldn?t want to live here, but I love it,? she said. ?It?s very clean, the people who work here are ?all over? even the tiniest little thing I request and security cameras are everywhere.?

She marvels at the stories some of the long-term residents tell.

?One day, I sat and listened as an 88-year-old woman who has lived here for over 50 years told stories. Three hours just flew by,? Cercos said.

But living in the Hotel Petaluma and other downtown spots isn?t always idyllic.

?There aren?t enough parking spaces for people with disabilities,? said Cercos, an administrative worker who now is on disability. ?And there are a lot of issues with traffic ? people speed, and don?t always stop when they should.?

The downtown area is noisy, particularly at night, she says.

?I hear cherry bombs going off all night, and sometimes gunfire,? Cercos said. ?And there?s always a lot of whooping and hollering when the bars let out.?

Excessive drinking sometimes has instigated vandalism, and in 2003, Phelps organized the Alley-Kat Watch to help address the problem. In the past several months, the problem has lessened, partly because one of the main bars, Finbar Devine?s, has switched to more mellow music, she said.

Traffic noise also can be a problem.

?The hotel is one block from one of the busiest intersections in town, so there?s noise and dust,? Skevos said. ?But the noise doesn?t bother me, because I?m not working a 9-to-5 job.?

?I have watched the traffic getting worse and worse over the last 10 years,? Nugent said. ?The afternoons and weekends can get a little crazy.?

Crime is much more of a problem downtown than in most other neighborhoods.

?I?ve caught some kids tagging property,? said resident John Goliti, adding that a lot of it is being done by kids in their mid-teens with no gang affiliations.

He noted that recently, there have been several downtown tragedies.

?It seems as if there has been a vortex going on,? he said. ?We?ve had major fires, a drowning and a stabbing.?

Also, escalating architectural development is altering the look of downtown. Goliti, who has lived on Water Street for the past five years, says that some downtown residents feel that this is destroying some of the area?s charm.

?The area has plenty of character and uniqueness. It has a lot of long-term tenants, and some of them don?t like to see all the development that is going on, and the antique stores getting pushed out,? he said.

?But I feel good about a lot of the development, and the long-term impact it will have,? Goliti added.

Most of the other downtown residents and shop owners interviewed feel that the development is providing some welcome modernization while blending into the city?s architectural heritage.

?I love the new additions in the riverfront area, and the Theatre District has started to meld in very nicely as the stores have filled up,? Phelps said.

But people realize that in one respect, the old, cozy downtown Petaluma is forever gone.

?Petaluma is turning into a little city now ? it?s not a small town any more,? Skevos said.

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

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