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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.)

There aren?t many poor opinions of the Oak Hill Park neighborhood.

Oh, you could ask John A. McNear, the patriarch of Petaluma?s First Family, and he?d probably tell you the hilly, runoff-prone park didn?t make a good cemetery ? that?s why he went in search of dry ground to bury his wife and ended up founding Cypress Hill about a half mile north.

But for the residents who live in the surrounding Victorians, bungalows and craftsman-style homes today, the natural beauty of the oak-dotted park is just another distinguishing characteristic that makes them proud to be there.

?I moved to Petaluma to be in this neighborhood,? said Mary Neidel, a longtime admirer of the area who bought her home there 21⁄2 years ago ? a relative newcomer.

For Neidel and her husband Robert, a sense of belonging was evident almost immediately.

The outgoing owners had left wood in the fireplace and some furniture the couple had admired, and a steady stream of greeters brought offers of assistance and invitations to the block party.

?I?m very happy to live here,? said Neidel, who doesn?t have any family in California.

But in her new neighborhood, ?It?s like I moved in and now I have roots.?

Hers isn?t the only tale of finding a long-term, desirable part of Petaluma in the Oak Hill area. Many residents said they were drawn there by the historic homes, the walkable distance to downtown and the quiet streets lined with mature, towering trees.

One of Petaluma?s oldest neighborhoods, the street pattern has remained unchanged since the late 1800s. The park opens onto Howard Street, from which Galland, Kent Oak and Prospect Street all run east toward Petaluma Boulevard North.

Those east-west streets run past Walnut Street, a block east of Howard. Further south, Park Avenue and Pleasant Street form a triangle south of the park and north of Prospect.

In addition to the park, St. Vincent?s Elementary School is a notable feature. And immediately south of the Oak Hill Park basketball court, a brick-covered building that was once a chicken hatchery during Petaluma?s egg boom is now a private home.

Throughout the streets of the neighborhood, the age, style and size of the homes vary.

?You have this huge variety of styles ? grand houses and little modest bungalows right next to them,? said Janet Gracyk, a Prospect Street resident who has studied the history of the neighborhood and the larger Oak Hill-Brewster Historic District to which it belongs.

Beginning as a rural area on the outskirts of the downtown core, the large ranch lots were gradually subdivided and homes built, Gracyk said. But that was still early in the town?s history.

?Our house is the youngest one of the block ? and it was built in 1928,? Neidel said.

?The neighborhood has modest cottages as well as large, beautiful Victorian homes ? and everything in between,? said Valerie Williams, a 10-year Howard Street resident.

The historic nature of the neighborhood naturally attracts residents who want to take pride in their homes, neighbors said.

?When we first moved here, my husband said that this is an area that was ripe for being fixed up,? Williams recalled. ?In the past 10 years, a lot of people have bought property and done wonderful renovations.?

When she bought it 25 years ago, Elizabeth Howland?s 1880s Walnut Street house was ?a fixer-upper of enormous magnitude,? she recalled.

?When we pulled up, my 4-year-old said, ?Oh, mommy, we can?t live there, that?s a haunted house.? Twenty-five years later, I?m still fixing it up,? she said.

?This is a very eclectic neighborhood with a lot of character,? said Barbara Welch, who moved to Howard Street with her husband and young children in 1981.

?It?s not like a housing development,? Welch said. ?This area looks like Petaluma 100 years ago. I feel like I?m living in a small town.?

For Patricia Cameron, 74, the neighborhood has remained a place to call home for most of her life. She and her husband built a home on a secluded Galland Street lot 40 years ago, though she grew up just blocks away.

?We had an attachment to the people who were here,? Cameron said.

Residents note that the attachment they feel to the neighborhood, whether they?ve lived there many decades or a few years, extends to the newcomers they encounter.

There hasn?t been a lot of turnover in home ownership, many said, but those who do join the neighborhood usually aren?t short-timers.

?A lot of people do see it as a nice place to plant and stay for a while,? Howland said.

?When we first moved here, we were the only family with young children,? recalled Fred Schram, who moved into his Walnut Street house 38 years ago with his wife Deborah.

?It was mostly seniors when we moved in here and now we?re the seniors,? said Schram, now in his 70s. ?I guess I?m the patriarch around here.?

Residents speak of a mix of ages and family types cropping up in recent years, with more balance among age groups.

?We have a good mix of people here,? said Kevin McDonnell, a 19-year neighborhood resident who lives on Howard Street with his wife, Melissa, and their son.

?When I moved in, we were the young family,? Howland said. ?More families with young children live here now, which is great.?

?Right now, there?s a mix, but when we first moved in here it was nothing but older couples,? Cameron said. ?We were the only kids on the block.?

?It has evolved into a lot of younger families,? said Anna Webster, who has lived on Kent Street with her husband David for 22 years. ?We have a lot of kids in the neighborhood again and that?s nice.?

Their informal observations are backed up by demographic numbers.

In 2007, residents ages 45 to 54 made up 21.5 percent of the population ? a doubling of the same age group from the 1990 census.

The number of residents ages 65 and up has fallen during those same years. Seniors made up 12 percent of the population in 1990, but just 9 percent last year.

But those trends may be about to change. Population projections for 2012 show seniors climbing back up to 11 percent of the neighborhood, with the 45-to-54 group falling two percentage points, to 19.5 percent. And overall, the number of residents is on a slow decline.

However, it?s still an active area, neighbors note.

In recent years, they?ve gathered for block parties, group garage sales and other social events. Last fall, the neighborhood held the first potluck picnic in the park ? something neighbors hope becomes an annual tradition.

Dog owners are drawn to the off-leash dog run at Oak Hill Park, and new play equipment and landscaping have helped keep the park attractive and interesting for new generations, residents said.

Elizabeth McBride gets a lot of credit from her fellow neighbors for organizing the annual garage sale each May. What started as her own family?s sale on Walnut Street took off after a few years, the 16-year resident said.

?It started with our house and then our block and kept spreading,? McBride said. ?It?s a neighborhood-building activity. You could see how intertwined the neighborhood became through that.?

There?s a neighbor-helping-neighbor atmosphere in Oak Hill, McBride noted.

Whether residents are training together for emergency response under the CERT program or delivering food and walking pets for people who are ill, ?neighbors have been great about helping each other,? McBride said.

And for such an historic area, neighbors have found a decidedly 21st-century way to keep in touch ? the ?Oak Hill Neighbors? message board on Google.

?People can share everything from requests for help finding lost pets, alert residents about recent vandalism, offer up free fruit, veggies or seedlings from their gardens, advise on community issues or events, etc.? said Joni Gardner of Kent Street.

Neighbors like to balance their sense of community with privacy, though.

?People are friendly but also like to keep to themselves,? said Lucille Matteri of Kent Street.

?They are more private than social, but they are friendly and chat with me when I?m out working in my yard,? said Arthur Bliss of Howard Street.

Perhaps, the desire for privacy contributes to a sense of peace and quiet that some neighbors have experienced.

?There is little automobile traffic where I live,? Gardner said. ?There aren?t many street lights. I can go out and stare at the stars at night. Besides being calming, it helps me keep perspective.?

For Neidel, whose last home was on busy Washington Street near downtown, the silence provided a stark contrast.

?It?s extremely quiet,? she said. ?It was so quiet it was unsettling.?

Like any neighborhood, there have been some negatives over time, but mostly just minor annoyances, residents said.

Traffic can get heavy in the mornings and afternoon because of St. Vincent?s elementary school to the south and the high school to the north, Schram said.

?We get it from both ends,? he said. ?That creates a little bit of a problem.?

Oak Hill Park had a drug problem in the 1990s, but the creation of the dog run helped make the area safer, and neighbors all take pride in the park, Welch said.

?It seems now that a lot more people are in the park,? she said.

The most common subject neighbors cited as an issue of controversy, in fact, has to do with another point of pride ? the historic nature of the homes there.

While residents like living in an historic neighborhood, it can be tougher than usual to do remodels and repairs because of city zoning regulations, some said.

For growing families who want to expand their homes, it is sometimes difficult, neighbors said.

?I get upset about the historic district building regulations,? Welch said. She feels that it is wonderful that the regulations help maintain the look of the neighborhood, but wishes it was a little easier and more affordable for people to make changes to their homes.

?I?m all for historic preservation, but people live here,? Williams said.

?We all care about the character and nature of the neighborhood, but there is a ?within reason? approach,? Howland said. ?It?s good that we have the historic district and the requirements that you maintain the history, but we need to use good sense, too.?

On balance, however, neighbors indicate that the pluses of the Oak Hill area outweigh any negatives.

?I would say, as neighborhoods go, you couldn?t find one better,? Schram said.

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

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