(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&#8260;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.?