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Frances: Why I live in Petaluma


A friend wrote recently of the remark he hears all the time, from nearly everyone he knows: “You sure move around a lot.”

It struck a chord, as my wife and I have done a bit of moving around ourselves, kids in tow. Starting from our eldest child’s birth, in San Francisco, we moved from there to the Silicon Valley town of San Carlos, to Davis, then finally to here, Petaluma, arriving in early 2014.

Some people are itinerant by nature, and some have itinerancy thrust upon them. Ours is the latter case — in truth, we only ever wanted to settle down, to find an agreeable yet still affordable place to raise our kids, in Northern California, with a functioning local economy, decent schools and sane residents. Also some culture to enjoy, and open space to walk around in. Is that asking too much?

The answer is: yes. At this point, with so many people seeking the same thing, it is asking too much. Trust me, we’ve looked.

And yet, against all odds, we found it anyway in Petaluma. And it’s why we’re here to stay.

A town’s fortunes will rise, and fall, and sometimes rise again. Petaluma’s are back up, and currently the place has hit a sweet spot. Its grand old structures — built at the turn of the last century, when this was the egg capital of the world — have taken on a renewed purpose, with their wifi and seismic retrofits and new coats of paint. Meanwhile, the businesses inside them are humming again, with many putting new spins on a very old occupation that this region is known for: producing and serving food and drink.

For example, head over to Central Market — “housed in the 1918 Maclay building in the heart of downtown Petaluma” — for the latest in socially responsible, locally sourced, slow-food, farm-to-fork, whatever-you-call-it dining. The point is it’s fresh, utterly delicious, and good for the body, environment and local economy. Zagat calls the place a “Petaluma gem.”

Indeed, you can’t throw a tomato downtown without hitting a Zagat-rated something-or-other. High-quality places are springing up everywhere, and the city is making a name for itself. The same goes for winemaking, brewing (Lagunitas is not the only craft brewer in town) and distilling.

This is not a foodie scene, but a food scene — a hybrid of progressive thinking and down-home realities. (I have a T-shirt encapsulating this idea: “Petaluma Hickster.”) It’s an important movement, and Petaluma is positioned to be a major player.

Even better though, this town is fun. People are busy — they work hard and play hard — but their ambitions do not include controlling the world. They might revolutionize food production, or build a house, or start a new business, or they might knock off for the afternoon and have a beer at Ray’s. I can relate to these people.

In much of the Bay Area today, techies run the show. So dominant is high-tech that it is hard to survive if you’re not working in that sector (a fact which has led to great resentment). But Petaluma is different. Here we have techies, mixing in with brewers, growers, chefs, carpenters, electricians, artists, musicians, shopkeepers, dairy farmers, book publishers, dentists, scientists, etc. It’s interesting how in a place where everyone has something to contribute, tech people fit in just fine. And yet Silicon Valley still feels far away.

Walking around the downtown, or paddling the river, or exploring Shollenberger, never fails to satisfy. I don’t believe there’s anywhere else like this place in all of California, north or south. My goal now is to be a voice in preserving the things that make Petaluma great.

Because we are here for the long haul.

Don Frances is a writer living in Petaluma.