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Creek Running North

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July 16, 2003


[This entry is written as part of a collective writing effort on suburbs. Other works in this effort can be found at the Ecotone wiki.]

Some months ago, I wrote a column for the Contra Costa Times on invasive exotic species, and the misguided opposition one can sometimes find to reasonable efforts to control their spread. Some people find uncomfortable parallels between invasives control and immigrant-bashing. The column was intended to point out the differences between the two issues, and contained a few throwaway sentences on the immense value of human diversity to Californian society.

A few weeks after the piece saw print, I started getting hate mail. Not a huge amount, but enough to unsettle me a bit, and from places well outside the Times' distribution radius: Iowa, Atlanta, New York. The writers spewed hatred of Latino and Asian immigrants, and generally opined that I must be a traitor, an idiot, or both. How did they all find this column, in the Home and Garden section of a fine but not exactly nationally prominent newspaper? I was perplexed.

It turns out that a man named Walter Pringle had posted a link to my article on a racist website. Walter Pringle, it turns out, lives in El Sobrante, a suburb one valley south from Pinole.

There's a well-worn parable about long spoons, dining tables, and heaven and hell. The punchline is that the only difference between heaven and hell lies in your reaction to circumstances. If Walter Pringle is uncomfortable with immigrants, he must certainly be living in hell: El Sobrante is one of the most racially diverse suburbs I've ever seen.

We decry the spread of suburbs, and rightly so. More and more of California open space falls each year to the spread of the Terra Cotta Carcinoma, the distinctive walled communities that are neither communities nor distinctive, named after whatever it was they killed to build the houses, in the familiar process of necronomination. "Oak Meadow Acres," "Sequoia Ridge," "Bay View Estates."

As a child, I lived in most of the different kinds of landscapes available in Western New York in the 1960s and '70s: farm, small town, suburban development, inner city. From age 8 to 12, I spent non-school hours in a burgeoning suburb outside Buffalo watching lot after lot get swallowed up in colonial revival three-bed two-bath boxes. But still there were buffers. The woods across the road from my house are still undeveloped after thirty years. There was the creek, from which we kids extracted Devonian fossils, where we built tree forts and smoked sections of wild grape stem and snuck nude swims when we thought adults weren't looking. Kids on Manitou Drive still had the freedom to drown or break arms or otherwise interact with nature.

No such buffers exist in many of the suburbs now being built in California. There is open space, to be sure: laws demand it. But that open space is often a lawn, tennis courts and manicured gardens and pavement, or else widely scattered blocks of intact hillside, with distinct separation between wild and tame. None of the little threads of wildness I grew up with are allowed to insinuate their way into the curving grid of cul-de-sacs. No weed-choked frog ditches here. Someone might drown or - even worse - sue.

Older California suburbs are different. The last house we lived in was built, with thousands of others, in a rush to provide housing for shipyard workers in World War Two Richmond. In every architectural respect the neighborhood was identical to some of the most soul-destroying suburbs I knew back in Buffalo.

But 40th and Nevin was not the kind of suburb I grew up with. Leave alone for a moment the fact that our neighbors in Richmond had a far broader range of skin colors and accents than the '40s vintage burbs in Western New York ever allowed in the 1970s: that's a pleasant detail, but not the crucial one. The crucial difference was that we knew the neighbor's names within a week of moving in.

El Sobrante is a bleak-looking place. Its name translates roughly as "the leftovers," the name itself a leftover from the days of the Spanish land grants. Central Richmond was part of the Castro Ranch, Pinole the westernmost part of Rancho Del Pinole. What was the land in between? El Sobrante. Through a car window, it's an unremarkable sprawling collection of ramshackle houses and shoddy storefronts; the kind of place where a roadkilled dog might linger at the curb for days before someone moves it.

But get out of the car, and a remarkable place emerges. An old Foster's Freeze, red white and blue tile decor still intact, houses a Tandoori chicken joint where even the yogurt is made on the premises. A few doors down is El Chalan, which bills itself as a "Peruvian-Italian" restaurant. On the little bridge off San Pablo Dam Road where Appian Way crosses San Pablo Creek - a finger of the wild threading itself behind the luggage stores and donut shops - anti-war demonstrators held quiet vigil through the first months of this year. And up the hill, beaming down on its community like a sun, is the gold-leaf onion dome of the local Sikh temple. I can only imagine what it's like to be an anti-immigration crusader in this little suburb. Me, I'm getting hungry for a Tandoori chicken sandwich. Less than six bucks, and they'll make yours with garlic naan if you ask.

But that's what reinvention is all about, and California is where reinvention was invented. Tomorrow's anti-suburban sentiment will take this riotous, exhilarating diversity for granted, much the way we suburban kids of a certain age assumed the existence of swimming pools in every third backyard. There will come a time, and probably not far off at that, when no one will even notice the spectacle of a joyous mob of White and Black and Mexican and Asian and Arab street kids mobbing the local ice cream truck, its Sikh driver advertising his presence by playing an ice cream truck version of Home On The Range.

But right now, that scene - which played out every day in our Richmond neighborhood - seems as good a summation of the California suburb as one can find.

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El Sobrante sounds like a vigorous and energetic place where conformity has not been forced. I am torn between my desire for places that are beautiful and orderly and places that are vigorous and energetic. I think these qualities can be combined into one place, but that would take more creativity and planning than usual, and more time and money. Bulldozers might have to stop and actually go around things.

Posted by: Wendy at July 17, 2003 11:18 AM
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Wendy, that's a problem for me too. I live in beauty and peace and order, for the most part -- but it's also homogeneous, rather provincial, and can be awfully quiet. We long for a hit of "city" much more than additional quiet, nature, and solitude, and when we go to urban places we fall in love with the chaos, the aliveness, the sense that people are on their toes -- and most of all, the diversity: visual, racial, ethnic, auditory -- you name it. The answer for us is to travel when we can, but so many people don't have that choice.

Posted by: beth at July 17, 2003 11:32 AM
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Be careful what you wish for, or you might wind up with a commute. I go into a diverse city every day, then retreat to a dark skies small town-cum-suburb at night, two or three hours travel time per day, and the fact that many people hereabouts double or triple that time is slim consolation. Around here, the commute of less than an hour is the province of the well-to-do. And of the unemployed.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at July 19, 2003 10:07 AM
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