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December 5, 2022

Bourgeois Paradise in Twilight of Empire

When you’re young, downtown is where your life unfolds. It starts at 12 with the comic book shop, moves on to the record store and skateboarding, which is followed by clothes at the mall and finally literature at the bookstore, which is read and conversed over at the coffee house.

After college, there was my first job right there on the square, which lasted until I was 29, for a full 17 years in which downtown was the place to be.

It’s a place I can no longer bear to visit. I speak, of course, of downtown Santa Rosa.

Today my hometown downtown is so negatively charged, if I must go there I do it as quickly as possible. That means no window shopping—how little there is in the world that one wants, said the medieval mystic—and no leisurely hours spent in the cafe, where the music is dreary and everyone’s on a device. As for sitting on a bench to have some ice cream or smoke my pipe while people-watching, I find that if I gaze at the soulless drones for more than a few minutes, I fear I might actually be one of them.

Healdsburg, you don’t know how good you’ve got it.

After 20 years in Los Angeles and New York, last year I returned to a Sonoma County much changed—perhaps no place more so than downtown Healdsburg. Having worked primarily in what’s grotesquely referred to as the “luxury lifestyle” space, I could appreciate the gentrification, even if I’ve learned that conspicuous consumption not only does not answer the big questions of life; it prevents you from even asking them.

In addition to gentrification over the past two decades, while strolling the square I couldn’t help but notice that you now also have diversity, which is the opposite of gentrification. As you know, you’re now a highly concentrated microcosmic fiefdom of the United States, with affluent Anglo newcomers from the Bay Area and Silicon Valley sharing a community with poor Hispanic newcomers from Latin America. Both have come in search of a better life in Healdsburg, “better life” obviously being a relative term.

With recession looming on the horizon, not to mention demographic mathematics, I say enjoy gentrification while you can. At least you’re not Santa Rosa, and for those who are priced out, there’s always Windsor.

The deservedly privileged should be able to peacefully enjoy a town square where on a weekday afternoon I beheld the shocking sight of people quietly sitting on park benches and reading books. Riffraff was limited to just one or two “wanderers in the outer darkness,” and the number of passing cars revving their purposefully loud exhaust systems was minimal. The shops are charming, there’s wine and jazz and antiques—all in all a paradise of the haute bourgeoisie in the twilight of the empire. I might just have to move here.

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