Small Places and Big Histories - Petaluma, California
We Petalumans have a fierce pride in our hometown, a small community about an hour north of San Francisco, CA....
I struggled to write this article on Petaluma, California because I was afraid I wouldn’t do it justice, I was too proud to settle on just one aspect of its history, and because I literally spent hours in Flickr waffling between using images taken by others or just going up there for the weekend and doing a shoot. While Petaluma’s recorded history is fairly young, its legacy is big. According to the Petaluma Neighborhood Association, “Petaluma was incorporated in 1858, making it the oldest city between San Francisco and Eureka.” Although this piece focuses on Petaluma’s history since historic incorporation, local cultures have thrived in the area for countless centuries, and I honor that heritage with great esteem. While I never expect anyone I meet in my travels to know or have heard of Petaluma, I have been amazed by impressions from people as far away as Southern France who hear my hometown’s name and immediately recall some random brand, movie, or reputation that Petaluma is known for. So when I was asked to write this piece I was at first enthusiastic, and then overwhelmed. It’s been a long time coming. I feature some of the fun facts about Petaluma’s history, our place in film and popular culture, and issues around its recent revival. Some Petalumans fear that a boom in tourism is threatening the city’s authenticity. So far, we have maintained a reputation of friendliness and managed to grow in ways that honor our past.
Pieces of our many pasts
In my lifetime, I have seen Petaluma birth many internationally recognized brands, from Lagunitas Beer to Clover Milk (okay that came before my time), and Amy’s Organic Foods. Older locals in the area, a fading breed, know Petaluma as ‘Chickaluma,’ the egg capital of the world, partially due to the invention of the artificial egg incubator which brought farmers to the area in the late 1800s. Petaluma hosts a yearly Butter and Eggs festival in honor of its agricultural history, we held the World Wristwrestling Championships from 1962-2003, and have hosted the World’s Ugliest Dog Competition for the last 25 years. Even before Petaluma was settled into a Mexican Adobe Ranch, or founded as a farming community to feed Gold Rushed San Francisco, the hills and lakes of the area were sacred places for the local Coastal Miwok and Southern Pomo Tribes.
Serving Hollywood a fat slice of Americana
While the Romans never wrote of Petaluma, Hollywood sure has recorded a lot of it. There is quite a history in this space. Petaluma encapsulates small town America and fosters that nostalgia. From fields of vineyards, sheep, cows, llamas, chickens, and miniature horses, sweeping views of the San Pablo Bay, Mount Diablo, and Tamalpais, to the historic pre-1906 earthquake architecture downtown, and country roads winding out to Bodega Bay and the Pacific Coast, Petaluma is a taste of Americana. It’s no wonder McDonald’s featured the Petaluma in a recent, loathed-by-locals commercial. Because of this small-town atmosphere, Petaluma and surrounding areas have provided a stage for many films, from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds to George Lucas’s American Graffiti, Peggy Sue Got Married, Flubber, Scream, and more. The movie Pleasantville, a fictional film that comments playfully at morality and whitewashing in traditional American cinema was filmed on an historic downtown corner specifically because it epitomized Americana. Just last month I talked to a producer who was days away from shooting a car commercial in Petaluma. He chose the location because it could “literally be anywhere in America.” While some people feel uneasy or bored by its slow pace and small town atmosphere, Petaluma has done a great job at preserving its remarkable history and remains a thriving hub of craft distribution and agriculture. The enthusiasm of its residents is contagious. As a personal testament, you can take the girl out of Petaluma, but you can’t take Petaluma out of the girl. I will always be a Petaluman at heart.
Is Petaluma's culture at risk of commodification?
Petaluma is going through a revival. Developers are capitalizing on its old-time history by restoring historic buildings, or building new real estate, based on historic elements. This trend began in 2005, when the doors opened to the new, art-deco inspired downtown movie theatre, a grassroots project started by a handful of teens, contemporaries and classmates of mine. The new cinema opened within blocks of other historic music venues, such as the Mystic and Phoenix, and downtown Petaluma was rebranded as the ‘Theatre District’. Establishment of this district raised real estate values in the area, local chamber of commerce members created new events celebrating the booming culture, Petaluma Pete, a local entertainer, set up weekly on the corner of Western Avenue, and new restaurants filled empty windows along historic Petaluma Boulevard.
In addition to the Theatre District, craft distilleries are bringing tourism to the East Side of the Boulevard. In 2009, Lagunitas Brewery opened its beer garden doors on a busy street lined with non-descript warehouses and industrial buildings (no source for this, but I was there coincidentally on their 3 year anniversary in 2011). Since then, other breweries have opened tasting rooms nearby to catch business and just this month, local news announced a Gin Distillery joining other brewery fronts in Petaluma’s “Maker District”.
There is a fear of losing our small town culture amidst new development and increased traffic, but I’m happy to see Petaluma remain friendly and “Eggcentric.” I even prefer this revival to the Petaluma I saw in the 1980s through early 2000s, which introduced chain supermarkets and department stores that have come and gone with National economic fluctuations, leaving behind empty buildings unsuitable for other types of business. In the 2010s, entrepreneurs are doing better by honoring historic architecture, reviving craft, and supporting local farms while attracting visitors to the town. Lately, we have seen the Hotel Petaluma restored back to its former glory, and the Petaluma Silk Mill, a 150 year old building vacant for over a decade, permitted for restoration into a boutique hotel. The old train station, now home to the Arts Center and Downtown Association will soon connect the town via high-speed, light rail. People are flocking to Petaluma for slow river walks, craft beer, slow food, and Americana. That connectivity will only increase, so come and visit while it’s still ‘authentic’.
Advice for visiting
Do the tourist thing. Check out Lagunitas, stay in a bed and breakfast, stroll down the riverfront and listen to Petaluma Pete play his ragtime tunes. But also, visit the speakeasy in the back of Volpi’s Ristorante on a Saturday for a taste of Italian family food, accordion music, and prohibition era history. Take a drive out to the ocean and notice the remarkable rolling hills, dotted with cows and dilapidated chicken coops. After you purchase a craft latte at ACRE coffee, stroll across the street through the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum for a rotating exhibit of local history. In October, grab a slice of deep-dish Old Chicago Pizza in the Lanmart Building, then walk toward Heebee Jeebee’s downstairs to honor an ancestor at the Dia de los Muertos Altar. Go to the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center in nearby Santa Rosa to learn about Petaluma’s deep history and ask for Nicole Meyers-Lim, who is working to strengthen Native identity and awareness for Tribal groups in California.
Hollywood’s best-kept secret is getting a facelift. As locals, we will always be happy to share our quirky history, of eggs and cows, the church across the street where scenes from Flubber were set, and when you could get a seat at the Lagunitas bar at 3pm on a sunny Saturday. We will remain the “Friendly City” so long as we remain “Eggcentric”, can afford our homes and rentals, take our dogs to the local cafe, and keep our annual Butter and Egg Days!