The other day as I was walking the dogs I passed the first house I lived in here in San Francisco, and I started pondering how long I’ve been here. Earlier this month I’d gone to my 25th high school reunion, up in my hometown of Willits, CA, and was thinking about the fact that, though I think of that as my hometown, I didn’t really start out there. Nor do I currently have any family connection with the place. What makes that place my “hometown” in my mind, when there’s no home there to go back to? Where, exactly, is “home”? Developing a sense of place is an interesting topic, especially when you’ve had a lifetime of moving frequently.
I was born in Flint, Michigan, but left there when I was two years old to go to Denver, when my parents divorced. Being that I was so young and have no memories specific to Michigan, that’s hardly a place I think of as part of my self-identity. It was certainly physically a part of my history, but nothing to do with my “from”-ness. In Denver, we stayed until I was nearly six. I had just finished kindergarten when Ma and I had to flee the state, and moved to California. I think of Denver as my early childhood location, and have specific memories of events there, but no connection to it as a place to return to.
I identify myself as a Northern Californian. Ma and I got here when I was five years old, so I think of this as legitimately being where I’m from, though technically that’s not really the case. Still, nearly forty years counts for something. But even here in NorCal I have connections to more than one place.
We first disembarked from our Greyhound moving adventure in Santa Rosa, and I started first grade there at Doyle Park Elementary that September. But that only lasted a couple of months. Over Thanksgiving weekend, for reasons I don’t recall, we moved to Oroville (a hateful, hateful experience in a dismal place), and I continued first grade there. We both hated it there, place and people. It was far from the hippie-type of culture we were accustomed to, to say the least. My two most vivid memories of the time there were that everybody made fun of me because I had long hair and an androgynous name, and that there was a bloody smear on our living room wall that perpetually seeped through the paint, no matter how many times it was painted over. Ma kept a partition in front of it to hide it, but we knew it was there and it creeped us out. That stain ultimately ended up being the straw that broke the camel’s back for our stay in Oroville: the property manager at the apartment building did not disclose to us that the vacancy was the result of a brutal rape and murder in that unit a few weeks before we moved in. The stain was the result of the victim’s desperate, and unsuccessful, attempt to reach the wall phone to call the police. What’s more, the victim’s name was the exact same as Ma’s. Seriously. I kid you not. First and last name, identical. We learned about the crime the day after Christmas from another tenant in the complex, when Ma introduced herself and the lady’s jaw dropped and she said she’d been told Ma hadn’t survived the attack.
We were done with Oroville and its people, and moved back to Santa Rosa the next day. Needless to say, Oroville is not a place I consider a home base.
I continued my first grade once again at Doyle Park. Within a couple weeks, we moved from Santa Rosa to Petaluma, into the attic studio apartment in a cute little red Victorian on the main drag, half a block south of Walnut Square Park. I loved taking baths in the clawfoot tub in the dormer bathroom, and waking up before dawn to watch out the window as the town began to stir. For three whole weeks I attended first grade at McNear Elementary. Not long enough to develop a sense of place there.
By then Ma had discovered the Russian River, and we moved to Rio Nido and enrolled me in what proved to be my last enrollment for first grade, at Guerneville Elementary. Our first home on the river lasted only a few weeks, though, thanks to our lack of awareness about flooding. We moved a couple miles up the road, into Guerneville proper, and actually managed to stay put for nearly three years. Despite that relatively short time there it was a formative period for me, full of some of my fondest childhood memories, and it’s definitely a place I think of as a significant part of my past. Ma lives there now, in fact, and Guerneville also has a very strong connection with many, many San Franciscans, and it’s a place I can easily think of as being a hometown. But, we lived other places longer…
In the middle of fourth grade, we moved to Penngrove. Ma was a student at Sonoma State University, and needed to live closer to her schooling. It was a bittersweet move, though, and we still visited the river regularly over the following couple of years. Penngrove was the first place where I had my own bedroom, so there was that excitement for me. I went to school there through the end of sixth grade, and had a couple of good friends. I was the “token poor kid” in an affluent community, though, and never really connected with the place. Plus, the downtown itself is basically ten buildings or so – too small to actually have any sort of community based around it. The house we lived in has since been replaced, so it’s not a place I think of as home. One part of my childhood that does remain there, though, is the school totem pole: on the corner of the school property, at Old Adobe Road and Petaluma Hill Road is a ceramic totem pole that our school built while I was a student. Each of the students got to make a personal tile for the retaining wall around the pole, and on that wall, right behind the base of the pole, is my tile. Solid sky blue, with a sculpted turtle and a “Z” that hits the four corners of the tile. Penngrove may not be “home” for me, but a piece of my history remains.
The summer before I started seventh grade, Ma and I moved to Willits. Her sister had moved up there a year or two earlier, and told us about a house that was available for less than we were paying in Penngrove. I was going to have to transfer to a new school district after that summer anyway, since Penngrove’s school only accommodated up to sixth grade, so we figured we might as well try out a new town. Why not?
Once we moved to Willits, Ma was committed to not moving me around to new school districts anymore. She wanted me to be able to complete my teen years with a more solid foundation, and that’s how Willits came to be my hometown. Even so, we still managed to move around a lot within the same town. That first house was way up north of town, on a mountain called Shimmins Ridge. I did love that house, and in fact it was the first time in my life that Ma and I each had our own bedroom, without either one of us having to sleep in the living room. It was a great little shingle house, in a small group of houses in basically the middle of nowhere, and I loved it. It was, however, quite isolated. Twelve miles north of town, then over three miles of dirt road. Also, no electricity. That winter, the challenges of heating by fire and bathing with water heated on the stove got to be too much, and we moved closer to civilization.
That next house is, I think, my favorite house we’d ever lived in. It’s up in an area in the mountains above the north end of town called Brooktrails. Our house was a chalet style house, cantilevered over the steep hillside and surrounded by pines and madrones and oaks and redwoods. I had my own room downstairs, and Ma and her boyfriend had the upstairs master. Also upstairs in the A-frame part of the chalet was a large family room, with the sloping ceiling-walls, orange shag carpet, and one solid wall of windows looking into the forest. It also had a little balcony. I loved being in that room in the rain, with the wood stove heating the room and my dog Zephyr at my side, reading the days away or listening to the radio and taping my favorite songs.
By the end of that seventh grade year, Ma and her boyfriend had called it quits and we moved out. It was something of a “right now” kinda move, and the place we landed in was a tiny, tiny, tiny little cabin a few miles north of town along 101. It was a little trailer park with a few built cabins, very inappropriately and ironically named “Shangri-La”. As if. Our cabin had two cots. Not even twin beds. Cots. And a dresser. The bathroom just had a toilet and shower, and was too small to have a sink. The only sink was in the kitchen, which itself was too small to have more than the sink and two-burner countertop stove. The refrigerators for all the cabins were outside on the front porches. Shangri-La, indeed.
Fortunately, that only lasted ’til the end of the month. By that time, Ma had found a house within city limits. It was a basic little house near the Fort Bragg road on tiny little Raymond Lane. It was the newest house we had ever lived in, and we each had our own room once again. We felt so modern, so “now”, and I was excited to be living walking distance from the high school as I began eighth grade (which, for reasons of student body logistics, was at the high school).
Ma started working as secretary at the mortuary downtown (“downtown” being all of six blocks away from where we were), and one perk was that part of her salary was the house next door on the mortuary compound. So, after only two or three months on Raymond, we moved yet again. Less than a year and a half in Willits, but already moving into our fifth house in the ZIP code. We stayed there for nearly five years, though, until I graduated high school. It was the longest period Ma and I had ever spent in one house in my entire life. I moved out on my own after high school, and rented a room before getting my own apartment, and eventually moved down here to San Francisco at the age of twenty.
As I visited Willits for that 25th reunion, it really hit me how disconnected from the town I’ve actually become. I’d lived there and schooled there and worked there, but none of my family is still there. In fact, of all the places I’d worked – The Ridge Restaurant, The White Deer Lodge motel, The Willits News, Rexall Pharmacy, Harvest Bounty Natural Foods – only the newspaper still exists (and even that is in a different place than before). Walking around town and seeing some of the houses I’d lived in felt strange. The building which housed my first apartment appears to be more or less condemned, and my old unit is boarded up, I assume to keep out squatters. The town itself is an alien and unfamiliar place. Few of the old businesses in town are the same as they had been, and walking around I felt desperate to cling to the few things I did recognize: a shop here, a park there. It was interesting recognizing last names in the paper of twenty-somethings who were doing this and that, and realizing those were the kids of people I’d gone to school with. Families who had been in Willits for generations, and were continuing to raise ongoing generations there. It seemed like a sad thing to me in high school that there were people who’d been born in that small town of 4000 people (even today still fewer than 5000) and had never lived anywhere else, and probably never would. Now, going back to visit, I was seeing those same people still living there, and their kids carrying on the same legacy. A legacy of Place. It no longer felt like a sad thing to me. Instead, it felt impressive. Honorable. And I realized I was actually jealous. These people had a sense of place, and there was no question where they’re from, where they belong. They are (as far as I can tell) happy, and have a connection and duty to their town. The businesses may have changed, but the families remain. They stand up for Willits, they live Willits, they are Willits.
So, where does that leave me? Where is “that place” for me? There are little pieces of my history all over the place, but where’s my home? Where am I from, anyway?
I moved to San Francisco when I was twenty. Well, there was a two-year interlude on Alameda, an island community across the bay, but I knew when moving there that it was simply going to be the springboard that got me into SF. I spent all my free time here in The City. San Francisco was always a draw for me. There are moments associated with specific places – parts of Golden Gate Park in particular – that flash me back to being five years old and seeing the city for the first time. I feel a lifelong connection to SF, and have now lived over half my life here. It seemed natural to me that I would live here someday.
The beauty of a place like San Francisco is that it’s made for people like me. In fact, it’s made by people like me. It’s a place of transience and constant change, and I’ve been a part of that for most of my life now. It’s ever evolving and forming and reforming. It’s a collection of small towns, all squeezed into one common border, and its plasticity allows for each and every resident to mold their experience to make it their own place to be from. There are so many people who come and go, but even though there are people who are literally from here, anybody is welcome to stake a claim and take some ownership for their own reality of what it means to be a San Franciscan. Anybody can proclaim to be from here, and know they mean it, as long as they’ve contributed of themselves to it. It’s an incredibly young city. Think about it – the 1906 earthquake seems like ancient history to most people, but there are still residents alive here who were present for it. If you consider that the Gold Rush, when SF exploded from 26 settlers to a city of 50,000 in the course of a few months, was less than sixty years before the quake, you start to realize this town is really only about two lifetimes old. That’s not all that long. There are many people alive today whose lives overlapped with the founders of this city. So much history has happened here, beyond just the local, and local residents and innovators have shaped history, even nationally and globally. It’s an exciting place to be a part of, and it’s difficult to imagine living anywhere else.
This has come up in my mind a lot lately, given the current changes in the area that are pricing people out of being able to live here. I don’t know that I’d be able to continue to live here if my current living situation were to change and we had to find a new home. It’s scary to think of, because it’s a very real thing for many people I know, and that makes the possibilities all the more ominous. I identify with this city like no other, and while I occasionally think, “oh, we should just move to _____” or some cheaper place, I have a pig-headedness about not ever wanting to give up on the city I call home. There are aspects besides price to other places that are quite appealing, such as land and space, and I’m sure I could settle in if I were to move elsewhere, but it would never be the same. To get to the same place of having spent more than half my lifetime there, to really identify with that place as home, will take even longer than it’s taken me to do so here in San Francisco. It’s a city with its own set of challenges, but I embrace them as it embraces me. My early lifetime was largely unsettled, without any one place feeling like my foundation, and I understand how that has helped me to feel so strongly connected to this one place now. This is my true home.
Home. Home. It may have taken me nearly half my lifetime to get here, but I did. It’s the place I came to of my own choosing. It’s the place where I made myself what I am. It’s the place I want to be. This is where I am from whenever I go anywhere else. This is where I am from.