End of an era: Reflections on SDC
We turned out the lights in our bedroom on that first night in our new home more than two decades ago, and there it was. “The Flying Nun” building, all white light and blue light, illuminated from within.
Welcome to Glen Ellen. Here’s the SDC.
Of course, we knew it was there. The house was on Martin Street. A concrete block wall separated our property from the Sonoma Developmental Center and the Flying Nun within. What we didn’t realize was that the winged hats of the Nun would be lit up after dark, that it would hum, and that trucks would begin arriving long before dawn, delivering goods for our new neighbors.
But we lived with it. Like we lived with the occasional hollers and whoops from residents, which were startling at first, then became as natural as the Nun’s lights in the dark. Like we lived with long stops while residents, strung out in slow, zigzag lines, used the crosswalks. Like we waited at intersections to let the open trams and their passengers proceed. The trams always went first, no matter who got to the intersection first.
We lived with it because, even with the “oh, dang,” it was so good.
At the end of Burbank Street, next to our sons’ preschool, a breech in the fence opened onto a lawn shaded by redwoods. Before the boys were old enough to play soccer on the John Mesa fields, farther back in SDC, we kicked balls around on that small field. We took walks to the Little Farm, where we met miniature horses, and giant pigs, and doves and bunnies and llamas, and whoever else was hanging out at the time. My kids were friends with the kids of SDC psych techs and administrators and managers; we’d greet each other at school at drop off and hang out together on the sidelines at soccer practices in the evenings.
And the “oh, dang?” Consider policing. We all knew that even when you couldn’t see him, he was there. The sheriff. Hidden or in plain sight, watching, radar gun in hand, and absolutely unforgiving. Legendarily unforgiving. The “trail posse,” however, had a soft touch. I often let my girl dog run free on our forays to Fern Lake or Suttonfield Lake. But I carried her leash and when I got busted, all I had to do was hitch her up to avoid a ticket. Likewise, the swimming. Whether the dog or my sons, swimming happened. Like it has happened for the kids and dogs of Glen Ellen for decades.
SDC’s slide into quiescence has been so gradual it seems almost sinister. The parking places and sidewalks and buildings feel abruptly empty. It seems the cars and people were there only yesterday.
Then again, SDC has always been quiet, even with the noise of the Flying Nun, and the whoops of the residents. Visitors to our home would pass through it, and hardly know it was there. SDC forced you to slow down, but in the nicest way (if the sheriff wasn’t involved). In autumn, leaves settled along Arnold Drive like a blanket of shhhh. Terrible things may have happened on the property in days long gone, but in SDC’s final decades patience and tolerance prevailed, nurturing not only its residents, but all of Glen Ellen.
I set myself a silly task when Dec. 1 rolled around. To witness the end of this era (no exaggeration; it’s been 127 years), I decided to walk in SDC every day over its last month as SDC.
That first day I walked up Orchard Road to the cemetery. About 2,000 people are buried here; I found markers for person 25 and person nine (or eight; it wasn’t clear). I sat with the angel under the oak and squinted into low brilliant sunlight filtered through lace lichen and the last orange leaves on the deciduous oaks. Then I continued uphill past the shiny new fencing that protects the water plant, past Fern Lake, and up to where the road narrows and a steep slope drops into a ravine.
On all that long walk, it was quiet. I met a runner, and a mountain biker, and a sheriff, and we didn’t linger with each other. Even the busy thoroughfares in the valley below didn’t push noise over the ankles and knees of Sonoma Mountain.
Then the crows arrived. Does six constitute a murder? No matter, this half-dozen rasped at each other as they flew through the tree canopy. They settled in the tops of the oaks and then took flight again, and I could hear the whoosh of their wingbeats. As I walked, I listened to the jazz we created together, the beat of my footsteps, the beat of their wings.
Quiet. The many fallen hands of the maples, pasted gold and orange and red on the asphalt. Coots floating on the lake. The sign that marks the imaginary boundary with Jack London State Historic Park. I broke off onto an unmarked trail slick with boot-sucking mud and skittered to the flatlands. Back among the old buildings, quiet also reigned. Acacia 2 was a mystery house, overgrown and shadowy, speaking of bats and abandoned bird nests and spiders as much as of the residents who once lived there. Steam poured from the vents in the empty streets.
Since 2015, we’ve been engaged in conversation about what this place will become after January 1. Its assets and liabilities have been tallied and its future explored and debated, over and over again. In what I feel is an epic failure, despite concerted effort, that future remains uncertain. The buildings settle into mossy repose, warm and viable and empty (for shame). Economists and politicians don’t know how to quantify the value of the property in dollars and sense. Like great stones, they are weighted by rules and regulations and the assumption that the only way redevelopment of SDC is viable is if it makes money for developers.
But sense, not dollars, is the key to creating something grand on the property. Granted I wear glasses, so I look at the world through my own, peculiar, coke-bottle, rose-colored, smudged lenses. But SDC offers the answers to its future, plain as day, for even my wandering eyes to see. Eldridge will outlast all our ambitions. Better for us to embrace it in all its diversity. We’ll have to balance the good and the “oh, dang.” But perhaps, in the interim, by letting its offices remain offices, its trails remain trails, its homes remain homes, we can roll the stone and turn on the lights again.