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Focus on the SDC: Community in the crosshairs

Focus on the SDC: Community in the crosshairs
The Main Building at the Sonoma Developmental Center campus dates from 1908 and is viewed here from the north east of the SDC campus.Photo by Nick Brown


By Tracy Salcedo

Now that the race to plan the fate of the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC) is entering its last lap, people who’d like to pave the campus with housing and commercial development are trying to diminish Glen Ellen. It was probably inevitable that we’d endure accusations of NIMBYism, but in these days of social, racial, and ethnic reckoning, negotiating those accusations has taken a nasty, unproductive, and illuminating turn.

Glen Ellen and many in the Sonoma Valley have pushed back on building 1,000 homes on the SDC because we understand the constraints, like wildfire, and because we seek to preserve the property’s natural beauty and ecological bounty. We also support providing truly affordable housing for the Valley’s underpaid and underrepresented workforce, but less than what Permit Sonoma’s planners, hardcore housing advocates, and some developers want.

We expected debate. We expected soul-searching and compromise. We’ve been vocal but reasonable. We’ve been transparent. Nastiness found us anyway.

Community in the crosshairs

Is Glen Ellen a rich, white, privileged, rural enclave? As an experienced token Mexican, I think not. I’m not token here. I don’t speak Spanish, but I hear the rhythms of my father’s family in the conversations that surround me. The faces I see every day at Dunbar School are every shade of white and brown. My heritage (Dad’s Mexican-Indian; Mom’s white) would be unremarkable in the context of affordable housing at the SDC except for the accusations, overt and implied, that the place I call home is manifesting systemic racism to keep people who look like my father on the other side of the wall.

Should Glen Ellen get a pass on those accusations? I think not. We can’t move ahead if we ignore or deny the truth of housing inequities. But that question has haunted me in the witching hour. Because I’m half-Mexican, I feel like I should be able to build a bridge across these muddy social waters — to convince those who condemn that while systemic racism is a definitive factor in any conversation about housing in Sonoma Valley, it’s not the source of my community’s pushback on overtdevelopment at the SDC.

But to make that argument to the accusers, especially the white ones who presume to speak for the underprivileged Latinos of Sonoma County, I’d have to presume to speak for the underprivileged Latino families of Glen Ellen. I cannot. I hold close the observation of a friend who’s also a white-looking Latino: I’m not Latino enough.

That said, my witching-hour Mexican and my witching-hour white agree that Glen Ellen bucks the trend of systemic racism in important ways. My neighbors are wealthy and white, and poor and brown. They are diverse and complex and kind. The belief that redevelopment of the SDC should harmonize with Glen Ellen’s rural character and open spaces stems not from racism and classism, but from a wholesome community with a deep love of place.

The paradox of ticky tacky

Why do I think a rural community like Glen Ellen is worth preserving when affordable housing is so badly needed in light of racial inequities? Let me take you back to the 1960s.

When I was a small child, home was a little box made of ticky tacky in Daly City. We were lucky to be able to live there, it turns out, because my parents, the white woman and the Mexican man, couldn’t purchase a home anywhere in suburban San Francisco due to bigotry and redlining. My maternal greatgrandparents had to pull strings and make deals so my parents could live close to my father’s work at the San Francisco International Airport. Without help from the white side, my family would have ended up on the other side of the peninsula, near the piers where the Mexicans were welcome.

A Salcedo couldn’t buy a house in the suburbs, but a Hammerton could.

We lived in the city, but I was a country child. I sought out whatever greenery I could find in a sea of concrete and redundancy. Every house on my street was identical, with a single palm tree in the center of the front yard. My mother let our palm go wild; that became one of my green sanctuaries. I hated the place; it felt out-of-sight and outof- mind in the fog. My solace was my Mexican grandmother’s colorful backyard on Potrero Hill, with its bowers of bougainvillea and its giant prickly pear, and the two weeks we’d spend each summer at the country cabins my mother’s family owned in Lagunitas, passing long hot days climbing redwoods and playing in Papermill Creek.

Why don’t I want to see the SDC plastered over with “affordable” three-story housing like that being erected along the 101 corridor — ticky tacky on a vertical scale? Because of Daly City. I can’t imagine why we’d create that kind of sprawl on the SDC — or anywhere, for that matter.

Oh stop, you say. Seven-hundred and fifty acres of open space surround that campus. Lots of bushes for you to play in there; get over yourself. Oh stop, I reply. That open space is fragile and what sustains us all. It’s the one place in this valley where we can forget about racism and elitism. It doesn’t matter if you are white or brown, rich or poor: When the trail gets steep, everyone’s thighs burn.

And that’s where the paradox abides. How do you reconcile the value of ticky tacky with the value of open space? Many unprivileged families, including my own, begin their journeys toward the American Dream in ticky tacky, if they can get in. Daly City was a start, and everyone should have a place to start, even here in wealthy Glen Ellen.

But I don’t think ticky tacky is the solution in this place. It’s too beautiful. Does that make me elitist and privileged? Is that because of my white? In spite of my Mexican? Does it matter?

Catch a fire

Another paradox arises when I try to reconcile accusations of systemic racism with my community’s experience of wildfire.

In November 2017, more than 300 people gathered in Glen Ellen for a potluck. We were people who’d run away, people who’d come back, people who’d lost everything, people who’d not lost everything and had no idea why we were spared. The meal happened about a month after the Nuns Fire scattered us. We ate and shared and laughed and cried with each other. We were home, whether we had a home or not. We knew the person sitting beside us had our back, even if we’d never met that person before.

In those coming-home days, we looked toward the SDC and worried. Our neighbors there had been grand marshals in the Glen Ellen Village Fair parade on the day the town burned down. When fire blew into the SDC, they were loaded onto school buses and evacu- ated to Dixon. Would they come back? We hoped they would and they did, for a little while. But their time here was short: In December 2018, after more than 100 years among us, they were abruptly gone. The center of Glen Ellen went quiet.

Now we’re supposed to bring people back — thousands of them. Meanwhile, the flamethrower called Nuns Canyon is priming. It’s gone off regularly since records have been kept: in the 1920s, in the 1960s, in the 2010s. It’s likely to go off more often and more powerfully as climate change intensifies. It’s aimed right at Glen Ellen.

Nuns Canyon is not racist or elitist. It’s nature. And nature always wins.

Glen Ellen has been very vocal about the key wildfire- inspired reason the number of people added to this neck of the woods should be minimal: We have to be able to get out. Human hubris may assert we can build safely on the SDC, but wildfire has demonstrated, again and again, that no matter home hardening and fuel breaks and air tankers, when the wind kicks up and the hills ignite, humans are not in control.

And there’s another element of systemic racism and elitism factors into the wildfire equation. When we talk about the cost of building homes for the underhoused on the SDC, we focus on how market-rate housing will cover the cost of affordable housing and how we need to subsidize developers to make that happen. We don’t talk about how the people who will live in that affordable housing will get the money to purchase it, or how they’ll get the money to rebuild after wildfire blows through.

Here in Glen Ellen, we’ve seen what happens to poor people and renters who lose everything and don’t have the resources to build back. They are decimated. Poor people and renters struggle to afford insurance, which becomes harder to acquire year after year. Poor people and people who don’t read well in English struggle with the paperwork they need to fill out to get government assistance. If they’re brown, like my father, they shy away from asking for assistance in the first place. Government isn’t trustworthy; it’s where systemic racism abides.

We know the dangers and we know the hardships. We need to be very, very careful about housing people in this fire-prone place. First and foremost, we need to make sure everyone can get out alive. Then we need to make sure everyone can rebuild.

The land is telling us to build lightly if we build here at all, and to be prepared to let it all go. The community echoes the land.

Just keep one foot in front of the other

And so here we are, Glen Ellen, facing change with a capital C yet again. But I believe we’ve learned something over these long, difficult years. It crystalized in the aftermath of the Nuns Fire and it persists. How do you save a community and recreate it at the same time? You do what we did and recover from wildfire. How do you serve the underserved and disenfranchised? You do what we did and live with them for decades. You do everything in your power to preserve what healed them, what heals us.

It’s disorienting and disheartening to find ourselves in the crosshairs of social reform in these days, but we know what to do. What sustains us isn’t our money or our privilege, or even our houses, whether rubble or standing. It’s our place — Glen Ellen and the SDC within — and the people who live here, no matter their class or the color of their skin.

We’ve got this. We know what works. We just need to keep one foot in front of the other.

Focus on the SDC: Community in the crosshairs
Lake Suttonfield on the campus of the Sonoma Developmental Center, February 2022. Photo by Nick Brown