Sonoma the Beautiful

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I’ve always considered myself lucky to live in Sonoma County. Okay, maybe not when I was in high school, when I saw the area as a podunk little town and had dreams of moving to New York City to work at a fashion magazine (cliche I know), but definitely before and after. I have always been grateful that my mom decided to raise us here, rather than LA, where my sister and I spent the beginning of our childhood because it was near our grandparents.

After moving from LA to Sonoma County when we were seven, our lives seemed to get better. Growing up, I had the privilege of running through apple orchards that were right across the street from my house, instead of playing on a confined strip of pavement that was our backyard in LA. There was fresh air and rain, beaches that were unsullied by trash, an ocean that was freezing cold but devoid of the stinky barges that seemed to congest all of the LA coastline. It was a kid’s paradise in Sonoma County, with room to roam and apples, ripe for the picking, as far as the eye could see.

Fast forward twenty or so years, and I am still here in Sonoma County, still in love with the beaches and the trees, but much has changed. Where there was once acres of apple orchards are now undulating hills of vineyards. Where there was once dirt pathways are now sidewalks. None of this sounds that bad, I know, it is merely our area becoming more populated and industrialized, but what comes along with these changes? Money.

Money is a subject I was worried about as a kid, for we never seemed to have very much of it, but in Sonoma County these worries were appeased by the richness of our surroundings. Though we might not have had much, we were immersed in a bountiful place, a place where organic food is not hard to come by, where you can meet the farmer who grew your food, where yoga and healthy living is more than a passing trend. But money has once again become a topic not only that I worry about, but that many people I know worry about.

We are worried because the place we have called home for most of our lives is now becoming a place that many of us can no longer afford. Rents and homes are priced so high it’s become unthinkable to be able to live alone. I am thirty years old and have roommates, as many of my friends do. It may seem cheap in comparison to San Francisco and Marin County, where many of the new residents here are coming from because it’s still close to the city and cheaper than where they were, but not for much longer. What was once $600 for a studio is now double that, if not more, because a select few are willing and able to pay that. Or landlords are renting out their spaces for airbnb because they can make more money and our area has become a tourist destination.

Our area is a tourist attraction because it is Wine Country, home to vineyards and wineries, nestled among redwoods and the Russian River, minutes from the beautiful Sonoma Coast; I get it, who wouldn’t want to live here? It’s beautiful, the food is outstanding, and the beauty of the natural world is everywhere. The quality of life is unparalleled. If you can afford it. It used to be that you could, that the area I call home was home to a mixture of people, hippies and realtors, migrant workers and bankers. Yes, there unfortunately isn’t the most ethnic diversity here, and a lack of exciting things — art, culture, music — to do, though that is changing, but at least a single mother on welfare could live a couple of blocks away from a children’s book author and their children could grow up playing together.

Now, whose children will grow up playing together? People who are mostly the same, whether they come from different backgrounds or not. People in the same income bracket, in the same socioeconomic situation, people who are able to send their kids to the same violin lessons and Waldorf schools. As the area becomes more expensive, it becomes less diverse, less unique, less creative. I’m not saying that the people who can afford to live here are not diverse, unique, or creative, in fact, quite the opposite. But the people who are being driven out because of skyrocketing rents have unique qualities to offer as well. Our area is losing its citizens because of a poverty beyond their control.

This poverty is happening because people are still making minimum wage, but their rents are being doubled. An unforeseen exodus is happening as the people who have always been here are being forced to sell or abandon what they’ve worked so hard to maintain because they must seek greener pastures. And not because they want to go. It’s because they have to. Because even if they do manage to scrape by, what about their children? Who wants to raise their children in a place they most likely will not be able to afford once they’ve grown up? Who wants to scrape by when another area will allow them to live with a bit of security and dignity? These are fundamental necessities for all of us, not just the rich, to live with some dignity and security.

There is a sense of shame when you can no longer make it work in a place you have always called home. This is unfair, the poverty-shaming that happens in our country. As if because you are poor or struggling it’s because you’re lazy or you’re stupid. There are all of these bullshit legends, the stories we perpetuate because it’s the marketing of the American dream: people coming from nothing and becoming millionaires. If they can do it, why can’t you? But not all of us can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps or just roll up our sleeves and get it done when the going gets tough.

When the going gets tough, some of us can’t transcend poverty for myriad reasons. Perhaps we are plagued by illness, affected by circumstances beyond our control, disenfranchised by a society that is constructed so that the cards will always be stacked against us. These are not copouts, these are realities. So what then? What now?

I cling to the hope that what goes up, must come down, but I just don’t know. I am lucky because I am making it by, but for how long? What if my rent doubles? Or not if, when? As I see more and more of the people whom I hold dear leaving the state or the area, who are packing it up because they can no longer live here, I am saddened and frankly, I am pissed off.

I am sad to see my friends go, and I am pissed off because who wants to live in a place devoid of character? And that’s what happens when only one “type” of person can stay and the rest must leave. Character is out the door. The character a place gets when it is home to different backgrounds, viewpoints, opinions, ideas, creations, contributions — that’s the kind of place I want to live in and that’s the very kind of place that is on its way to becoming extinct.

I recently discovered that I will most likely lose more people I hold dear. It looks like in the next year or so I might lose my own family, because they want room to raise their kids and schools that don’t cost a fortune and diversity for their kids to grow up around. I might lose my mom to another state because she still has to work even though she’s retired. And then it will just be me, surrounded by beauty, with access to the best quality food, but without my family. And really, what is a beautiful place and delicious food if you can’t experience them with the people you love?

I wish you a wild, free (and affordable) life.

In times of upheaval, community is paramount. I’d love to hear your thoughts, opinions, ideas. Please leave a comment if you feel inclined. ❤

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