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Valley Forum: A sense of place in Sonoma                                                





June 21, 2021


Community: A word with as many descriptions as individual interpretations. At its root is commune: to communicate intimately with … a person, place or idea.

In a broad sense, Sonoma is a community, but a closer lens shows a whole bunch of “communities” that comprise the whole, e.g., the religious community, the business community, the development community, etc.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, community merged with commune and up sprung what came to be known as “intentional communities” of people sharing and working toward agreed-upon goals. Some worked, some didn’t. Just like life.

A sense of place - a phrase I first heard from acclaimed poet, author and Zen master Gary Snyder - alchemizes commune and community, and points to the attachment to and immersion in a particular place. It evokes a feeling as much as a description of some place that is meaningful and necessary for that person. It’s a marriage of something real and tangible with a concept that is personal, subjective and ineffable; perhaps in a sense mystical.

Whatever a sense of place is, Snyder and others sparked some of those people in those ‘60s and ‘70s turbulent times to seek it, looking for what they could call home.

Sonoma is that to some who live here. Some are generations old, some are the “newcomers,” even if they’ve been here 50 or 60 years or so. But the ingredients that are at the core of “sense of place” are investment in time and effort toward building community and respect for the nature of the place itself. Literally, the nature that surrounds and embeds all that live in it, so that one becomes of it. For example: the Native American tribes that lived here many centuries before the white man. These people lived in communion with nature and with respect and appreciation for the bounty nature provided. Another example was Jack London, a world traveler, who revered the land and understood its significance.

Our neighborhoods are mini communities comprised of disparate individuals with no particular common interests or goals and only conjoined by a defined and demarked space. But because they live in a small city, only a couple of miles in all directions, it is part of a larger community, and that means there are shared responsibilities, obligations and, yes, even demands that go with that designation. Because the people of Sonoma agree to take on its maintenance (housing, schools, businesses, infrastructure, etc.) it evokes a sense of place for those who live here. Concomitant with that is a recognition and respect for what nature has provided, and Jack London well understood.

People who come here only to take and use what nature has bestowed -and use what those who live here have built - are visitors, not members of a community. They have no vested interests in the viability and sustainability of this place. It is just another stop along the way.

Short-term vacation rentals and time-share real estate businesses (Pacaso, LLC) are only peddling Sonoma to a party place mentality and instant gratification lot. This destroys the fabric of neighborhoods, depletes the housing stock for those wanting to live and work here, and increases the costs for potential housing. That’s what hotels are for.

When you give away the land - the place in which you live and become a part of - you’ve given away your sense of place and all that means for a quick buck. Is that what Sonoma wants?

Will Shonbrun is a longtime resident of Boyes Springs.