The Calm of Courthouse Square

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A skyline at night with a clock tower, a moon, and a large bunya-bunya tree.
Courthouse Square on Friday, April 28, 2017, the night before its formal grand reunification ceremony.  (Gabe Meline/KQED)

Liz and Lena and I walked down to Courthouse Square last night. Today's the grand opening ceremony with Chris Coursey and Gaye Lebaron and other official speeches, but we’d heard the fences were already down, and I couldn't wait. Patching up a scar through he heart of the city is something I'd already waited for — for, oh, about 27 years.

Kids tumbled on the brand-new grass. Dogs ran circles around each other. Everyone turned around in a panoramic circle, pointing out new features, or trying to estimate where the old ones had been. There was a sense of hesitant excitement.

I overheard one guy nearby, sitting on benches, who shrugged. “I don't know if I like it,” he said.

“Yeah,” his friend replied. “I'll give it time, though.”

To those who grumble at the new square — a flat, expensive patch of concrete, they say — that may be my best advice. Give this new Courthouse Square time. We've got a lot of it.


You know the story by now: in 1966, the county outgrew its old courthouse, which anchored the center of Santa Rosa. The stately building was torn down, but instead of turning the land into an open park downtown, city planners ran Santa Rosa's busiest street through it, squeezed some park features on either side, and, with a giant pair of scissors on opening day, cut a proud ribbon. It read: “Symbol of Progress.”

By the 1990s, that “progress” looked more like de-evolution. The mall had been built, putting mom 'n' pop stores out of business all over downtown, and a huge cluster of megastores like Best Buy and Costco had been erected on Santa Rosa Avenue. The street that was paved through Courthouse Square — which had doubled as the transit hub for the city's loud, noxious city buses — played host to a constant stream of traffic, speeding right past.

I started to loudly declare that Courthouse Square should be reunified — in my zine, in letters to the mayor, at parties. I was “that guy.” I had no hope that it would actually happen, but at least discovered I wasn't alone: cutting Courthouse Square in half was cited, with ever more frequency, as one of Santa Rosa’s famous mistakes. One that maybe could be fixed. Demolishing the mall or re-routing the freeway were unfeasible pipe dreams. But reuniting Courthouse Square, as I learned through donating to various fundraisers and commissions and think-tanks, wasn't such an unobtainable goal.

It took a long time. It only happened because of the rare confluence of a united city council, the right amount of funds at the right time, and a collective will to finally go for it. Today they open it officially, and cut a new kind of ribbon. One that might as well say: “Whoops, Progress Was Right Under Our Nose All Along.”

It’s intermission time. Some favorite memories of Courthouse Square:

1. The time the city tried putting speakers in the trees to pipe classical music into the square in an attempt to drive teenage punk rockers and derelicts out. (The idea failed spectacularly; in a Press Democrat story about its efficacy, a homeless person was quoted: “I like it, but I wish they'd play some Mahler or Shostakovich. Beethoven is so common.”) My friend Donovan was there the day that one of the speakers fell out of the tree and onto the ground. A group of punks ran over and started kicking it, until one of them said, “Hey, this is a nice speaker, it's probably worth some money,” and they picked it up and ran off.

2. Jumping into the circular Rosenberg fountain with Evan late one night. We'd been walking around, complaining about how we were tired of observing the world from a distance, as teenagers do, and how we wanted to live more in the world. We threw pebbles in the water and watched the ripples bounce off of the walls and overlap, discussing how every action has an impact. It was all very deep. Then I realized we were doing exactly what we'd been complaining about earlier — observing something, instead of living in it — and I turned around and dramatically fell backwards into the fountain. I made Evan do it too. We walked home soaked, determined from then onward to live differently.

3. Cutting school for a Gulf War protest in the square, 1991. The square was not only physically divided but politically divided: pro-war people on the East side, antiwar people on the West, both shouting at each other. I was sitting listening to speakers talk about oil and Middle East relations and Kuwait, when suddenly my mom appeared. “I thought I'd find you here!” she shouted across the crowd, pointing at me. I was busted for cutting school... or so I thought. My mom came over, sat down, put her arm around me and said she was proud of me. We hung out downtown the rest of the day.

4. Playing on Courthouse Square's stage with my band Santiago, celebrating the release of our album about Santa Rosa, Rosenberg's After Dark. (I’d recorded the intro late at night sitting on a bench near the Rosenberg fountain; you can hear cars driving on the fake cobblestone of the now-removed street in the background.) We brought Madigan's Stationery and Eggen & Lance Mortuary signs to flank the stage. We had a song called “The Calm of Courthouse Square,” about finding peace in the square on Christmas morning after breaking up with a girl who’d wanted me to decide between staying in Santa Rosa or following her to a bigger, more exciting city. We opened and closed our set with it. I’ve played at famous clubs from CBGB to the Fillmore, but headlining Courthouse Square was more special.

5. Finding two pot plants growing in Courthouse Square! Crazy! They were only about six inches tall. I uprooted them and carried them home, where I planted them in larger and larger pots and watered them in our backyard until they grew taller than me. I don't really smoke weed at all, but how often do you find it growing right in the middle of downtown? I gave away a lot of “Courthouse Kush” to friends that year.

6. Driving Lena home from the hospital when she was just one day old, and parking in front of Treehorn Books. “I'll be right back,” I told Liz. I ran to the fountain and pooled some water in my hands, and walked back to the car, and to our new child. I trickled some of the water on her soft forehead. “Welcome to town,” I whispered.

I, of all people, should be sad and upset that the old square is gone. People who know my propensity for living in the past have joked that I was already nostalgic for the old square the minute they brought in the tractors. It's true. I can't help looking back.

But like the man said, nostalgia ain't what it used to be. Santa Rosa has stayed the same, more or less, for the past 15 years, and I’m ready for some newness. Now, suddenly, we're on a precipice of some major changes. The square is one of them. The SMART train is another. And lots of other changes add up to what could quickly be a very different Santa Rosa than the one we've known.

Around the square, a boutique hotel for tourists complete with valet parking is coming soon. Eight new restaurants are opening downtown in the next few months, bringing more handcrafted cocktails and artisanal menus. Even the Astro Motel is being remodeled and reopening soon as another boutique destination.

More and more, we find ourselves on “Best Places to Live” lists. The Russian River Brewing Co. is ground zero for our status as the capital of craft beer. Next door, what used to be Sawyer's News selling magazines, racing forms and cigarettes is now an English-style tea parlor and a real estate sales office. Up the block, a storefront that sold shoes is now a financial planning service. Arrigoni's, the 77-year-old family deli, is now a create-your-own-pizza place. And a restaurant from Healdsburg will soon take the place of La Bufa, the no-frills, family-run Mexican joint which closes Sunday after almost 45 years.

Have you seen Clover's new billboards? The ones that used to feature a cartoon cow and silly puns, and now present elegant phrases about their milk's “mouthfeel”?

Santa Rosa has been on this trajectory for a while, transforming from the Redwood Empire to Wine Country. But it's gonna come extra fast and hard in the next year or so.

Meanwhile, mere hours after the square’s fences came down yesterday, a man slept in a sleeping bag under the redwood trees. Twenty minutes later, Liz and I watched as a cop came and rustled him awake, and pulled out his ticket book.

We have an enormous housing problem in Santa Rosa, and more homeless than I can ever remember. I don't know what to say to those who complain about homeless people without seeing the connection to the luxurification of Santa Rosa, except that you can only have so many landlords turning their units into permanent Airbnbs for Pliny the Younger fans before there's no place for people who grew up here to live.

Home sales here have hit their highest median price in history, out of range for the average first-time buyer. Rents have skyrocketed, completely out of reach for most of my friends. And the freeway underpasses on Sixth Street and Ninth Street have become mini-villages of homeless people who simply can't afford a basic roof over their head.

The city knows this, and is trying to address it. But the changes Santa Rosa faces are going to come much faster than city policy. Meanwhile, the city wants the square to succeed, and an important part of that — in the eyes of many — is to keep it “nice,” “clean,” and “welcoming.”

In other words: clear of homeless people. I mean, we witnessed it right there, firsthand, after the square opened, as if on cue.

I'm nervous. I'm also excited. I don't know what's gonna happen. I do know that I love this city, and that today is a historic day for Santa Rosa. To the critics of the new square’s design, I say: It’s a canvas. I know of no construction project that doesn’t go in phases. (And, $10 million is cheap. Really.) Look at the photo earlier for what the square looked like when it opened in the early ’70s: flat, empty, a lot of concrete. Things adapt. Trees grow.

Ultimately, a town square is just that — a place. What makes it special are the people, and what they do with it. And time will tell what we do with this square. Some modern-looking LED towers are on the way. The Ruth Asawa fountain will be reinstalled. I, for one, would love to add a gazebo or permanent stage for speakers and musical performances.

But last night, as I noticed new plaques commemorating the old Rosenberg fountain and the current city council, I was glad to see an older plaque that someone decided to keep. Giving a brief history of the square, it includes the name "J. Carrillo.” That's Julio Carrillo, someone I've written about at length, who donated his family's land to help lay the foundation for Santa Rosa — including the land for the square. Developers and businessmen did their thing, and Santa Rosa flourished. Julio Carrillo, the son of Spanish settlers who drank and gambled as much as he believed in high-minded ideas, went broke.

Near the end of his life, Carrillo, basically penniless, worked as a janitor for the courthouse. By day, he and his wife sold tamales on the sidewalk to help support their large family. All this on valuable land he'd once owned, and naively signed over in service of a high-minded idea called Santa Rosa.

Change comes fast. Carrillo eventually got a prince's funeral, with a huge crowd in the square, and a parade to the cemetery. And his name – some of it, at least – is memorialized on a plaque in this new, reunified square. But just like it was in Carrillo's day, Santa Rosa is still a city of the haves and the have-nots.

There's a grand metaphor to be made here about reunifying the square and reunifying our splintered city, divided by wealth and class and race, but I just can't bring myself to be that hopeful. Not yet. But I'll give it time.

As for today, and the big celebration in the new (finally!) reunified Courthouse Square, and this new era of downtown, whatever it may bring?

It’s our city. Our square. Let’s make it great. I'll see you there.