Overhead, there is a sound like the sky swinging shut. I look up. It is midmorning in Bolinas, late June, and the fog from the ocean — rolling in after its thousand-mile run across the curve of the Pacific — shrouds the clapboard buildings of this town, lending softer edges to the picket fences and gravel paths and trellised roses that sit here between mountain and shore, cut off by the Coastal Range from the rest of the world, and, perhaps, from reality. At first, I think that the sound that has made me look up is the wind, but the wind, on this morning, is a sigh, not the keening howl it can be, not a bark-stripping moan, not a mad cellist with a saw blade and a set of cast-iron strings, just an ocean breeze in a seaside town that looks like it hitchhiked in from the New England coast. I am puzzled for an instant, and then I see the bird. In flight, the heron — great, blue — is longer than I am tall, its sinuous neck outstretched, a letter “S” with wings, long legs extended behind its body, toes pointed into each other in a perfect diver's curl, an arrowhead fashioned from flesh and nails. As it flies, the heron produces the sound doors make when they twist open on old hinges, a slow, rusty creak. And at this moment, the rasp of the heron in flight is the only sound in town. I stand stock-still in the middle of the street — which is light gray, the color between blue and onyx, as if the sea each night crept in to inlay the pavement with oyster shells — and watch the heron until it disappears over the low rooftops into the trees.
I had heard of the herons, of course. The great blues live in the tall trees behind Smiley's, the Bolinas bar on the town's main street, slate gray in the green of the leaves. The herons roost there for protection from the peregrine falcon that preyed for a while on the lagoon outside of town, where the water lies shallow and shiny, a natural reflecting pool for the sky. In the lagoon, there are egrets and loons and avocets and pelicans, as well, and harbor seals that lie on sandbars as the tide comes in under them, seeming to float on top of the water, small waterborne sunbathers in fur coats.
The lagoon is where it all started, two decades ago, the effort by Bolinas — one small town — to remain untouched by time, to stave off the economic engine that has fueled an explosion of development in San Francisco and other parts of the Bay Area, that has changed the world in which we all live into something that, even day to day, sometimes seems unrecognizable. This is the interest of Bolinas: its effort to define, for and by itself, its own fate. A presumption, to be sure. An arrogance, breeding enmity and disaffection as surely as it has produced anything else. A gamble with great stakes, putting on the table as it does the very notion of whether self-definition — by a person or a town — is still possible. But a success?
As the story of Bolinas shows, it isn't easy to turn paradise into utopia, no matter how hard you try.
The Times-Post is at last able to announce that William Weston, our top international affairs reporter, will spend six weeks in Ecotopia, beginning next week. This unprecedented journalistic development has been made possible through arrangements at the highest diplomatic level. It will mark the first officially arranged visit by an American to Ecotopia since the secession cut off normal travel and communications.
The Times-Post is sending Weston on this unique and difficult investigative assignment in the conviction that a candid, on-the-spot assessment of Ecotopia is essential — 20 years after its secession.
Thus begins Ernest Callenbach's 1975 classic cult novel Ecotopia, about the back-to-the-land movement of the '60s and '70s. The premise of the novel is simple enough: It is the year 2000, and Northern California, Oregon, and Washington state have withdrawn from America to form Ecotopia, a land where recycling, bicycling, and free love, although not in that order, predominate. Called “silly but revealing” in a 1978 Harper's article that noted the similarities between fictional Ecotopia and real-life Bolinas, the book nevertheless underscores the motivations of the radicals, flower children, and flakes who found what they were looking for in the West Marin of the early '70s. “Things were not getting any better — so people were really ready for a change,” a nameless Ecotopian tells reporter Weston on Page 51. “They were literally sick of bad air, chemicalized foods, lunatic advertising. They turned to politics because it was finally the only route to self-preservation. … Something had to be done. And nobody else was doing it.”
In many ways, the parallels between Bolinas and Ecotopia are obvious. Ecotopia, like Bolinas, withdrew from the rest of the nation — Ecotopia by seceding, Bolinas by chopping down the Caltrans sign that marked its exit off Highway 1. Ecotopia limited growth for environmental and social reasons; Bolinas did, too. In Ecotopia, Americans are mistrusted and disliked; you don't have to walk far in Bolinas to hear about the woes of modern culture. But in fact, the book is actually set in San Francisco. And dealing the city into the equation isn't difficult, either, whether it's fictional Ecotopia or real-life Bolinas you're talking about. Like Bolinas, San Francisco is a peninsula on top of an earthquake fault. Like Bolinas, San Francisco has battled developers and unbridled growth. Like Ecotopia, San Francisco has lots of bicyclists and people who wear strange clothes. More important than the parallels between cities, in fact, is the frame Callenbach uses to examine his premise, which is whether utopias are possible in the first place.
Callenbach's choice of a 20-year benchmark for his evaluation of a fictional utopia was savvy, for in fact, the shelf life of a utopia is rarely more than 15 years. By 1927, the reality of day-to-day life in Russia no longer justified who and what Stalin was. Two decades into Mao's China came the cracking of the Cultural Revolution. J.J. Rousseau, Mussolini, Lyndon Baines Johnson — their ideas and ideals faded and faltered within a decade and a half out of the starting gate. Perhaps it's part of the natural process of aging, the assault of time on organisms animate and inanimate alike. Perhaps it has nothing to do with that, and means simply this: Starting something and sustaining it are quite different enterprises, as intertwined as they might seem in the beginning. [page]
In the beginning, Bolinas had a plan. Bolinas was going to be ecologically sensitive, respectful of people in their endless variety while being discouraging to tourists, blessedly free of the automobile, encouraging toward flushless toilets, and intent on running land speculators out of town. Things were going to be fair and happy and egalitarian and ecological and great, even though the rest of America was going to hell in unrecyclable plastic handbags. Sound utopian?
This plan that Bolinas had for itself can be found in a 1975 document, passed and adopted into law by the Marin County Board of Supervisors, called the Bolinas Peninsula Community Plan. It isn't every sheaf of government paperwork that contains poetry, artwork, and photographs of women dancing without bras on, but then the Bolinas Peninsula Community Plan is special in a number of different ways. Together with a 1976 book called The Town That Fought to Save Itself, by Harvard-educated Bolinas writer Orville Schell, the plan is the town's equivalent of the stone tablets Moses received on that mountainside — a vision for what people should do, in the New World Order. Both the plan and the book are splendid literary time capsules in their own right, but especially when considered together, providing as they do a perfect snapshot of what it's like when everything is still possible because nobody has woken up yet.
The Bolinas Peninsula Community Plan outlines 10 goals, including: limiting the use of the automobile in Bolinas, encouraging agriculture, limiting tourism, slowing growth, discouraging land speculation, protecting wildlife, accepting “a wide range of life styles,” and fostering local jobs.
In bold italics at the end of the goals and objective section, the Bolinas Planning Committee added these emphases:
The Need To Move Towards Self-Sufficiency. Including: Reduction of dependence on commuting; strong emphasis on agriculture; the increase in local job opportunities; alternative energy resources; and water conservation.
The Need To Assure That Human, Plant, And Animal Habitats Are Truly Coexistent.
That Tourist Facilities In Themselves Do Not Become An Attraction, Rather Than The Recreation Facilities They Are Meant To Serve …
That The Achievement Of The Plan Is a Goal Of The Plan.
Schell's book contains many of the same photographs, statistics, and statements as the government-approved community plan. But it doesn't name Bolinas. In Schell's book, the town that fought to save itself is given the pseudonym Briones, to discourage untoward visitors. It might seem contradictory to write an entire book about how great a place is while concealing its name, but then, the book plays by its own rules, especially in view of the endless self-exploratory ruminations that Schell engages in. Here's one:
“Success will certainly not just happen or be delivered. First, we will have to be able to articulate what we want, and we will not always agree. Then we will have to ask, explain, struggle, and even take. A lot of people will have to do a lot of work. People will have to get together, and there are bound to be some dull meetings, but some good ones as well. And then, we'll have to work. … Even if we expend vast amounts of energy, nothing is guaranteed. There are too many examples of places which have not made it to allow for such confidence, and most of us have lived in such places. But somehow we must allow ourselves to dream what the future might look like for one small town. This may sound far-flung in this era of presidential criminality and political brutality. But regeneration will come from someplace. And I have a feeling it will come from the bottom; from some small place where people are still in touch, and cohesive enough to trust each other and to act. Perhaps we are such a place. What do you think?”
What do I think? Well, for one, being Will Weston and traipsing into Ecotopia isn't nearly as blissful as it sounds. For one, there are the darned mountains. On my first trip into Bolinas, I ride the aptly named Fairfax-Bolinas Road, taking a left at the stop sign where the coffee store is in downtown Fairfax, opposite the little parking area, and noting with utter and complete astonishment that a road sign actually points, with the most discreet arrow imaginable, the way to the town that dares not speak its name. I make a note of this in my notebook, but then I cease to care, seeing as anybody who can survive this incredibly twisted hill route obviously lives in Bolinas in the first place. The road winds up and down through the Mount Tamalpais watershed, crossing at one point over the actual water that's there, which is deep blue and mountain-lakey and beautiful until I stop my car, at which point a horde of seemingly angry bees gathers in close proximity to my head. Needless to say, I move on. At the fork in the road, I take the road more traveled, which turns out to be a big mistake, in that it puts me up on the high ridge overlooking Bolinas, again with a cloud of bees for companionship, and while I can see the town, I am not actually anywhere near it. From this height, Bolinas looks like a postage stamp, not one of the more glamorous ones of recent years, depicting rock singers and movie stars, but a stamp of older vintage, one that's been through the mail a few times, a stamp with ragged edges and curled-up corners, a stamp that's been licked here and there and that, for some reason, hasn't gone to the great postage meter in the sky yet. I turn the car around and head back down the mountain. I cross Highway 1 at the stop sign and drive straight on into town. [page]
Here's the first thing you notice: The town is very small. Coming into it for the first time is kind of like seeing a movie star on the street — you've heard so much and seen so much about it that you expect it to be larger than life. Make no mistake: Bolinas is not larger than life. It practically isn't even life-size, given the expanded expectations of 1995 America. Why, there aren't any malls at all! Not even a strip mall! If you recall, this non-growth of the town was a key element in the community plan. And in this respect, the Bolinian Utopian Movement (BUM) has been an absolute success. Go ahead, hold up the Before and After shots. With very few exceptions, what you see in 1971 photographs is what you get in 1995. But it's not an accident or an act of will that's made that part of the Bolinian Dream come true. It was a pre-eminently sophisticated political strategy, and it's left long, deep, and divisive roots in the very community it shaped.
We're talking, of course, about the water moratorium.
In 1971, a publicly elected board called the Bolinas Community Public Utilities District slapped a moratorium on the town and declared that, hence forward, there would be no new development due to a shortage of water. With that one board vote, Bolinas derailed — perhaps permanently — the chugging engine of economic development.
“You have to hand it to them. It's probably the only utility district in America that takes its powers that seriously,” says Marin County Supervisor Gary Giacomini, who has represented Bolinas for the last two decades. “What you see is what that community wanted for itself. It really wanted to be left alone, to be left the same size.”
“It was the key to preventing significant build-out,” says Paul Kayfetz, a longtime BCPUD board member and a man who, in the past, had the habit of hanging up on reporters who called to ask him to talk about the town. He's mellowed, apparently, going so far these days as to invite reporters to check out his solar house and to sample a taste from his wine cellar.
“There's just really limited development in the town, and I just can't see getting worked up about that,” says Phil Buchanan, the BCPUD water manager who, at one time, was a KSAN disc jockey, back in the days when it was a hip rock 'n' roll station.
Right now, Bolinas has 580 water connections allowed, according to Buchanan. Chalk one up for the community plan.
But not everyone thinks the water moratorium was such a wonderful idea, or that it was necessary at all, from a water point of view. The water for the town comes from the Arroyo Hondo, a creek in the Point Reyes National Seashore deeded to Bolinas in 1925; during the 1970s, the town built two earthen reservoirs, increasing treated water-storage capacity to 860,000 gallons, which was enough to get Bolinas through the 1982 washout of its water transmission system.
And not everyone agrees, even superficially, about the effect that the water moratorium has had on the town.
One of the people who doesn't think the water ban is such a utopian ideal is Charles Gilbert, a retired Sacramento schoolteacher who honeymooned in town with his wife, Phyllis, in 1954 and returned in 1955 to buy a tiny slice of Bolinas, a plot up on the highlands, called the Mesa, above the Pacific Ocean. The Gilberts planned to retire in Bolinas, and were ready to build their home in 1969, when “unexpected deaths in the family,” as Charles Gilbert puts it, forced them to forestall. By the time they were ready to go again, the water moratorium was in place and the Gilberts were out of luck.
In 1982, Charles Gilbert sued the Bolinas water district, saying the water moratorium should be lifted. After nine years in court, BCPUD prevailed. “The Court finds that there is a solid factual basis for declaring a water shortage emergency and, thus, for imposing a moratorium which precludes potential water users from tapping into the water supply which is both fragile and limited,” Judge Richard Hodge wrote in an Alameda County Superior Court ruling in November 1991.
These days, Charles Gilbert, who taught mentally handicapped adults in Sacramento for 36 years, says he has lost interest in the Bolinas property.
“I haven't been involved in it much for the last three or four years since my wife died,” Gilbert says. “My kids go there, they have picnics on the lot.”
Another person who isn't a big fan of the water moratorium is Louise Pepper, a real estate agent in the town and a member, by marriage, of one of the oldest Bolinas families, the Peppers.
“With the moratorium, a lot of the people that owned vacant land up here have been able to do nothing but pay taxes. In actuality, it's taxation without representation, so in that respect it really isn't fair. I've never been convinced of the validity of their claim of a water shortage. They could have developed it.”
But in another respect, Louise Pepper isn't complaining at all about the moratorium. And that's because she thinks — and many economists would agree — that the moratorium, in making most new development impossible, effectively raised the value of developed property. High house prices aren't something a real estate agent frowns upon. But while Pepper is willing to credit the water ban for the current $500,000 price tags on some Bolinas homes, others — like Kayfetz, who defended the ban for years in court against retired schoolteacher Gilbert — won't allow that Bolinas real estate values have had much to do with growth limitations. This is a very serious issue in Bolinas, one that can provoke cold stares if broached the wrong way. [page]
You see, it wouldn't be very utopian if the same water moratorium that has preserved the physical beauty of the town has jacked prices so high that only people on the richer side of the socio-economic scale can afford to live there. One of the tenets of the revolution, in case you've forgotten, is that all of us on this great green ball of wax coexist equally. And yet a quick peek at the 1990 census, to use an entirely non-anecdotal fact source, shows that what Bolinas abhors may have come true. According to figures compiled by the federal government, the town that rebirthed itself on an agrarian ideal is, these days, a town half made up of commuters. And that, to be frank about it, isn't at all what the Bolinas Peninsula Community Plan had in mind.
“Bolinas was once a thriving agricultural community, and it was once a fishing port. That the plan seeks to help re-establish these older relationships, older economics, is not an exercise in nostalgia; but rather a first attempt at principles of a community basing itself in long time harmony with the earth, instead of the philosophy of rip and run, the philosophy we are mostly heirs to.” — Bolinas Peninsula Community Plan, 1975
“A new value is clearly emerging around the notion of what it means to be a landowner. Land is not a form of currency.” — BPCP, 1975
“Conservationists outbid by Esprit Co-Founder; Wildland site on Bolinas Lagoon Sold.” — San Francisco Chronicle, 1989
It is a testament to the power of myth that Bolinas has retained its hippie, happy-go-lucky image for as long as it has. Scratch your average San Franciscan, for example, and you'll hear about what a weird, wild, and wonderful slice of ideological variety Bolinas is.
Part of the reason for that is the absolutely relentless self-promotion Bolinas has done — intentionally or unintentionally. Take The Hearsay News, for example. Published three times a week by the townspeople themselves, the Hearsay hypes that hippie happiness all over Bolinas. On June 21, for example, the Hearsay published a Summer Solstice issue, complete with a picture of the sun and this poem, by Asia Thorpe, titled “BoBo Summer”:
Red Hot Scorcher
Fire Fly Peach
Sexy Sweaty Surfers
with web t-shirts
Goddesses on beach …
Sheesh! But the numbers, most unfortunately, tell quite a different story.
In 1990, 1,066 people identified themselves as Bolinians in the federal government's decennial census. That's about three-quarters of the households in Bolinas, based on the number of water connections listed at the utilities district. The 1,066 figure also approximately matches the number of voters — 1,025 — registered with Marin County's supervisor of elections.
Now, we're not talking about 1,066 crazy, tie-dyed, ethnically diverse, topless, surfing free spirits living in camper vans. By and large, those 1,066 people are educated, affluent, Caucasian commuters. That's true in absolute terms, and in relative terms — when compared, for example, to the results of a town survey conducted by the Bolinas Planning Committee in August 1972, and included as part of the community plan.
There's mean household income, for one: $47,718, some $10,000 higher than San Francisco's. Nearly half the town makes more than $50,000 per year. And more than half reported that they were in “managerial or professional services”; just 3.1 percent reported any farm income, while 45 percent reported receiving interest, dividend, or net rental income.
In 1972, by comparison, 24 percent of the town reported itself to be artisans or laborers; 40 percent weren't employed at all.
There's level of education, as well: In 1990, 77 percent reported some college, 58 percent listed actual college degrees, and 24 percent reported graduate degrees.
That's up from the 1972 results, in which 31 percent reported college degrees and 15 percent listed grad degrees.
Despite the plan's disdain of the automobile, in 1990 only 12 households reported not having a car. That's 2.6 percent of those responding. By contrast, nearly 45 percent of 1990 Bolinians were driving more than 45 minutes to get to work, and half of those were behind the wheel from 60 to 89 minutes each way.
In terms of property values, more than two-thirds of the properties in town are listed as worth more than $200,000, and almost three-quarters of the renters in town are paying more than $750 per month.
And, perhaps most interestingly, there's this: While 52 percent of the people who responded to the census reported living in the same house in 1990 as in 1985, 47.6 percent said they were living somewhere different than five years earlier. In fact, 33 percent of the people who called themselves Bolinas residents in 1990 didn't even live in the town in 1985.
And it's those folks — the newcomers — who are taking the blame for Bolinas' change, whether they deserve it or not.
There are two houses, in particular, that have come to be associated in the collective Bolinian mind-set with the way things aren't really the same anymore. There's the house at the end of Brighton Avenue, for one. It's a green shingled place, pretty in the way that seaside houses are, with decks and fences and big windows overlooking the sand and the shore. There's a sign on the gate, the one just beyond the chalk-painted mandala on the oyster-gray street. The sign says: “Ship's Lantern.” [page]
“Wrong,” Alex Horvath says. At 34, Horvath is an old-timer in town. “That's the Airplane House.” The Jefferson Airplane, you see, occupied the house at one time. Let the neighborhood kids swim in the pool. “Everybody will continue to call it the Airplane House.”
And there's Susie Tompkins' house, on the Star Route as you drive into town. Tompkins, who owns Esprit, paid $2.3 million in 1989 for 44 acres overlooking the Bolinas Lagoon, a primo piece of real estate that the Marin County Open Space District had coveted but, ultimately, could not afford.
On the property, Tompkins built a 6,000-square-foot house, according to local real estate agent Peter Harris. She was able to build the house despite the water moratorium because there were two existing water meters on the property, Utility District Manager Phil Buchanan says. Former BCPUD board member Paul Kayfetz offers a contradictory explanation for multimillionaire Tompkins' ability to build in a town that has shut out people like Charles Gilbert, the retired schoolteacher of handicapped adults: “It's one of the few places you can drill a well,” Kayfetz says of the Tompkins property.
But whether it's due to a well or a water meter, the presence in Bolinas of a huge house owned by one of the Bay Area's wealthiest people has not gone unremarked. Some of the townspeople say Tompkins deserves credit for not building an ostentatious house on the property. Others bemoan the loss of open-space access to the 44-acre lot, the top of which affords a view of the town, the lagoon, and the ocean that few other spots in Bolinas can match. Tompkins, for her part, refuses comment through her spokesman, Danny Kraus. “At this point, she is not prepared to talk about Bolinas in an interview with any publication,” Kraus says.
But if some Bolinians don't like all the newcomers in town, they won't have to go far to find people with whom to commiserate. Some of the people who complain about newcomers and their effect on the town were, not so long ago, newcomers themselves, arrivistes on the peninsula. In fact, at the point in the '70s that the town declared itself separate from — and perhaps better than — the rest of us, it was populated mainly by people who had lived there five years or less. And as everyone knows, sometimes it's the face in the mirror that you hate the most.
“They'd found Bolinas, and they wanted to keep it as it always was,” says Louise Pepper. “Only they had no idea what it was like.”
Before I tell you the history of the town, take a quick minute to dream it up for yourself. Let's see, Bolinas — a small seaside fishing village? An Edward Hopper painting?
Nope. In the past, bucolic Bolinas was a shipbuilding, timber-stripping economic stronghold in Marin, a place besmeared with mud and money, founded by cattle rancher Gregorio Briones and populated by men's men's men, who drank their way over the mountains on muleback and stagecoach and foot, pistol-whipping each other for amusement when things got a little slow. The way the photographs housed in plastic sleeves in the Bolinas Historical Museum tell the story, Bolinas used to be full of rugged-looking pioneers who glared at the camera with the kind of enmity born only of hardship and rain. Then, after all the lumber was gone from the hillsides, hotels sprang up, serving overland travelers from San Rafael and the iron-stomached fun-seekers who braved the rough sea journey across the Golden Gate from San Francisco. Bankers and bankers' wives moved in, too, buying the farmhouses hand-built by the hard-nosed pioneers and turning them into vacation homes. Throughout the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, San Francisco newspapers ran lots of cheery stories and photo spreads about taking big old Pontiacs and Cadillacs out for spins through Marin and stumbling onto the pristine paradise of Bolinas, where the natives were friendly and eager to please. It wasn't until the '70s, as it happens, that Bolinians barricaded themselves away from the rest of the world, proclaimed their independence, and started changing things around.
Here's what Bolinas has today, downtown: a store, a bar, a hotel, a restaurant, a bakery, a library, a vacant lot where a restaurant burned down 20 years ago, a food co-op, a coin laundry, a post office, a hardware store, a lumber store, a liquor store, a secondhand store, two real estate offices, a curio shop, a gas station, an art gallery, a museum thrift store, a surf shop — and a whole bunch of dogs. And barring the dogs, which are everywhere, the streets, midweek, are deserted.
Except, that is, for the people who never leave town. Whose combined presence, at times, makes an afternoon in Bolinas feel a little like a rush-hour ride on the New York City subway system, in terms of peace, quiet, and just plain pastoral pulchritude.
Alex Horvath, the bartender and near-native Bolinian, has a little dance he does with his hands to depict what happens to the outsiders who happen to stumble into Smiley's. Horvath is sitting across from me at lunch in Sausalito, the town Bolinas people like to use to scare each other into continuing to ward off tourists. When a new person comes into Smiley's, Horvath says, the bar regulars swoop in and circle around like birds over roadkill. He's illustrating this by flapping his thumbs and pinkies, making a raw kind of croaking noise between his teeth.
“It's always the same,” Horvath says, flapping his pinkies and thumbs, bird wings, croaking. “They're like crows, circling around.”
“Why is that?” I ask him. “Because they don't get out of town much?”
“They don't get out of town at all,” Horvath says.
In Bolinas, I'm at lunch in the Shop, across from Smiley's, and a man I saw two days earlier on a wooden beach bench with a Budweiser at five minutes to 11 in the morning motions me to his table. “Come sit with us,” Julian Fox calls out. “Or I'll come sit with you.” [page]
I sit with Julian. I order pea soup. The waitress who brings it has dyed her hair in a very complicated rainbow, many distinct sections of different colors. Julian says, “How is your article going?”
“It's OK,” I say.
“I missed you yesterday,” he says.
A moment of silence ensues.
“I think we're going to have to turn you into a whore,” Julian says.
On the beach, midafternoon. Gary is 44; he has long white hair that's yellowing, like a horse's mane, as it falls down his back, and he's wearing a white T-shirt with an African freedom slogan on it and tan khaki shorts. He's barefoot and skinny, and his eyes, sunk deep in his head, are the same color as the sea, a kind of slate blue.
“American society is squeezing out the middle,” Gary is saying, waving his hands out toward my shoulder, then back again. “What's going on here in Bolinas indicates in general what's happening in the American economy.” He looks at me, pauses, and switches gears.
“Ellen,” he says, “you're pretty neat.”
“Thank you,” I say.
“Can I have a kiss?” he asks.
“No,” I say.
“A goodbye kiss?” he says.
“No,” I say.
Horvath laughs, later, when I tell him this story, at lunch in Sausalito. He makes his hands do the crow dance, and whistles the sound that the birds make, through his teeth.
“We are at a crucial point. Will we be able to finish what we started? Can we finish what we started? Can we and the people of this town stay with a project all the way from the early groping, to the plans, through the red tape and building? Can the ideas become incarnate? Can the gears be meshed?” — Orville Schell, The Town That Fought to Save Itself, 1976
That does seem to be the question, these 20 years later. Is it possible to finish what was started? Is there a way for Bolinas to become what it set out to be? And if not, what happened? Because when you think about it, if there ever were a place for utopia, a tiny little peninsula with an ocean and a mountain all its own has as good a shot as anywhere else to make it happen.
So I call Orville Schell to ask him: “Can we finish what we started?” I figure since he wrote the book, he might know the answer. But after I introduce myself as a newspaper reporter, there is a pause on the other end of the phone.
“I just don't want to talk about it,” Schell says.
“But you wrote this whole entire book about it,” I protest.
“It's just not what I'm thinking about or doing,” Schell says.
Then I call Schell's business partner, Bill Niman. Like Schell, Niman has his name listed on the masthead of the Bolinas Peninsula Community Plan; he was a member of the BCPUD board around the crucial water-moratorium time. Niman and Schell are now ranchers — they raise the Niman-Schell beef that you see on tony restaurant menus. Niman gets on the line and says he just can't talk either. “We're involved in some controversial things around the community,” he says, mysteriously.
As it turns out, 20 years after the revolution that Orville Schell and Bill Niman helped to foment, things have gone a little downhill between themselves and the townspeople they once frolicked happily among. It's not so much that the cattle they raise are hard on the environment, although bovines are quite notorious that way. The source of the current hard feelings, Paul Kayfetz says, is that a townswoman named Pat Angel wrote in the The Hearsay News that one of Niman's ranch hands shot her son's dog.
“It was quite poignant,” Kayfetz says.
I call Niman to ask him about this, but he doesn't want to comment. Pat Angel picks up the phone when I call her house, but says “not interested” — just like that — when I ask her what happened with her dog.
“Will you tell me why you won't comment?” I ask.
“I don't want to turn my family's tragedy into a newspaper story,” she says.
“But you put it in The Hearsay News,” I say.
“That's just within our little village,” she says.
Funny, I think, but nobody asked me for my residency card when I bought my copies of The Hearsay News. Must have been a slip-up of the old Bolinas Border Patrol. Somebody's in trouble now.
“Fine,” I tell her. She hangs up the phone.
Yet it remains that, just within their little village, Niman and Schell don't have the revolutionary reputation they used to enjoy.
“They were politically active, they got what they wanted, they checked into the bank and said, 'Fuck you,'” Kayfetz says. “They're friends of mine, by the way.”
Kayfetz, for his part, doesn't think things are so bad around town. If the numbers show that 45 percent of Bolinas is hauling ass over the hill every day to go to work, then the numbers are wrong, Kayfetz says. Once you figure in the people who were hiding from the census-takers — whether out of anarchy, apathy, or for good legal reason — then, he posits, just 20 percent or so of the town is doing all the driving.
Vic Ammoroso, who owns a truly splendid secondhand shop in downtown Bolinas called the Grand Hotel, fingers the general pressures of the Bay Area economy. Take a quick gander at the rest of the bay, Ammoroso suggests, and you've got your explanation for changes in Bolinas. [page]
But Don Deane, who owns the town bar, publishes the town's other newspaper, The Coastal Post, and runs a nontraditional foster home for Bolinas teens, has a different view of what's going on.
I meet with Deane on my second visit to Bolinas. This time, I've driven in down Highway 1, which rides a roller coaster above the Pacific Ocean. Fortunately, it's foggy, so I can't see the water as it sucks and hisses like spit through teeth on the rocks far below. Plus, I've taken to driving mighty slowly, out of fear of building up too much centrifugal force and inadvertently flinging myself out into space, an ice cube in the giant blender of life. I am beginning to develop the distinct sensation that Bolinas is a naturally gated community. No wonder people like to brag that they leave their doors unlocked — burglars making their escape run the risk of carsickness, a deterrent just as effective as any other I can think of.
“There were two elements of the community plan that were never really focused on,” Deane is saying, as we sit on the futon couch in his office, which is above Smiley's. A handsome man of 52, Deane is wearing a purple cardigan, a patterned tie, a lemon-grass-colored shirt, black jeans with a pocket knife chained to his waist, and wingtip shoes. He matches, in color choice and in variety of pattern, the Oriental carpet that is underneath our feet.
Those elements? Oh, just the tiny matters of the town's economy and of low-cost housing. In other words, Bolinas might be a pretty place to look at, but it's hard to make a living there, and it's hard to afford to live there unless you're making quite a good living someplace else.
“Young people don't have a chance to buy a lot and build a house, or for that matter old people. I don't think it's right if you grow up in Bolinas as a kid the only jobs that are open to you are apprentice kind of carpentry or restaurant jobs or housecleaning jobs. That's about it. It's real easy to get stuck,” Deane says. He pauses to light a cigarette.
“The bottom line is that there are these two areas that could be mitigated to some degree, if there were energy and desire to mitigate them in some way. But would it be fair? I don't know if fair is a measure anywhere. Wherever you have something that there's a greater demand for than a supply, it ain't going to be fair.”
Fairness, however, is an element of utopia, not of paradise. Nobody ever said paradise was fair. Ask the folks in Palm Beach, Fla. They live in paradise. They live in mansions with beautiful groomed lawns beneath a sky that hangs just overhead, close enough to touch, the winds soft and supple, the ocean a slow boat rocking them to sleep each night. In Palm Beach, the houses are safe and the streets are blindingly brilliant with sunlight and the moon rises over the water every evening, a low silver disc in the mother-of-pearl sky. In Palm Beach, the police will pull you over if you have out-of-town tags. In Palm Beach, there was talk of putting cameras on the bridges to keep the outsiders on the other side of the Intracoastal Waterway, where they belong. Is that fair?
Or ask the folks in Key West, down the Sunshine State a bit from Palm Beach. They have paradise there. They have beaches and margarita bars and a sunset show each night where trained cats jump through flaming hoops, down on a spit of concrete called the Wharf, which looks out across the blue waters of the southern Atlantic toward an island that used to be a prison. In Key West, there are never enough hotel rooms to go around, and the locals live in small apartments with jalousie windows and make a good living tending bar so they can write their novels and dream of the day they can leave the island for good. Is that fair?
Bolinas doesn't think it's Palm Beach, controlling ingress and egress with economics and snobbery, and Bolinas doesn't want to become Key West, where blank-eyed visitors wander up and down Duval in tank tops and flip-flops until they're tired enough or drunk enough to go to sleep. But ultimately, without a viable local economy or a way to control housing costs, Bolinas is going to have to choose between the two — between gating its roadways or turning them into straightaways. People need to have some way to pay the bills. No matter what the '70s may have told you, revolution is not simply a state of mind.
Which brings us to the Bolinas sign. There used to be a sign, you see, out on Highway 1, a small green-and-white affair that named the town correctly and gave passers-by an idea of its general location. The revolutionary Bolinians hacked the sign down during those heady '70s days when the world, or at least the town, was going to be a better place. Like tea thrown overboard, it became a symbol of revolution and resistance.
The real sign is still not there, out on Highway 1. But all over Bolinas — on T-shirts and sea walls and driveway fences and store walls — the sign lives on in various forms: silk-screened, spray-painted, carved into wood. The sign has become an icon, more important in its absence than in its presence, a symbol of victory in a war with the world Bolinas seems not to have won.