Wednesday, December 14, 2005

We Are The Suburbs

Unless you’ve been living beneath a rock, you’ve read at least one story in the past couple of years about America’s growing obesity problem.

I honestly didn’t give the issue much thought until recently; I don’t have children, and I was raised by a mother who didn’t allow processed foods in the house. Weight simply wasn’t an issue in my family. We lived on a farm, and spent a good part of every day on outside chores. Weeding and chopping wood and feeding the animals were such effective calorie burning measures that we scarcely had enough meat to cover our bones.

When I lived in San Francisco, the scarcity of parking was incentive enough for me to walk nearly everywhere… walk to a movie, the grocery store, the dry cleaners. I was out and about – moving around – much of every day.

Then I moved to Novato. And now I understand what all the fuss is about.

Like many other suburban communities, Novato is composed of a loose network of strip malls and shopping centers with mega-store anchors. Safeway and Bell Markets dominate the grocery landscape. There are dozens of Mc-Burger-Junior places, countless pizza joints and many large chain restaurants. The fact is that is just plain difficult to eat in a healthy, conscious way in this town. And forget about walking to do your errands... everything is so spread out that it makes driving everywhere an absolute necessity.

I’m not writing about this issue to harsh on Novato, or to be negative, only to open the discussion about the real issues facing suburbanites.

These aren't just the musings of a spoiled former city dweller; these are complex problems that have contributed to a shocking nationwide increase in obesity and its related diseases. Just try to find a quick, healthy lunch in Novato when you’ve got 30 or 45 minutes. You’ll have to be creative; there aren’t any places that I’ve found with anything to grab and go, so that leaves the organic sections of the grocery markets. Sadly, most are anemic displays with shriveled vegetables and fruit that looks like it fell of the truck on the way to the store.

Safeway has been remodeling their stores with ambient light and fake wood crates and “rustic” signage to give the stores a more healthy feeling, but most of the goods are the same old chemical and high-fructose-corn-syrup laden junk wrapped up in pretty packages.

After several years without even considering a Whopper, I’ve succumbed to the drive-thru window four times in the last four months. That might not sound like much, but it was probably more trans fat than I should have had in 10 years. It made me wonder: what if I was a working mother with hungry kids in the back seat? Would I have the energy and time to drive up to Petaluma or down to San Rafael just to access more healthy options? I might some of the time. Other times, I quite likely would not.

It seems that a group of Novato residents had similar thoughts 18 months ago, and formed the Novato Healthy Foods Coalition. Take a look at their web site, and click on the Survey Results. Check out the fact that 32% of Novato residents have a household income of between $101,000 and 150,000.

I would wager a guess that much of the money in those households that is earmarked for dining, groceries and entertainment is being spent outside of Novato. And that adds up to quite a chunk of change.

In 2004, The NHFC launched a letter writing campaign in 2004 to bring Whole Foods and Trader Joes to Novato. It seems that they have succeeded. Trader Joes is under construction, and the plans for Whole Foods were just approved.

But it wasn’t without a fight; the drama that ensued over the Whole Foods project was Shakespearean. People literally came out of the woodwork with objections. One afternoon, as I was flipping through cable channels, I found the local access Novato channel. They were showing one of the community meetings regarding the WF Project. One woman got up and expressed her opinion that the store would create “vertical sprawl.” Vertical sprawl? Are you going to lose your view of Chevy’s? Or am I missing something here?

Whole Foods is not a cure-all; it is simply one store, and it has its flaws. I'm not naive enough to think that this is the Big Answer. But I was truly astounded by the backlash that this project created .

In following the story, I’ve become somewhat obsessed with what makes a community vibrant & exciting & healthy. The suburbs are full of amazing, creative people with money to spend, so there is no shortage of incentives. Did anyone read the November issue of 7x7 Magazine? They had an outstanding piece in there about the urban planners who are envisioning the new neighborhood area on Folsom Street, east of SoMa. They, and many others both in the US and certain European countries, are dedicating a great deal of brain power to this notion of dynamic, integrated communities. Now if they can direct some of their energy towards the suburbs, we might be able to see some healthier patterns emerging in the coming decades.

Grocery stores with healthy food options are only one piece of the puzzle. I’ll write more about some of the other aspects next time.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Just Leave the Money On the Nightstand

Numerous small towns in Northern California seem to get it. They know that their job is to be quaint but intriguing, the perfect blend of rustic charm and indulgent opportunity. They know the value of a wink and a smile, of the irresistible lure of a warm storefront and a sparkling promenade. They know that to nurture yoga studios and bakeries and independent bookstores is to keep their citizens entertained and amused, so much so that they don’t have to flee elsewhere to get their needs met on a regular basis. They understand, in short, that they should be places where locals and jaded city dwellers and dreamy travelers alike come to spend their money.

Sonoma gets it. Petaluma gets it. Mill Valley and Healdsburg get it. Napa Valley obviously gets it in a very big way.

But despite playing host to multi-million dollar homes and shiny automobiles of the most expensive sort, Novato simply doesn’t get it.

For the past umpteen number of years, while surrounding communities have populated their downtowns with a mix of pubs, clothing boutiques, art galleries and restaurants, Novato’s downtown has sported the same tired mix of dusty antique stores and second-rate jewelry shops, with just as many boarded-up windows as actual businesses.

In my exploratory forays downtown, I’ve repeatedly cringed upon stepping into a Grant Avenue storefront. I wonder: have these merchants EVER walked into a bookstore or boutique or café in San Francisco? Have they even once considered the art of arranging merchandise? Have they ever taken a class in the gentle seduction of the pocketbook?

Not once, not twice, but many times over, I’ve heard stories about how hostile
Novato is to new business. About how the review process is petty and harsh, about how many prospective businesses have given up rather than beg for affection. About how she makes eyes at every fast food company in the world, but turns a cold shoulder to more interesting businesses. About how notions of a vibrant, livable community are right near the bottom of her list.

The result is that while her neighbors have progressed from kissing to cuddling to shacking up with their citizens, Novato has become a hollow bedroom town. A town to which people come home to sleep, but not to play or dine or shop. A stubborn artifact of a town, clinging to its remembered roots as a rebel cowboy outpost, apparently not counting the loss of untold dollars to people who simply shudder at its pinched, closed-in, repressive ways, who would far rather drive a few miles in either direction to spend their money in a place that welcomes them with open arms.

Novato is the housewife who has long since tossed away her negligees and walks around in a stained t-shirt with a cigarette hanging between her lips. Love me the way I am, she snarls. And we try, oh, we do. But she isn’t exactly the stuff of our dreams. She’s been in bed with Costco and Target for so long that she isn’t good for much more than the occasional blue-light special.

But the rumblings of the new millennium might be making Novato think twice. And her change of heart can be attributed in no small part to a lust for good, healthy food.

Oh, yes. This is a juicy story: more about that in my next post.