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Clarence Blake, age 97, Napa WWII Army Air Corps veteran poses on Veterans Day 2018 with his uniform, dog tags, and a picture of him taken in 1943.

Napa kicks off the holiday season with annual Christmas parade

Donning Santa hats and reindeer ears, Napa residents gathered along Second and Third streets to watch this year’s Christmas parade travel through downtown Napa on Saturday night.

Parade-goers said they love to watch kids participate in the parade and were grateful for an evening free of rain and wildfire smoke.

Families lugged wagons stuffed with camping chairs, fleece blankets and pets as they searched for the perfect vantage point. Volunteers handed out bundles of glow sticks while people munched on snacks and sipped hot drinks as they waited for the parade to begin.

The Christmas parade is the best event of the year, said Carlos Robles as he waited along the parade route. Robles said he comes every year and watches his granddaughter in the parade.

“We got hooked,” he said.

A few paces down the sidewalk, Gliselle Chavez, wearing glittery reindeer ears, sat in a chair along the sidewalk and waited to watch her daughter in the parade.

It’s good to have a community event like this, she said, particularly in the aftermath of the Camp Fire in Butte County that reminded so many of the sadness they felt after last year’s fires in Napa.

“Nowadays, we need stuff like this to bring the city together,” Chavez said.

Moments later, siblings Shiloh and Brianna Marsh arrived with their mother and looked to stake out a spot. They’ve come every year since 2002. Brianna loves the bright lights and candy thrown from floats. Brother Shiloh enjoys seeing people he knows participate in the parade.

Jennifer Johnson, of Sacramento, and Tim Johnson, of southern Oregon, were born and raised in Napa. It was their first time coming to the parade in years, though it was tradition to come as children. The small-town feel of the parade is awesome, Johnson said.

Mason Bartlett and Curtis Peck said they love the candy, the dancing horses, police cars and participating in a tradition.

Why keep coming year after year?

“To help the community out and to clap and celebrate what they have done for us,” Bartlett said.

The sun began to set around 5 p.m., when the parade was scheduled to start.

Horses trotted and parade participants hopped aboard their floats. Music boomed over a speaker above a cacophony of instruments as performers practiced up until the last minute. More than 50 groups participated in the parade this year.

“Look at the crowd, they love coming out,” said Mike Butler of Napa Valley Cruisers, which brought 10 cars to drive in the parade.

Emma McLaughlin and Yoselin Hernandez of Vintage High twirled wooden rifles and prepared to perform with the rest of the band. It’s a good way to bring awareness to their group and encourage younger kids to participate when they get to high school, they said.

“Everyone’s awed by you,” Hernandez said.

“Especially when you have a rifle that you’re tossing into the air,” McLaughlin added.

The Napa Police Historical Society was among the first entrants to lead the parade in a ‘57 Ford that was restored seven years ago, said Sgt. Todd Schulman.

“We have a really close relationship with our community,” he said. “We definitely feel the support from the people who are here at the parade.”

Silo's suspending operation in downtown Napa; future is uncertain

Napa Silo’s announced earlier this month that after a decade in business, the Main Street venue would be suspending operations Jan. 1 while reconsidering its business plan.

Owner Harry Price said his intention is to find a way to include live music in the setting’s next incarnation, though the format is uncertain.

Members of Napa’s music community – presenters and musicians – said the closure, even for a short time, would be mourned. They shared memories of how Silo’s evolved over the years to become an intimate, first-rate venue.

Bob St. Laurent, a bass player in the surf rock band The Deadlies and for years host of “Morning Bob” on KVYN, said Silo’s is unique and essential to the local music scene.

“Silo’s is a local joint, owned by a local, for locals, and tourists alike ...” St. Laurent said. “Without Silo’s, there are very few choices left. It’s the only place left for locals to play and locals to see and hang out. The room is a room of everyone you know. You can fill that room with your friends.

“We need Silo’s, and there’s enough artists in the Valley, and artists from nearby, who love to play there,” St. Laurent said. “Closing it will undeniably affect local music culture. We’re going to miss it.”

Silo’s has been the principal venue for the Napa Valley Jazz Society since its inception in 2010. “When we decided to do this, we targeted Silo’s as a good place to go,” said Bill Hart, Society president and concert producer. “Silo’s then was not the Silo’s it is today. It was a harder space—harder surfaces, there was no riser, the lighting wasn’t very good.”

Hart described the number of improvements Silo’s has made over the years – expansion of capacity, furnishings, the riser stage, lighting, the sound system, blackout curtains. “They put the dark curtains in,” Hart said, “and in the process they decided to curtain all the walls and soften the acoustics of the place, which was a tremendous thing.

“Harry (Price) has felt that having a good music entertainment venue enhanced the value of all the properties, particularly the hotel (the adjacent Napa River Inn). Harry has really tried his best to make it work, and he still would like to find a way to make it work.”

He regards Blue Note as an obvious “turn-key” alternative once Silo’s closes. “Blue Note provides everything that Silo’s provides except perhaps a slightly different ambiance ...”

Silo’s first musicians were pianist Mike Greensill and Wesla Whitfield, his late wife and a widely admired vocalist, who had lived and performed in San Francisco for over three decades before relocating to Napa shortly before Silo’s opened in 2008.

“We were looking to find a little nest for Wesla to sing in every week,” Greensill said. “Somebody put us in touch with Harry Price and he liked us. We were sort of partners, though luckily not financially—we were either too smart or too stupid for that—but we were certainly the only music at the start.

“When it first opened, Silo’s was still an art gallery. So whenever we performed, we had to take all the art and put it in the back room and put the chairs out and bring the piano out.”

“Wesla had a good reputation,” he said, “and we figured all the Bay Area fans would come up and have a romantic weekend at the Napa River Inn and listen to her. Unfortunately, we opened right at the time of the 2008 stock market crash, and that just ruined everything.

“We also discovered that people had been out wine tasting all day, then went for a posh meal and the last thing they needed to do was stay up any longer and listen to music. They wanted to go to bed at 8:30.”

But Napa Valley’s premier jazz pianist is not going away. A few days after he heard that Silo’s was going to close, Blue Note called. “We’d like you to do jazz brunch every Sunday,” they said. Greensill starts in January.

Dave Graham is the CEO of BottleRock, which produced small-scale concerts at Silo’s. He says Silo’s is “absolutely unique, a place you can go and experience music at such an intimate level.

“At Silo’s you can go listen to some jazz on one night, on another night listen to local or touring rockers, and on another night be at a garage band contest where you know half the people who are competing because they’re from Napa.”

“Bringing in music that typically would not be played at Silo’s was something we tried to do—indie rock bands like Magic Giant, The Districts, music that fans typically wouldn’t hear on a regular basis in Napa. We felt comfortable bringing it there because the risk wasn’t all that great, given the low number of tickets that one would need to sell in order to break even.”

“We never made any money promoting bands over there,” he added. “That wasn’t the point. The point was to bring a little business to a Napa business, and as important, to give locals and visitors to Napa the ability to experience world-class music in a very unique and intimate setting.”

The Napa School of Music has staged Garage Band 101 performances at Silo’s for several years. “When I watch people onstage for the first time, they are very shy, focused on themselves, focused on the chords they are playing,” said owner Ralf Lindner.

“But later on, two or three Garage Bands later, they are behaving like real musicians onstage, enjoying the music, interacting with their band colleagues. That’s really worth a lot.”

Vocalist Jennifer Knight and rhythm guitarist Jim Anderson of N2L, voted best cover band in Napa Valley by North Bay Bohemian readers, talked about the venue.

“I feel like when we were first forming (they emerged from Garage Band 101 for Adults), it was a mark of legitimacy that we were going to play Silo’s,” Knight said.

“It was 2008, 2009,” Anderson said. “The first time I ever performed live on any stage was on the Silo’s stage. They provided a venue that was incredibly unique in this town. And people paid, I think we sold it out.”

Knight raved about Silo’s family-friendliness. “My kids can come,” she said. “My husband (lead guitarist Derek Bromley) and I were on stage and our babysitter brought the kids to the early show. They had dinner, they got to sit in the back and watch us. And our 9-year-old plays drums through the Garage Band 101 for Kids program. We’ve seen her play on stage twice at Silo’s. It’s just really a coup for those kids.”

N2L will be the last band headlining a public show at Silo’s, playing the upcoming New Year’s Eve Party. “We get the last waltz,” Anderson said.

Napa's Alston Park shedding battleground image after four decades

Forty years after Napa bought the Alston Park land for a never-built mega-sports complex, the 157 acres of brushy open space seems to have – finally—entered an era of relative peace.

Talk of a sports complex hasn’t arisen since the late 1990s. Public fights over dogs, hot air balloon landings and whether Alston Park should exist at all have either ended or are simmering beneath the surface.

Measure A, passed by voters in 2003 to settle the ballfield battles by limiting the park to low-intensity uses such as hiking, expires this year. A co-founder of the group that promoted the ballot initiative doesn’t expect another Alston Park land use war to break out.

“The usage is pretty well accepted as it is now,” Tony Norris said.

Alston Park is a place to hike five miles of trails, to enjoy views of the city and to watch the sun set behind the Mayacamas Mountains. It’s where dogs romp, multi-color balloons land, mountain bikers charge down steep hills and Boy Scouts earn their Eagle awards by installing benches and doing other projects.

City Parks and Recreation Services Director John Coates said Alston Park has reached “kind of that sweet spot” of what people want to enjoy there. Even with the expiration of Measure A, the city isn’t reviving the sports complex idea.

“We have turned our sights to Kennedy Park as being more of the center of active recreation,” Coates said.

On the 40th anniversary of the land buy, an uneasy Pax Alston seems to reign.

Dogs, dogs, dogs

Alston Park is Napa’s Dogland, the place where pooches can roam off-leash over 39 acres. For better or worse –depending on your point of view – this park has gone to the dogs.

Jackie Koch on a recent Saturday morning met her friends in the fenced-in, 3-acre Canine Commons near the park entrance, as she’s done for a dozen years.

“It gives us some place to take our pooches offleash,” Koch said. “We have the greyhounds. They have a tendency to take off.”

The former plum orchard in the upper park offers dogs an even bigger space to romp, with a mile-long trail circling the perimeter. Here, offleash dogs and people who hike in the park without a dog mix.

Marcela Gateb, Alex Valenzuela and Angela White rested in the upper area after a 5-k run. They were training for the Turkey Chase, and Alston is a favorite running spot. For one thing, they can look at views of the city of Napa and vineyards as they pound along the dirt trails.

“It’s like an add-on when you’re training,” White said.

Gateb, Valenzuela and White had no dog, but sometimes someone else’s off-leash dog will approach them while they’re training. The trio didn’t complain about the situation.

“They’re running along with us,” Gateb said. “Even if they’re off-leash, they’re trained.”

Officially, dogs are supposed to be off-leash only in the designated 39 acres. Dogs in the rest of the park, such as the hilly areas, legally must be on-leash.

Anyone who goes to Alston Park on a regular basis knows people often flout this rule despite signs marking the distinct zones. A dog bounding up to hikers in the on-leash area is always a possibility, though not necessarily a probability on any given day.

“Don’t worry, my dog is friendly,” some dog owners say in these situations. But if the other person has a leashed dog that isn’t friendly, a doggie confrontation can result.

Some dog owners take a middle view toward the leash law. They’ll let their dog off-leash in the leash-only portion of the park, but snap a leash on their pet as soon as they see another person approaching.

Crackdowns on leash-law violators have come and gone. During a 1999 crackdown, dog owners convinced the city to back off by picketing City Hall.

Napa police about a decade ago again cracked down on dog owners who ignore the leash rule. An officer would park around the bend of the park’s access road near the water tanks and ticket the scofflaws.

At one point, an officer issued 37 citations over several weeks at a cost of about $88 a ticket, a 2008 Napa Valley Register story said.

Police Lt. Chase Haag in a recent email said police, park rangers and animal control officers issued no Alston Park leash-law citations over the past year. While police hear feedback by email and over Facebook about leash violations, they have not received many complaints to the dispatch center.

“But as someone who frequents the park on my time off, it appears there are more people violating the leash law than following it,” Haag said.

Police have not deployed bike officers on weekends to Alston as much this past year. That’s because of requests to have these officers in the downtown area more frequently, Haag said.

Coates said park rangers are giving warnings to owners who violate the leash law rather than handing out citations. They talk to people about best behavior in a park that has a variety of uses that sometimes conflict with each other.

“We’ve taken a different approach and tried to take more of an educational perspective,” Coates said.

Oaks, oaks, oaks

About 70 people on a recent morning went to the flat, upper section of Alston Park once targeted for a controversial sports complex. They wielded shovels not to create baseball diamonds, but to plant acorns.

“Future oak woodlands,” said Eric McKee of the Napa Resource Conservation District. “That would be pretty nice from a hot, dusty field of weeds.”

Upper Alston Park is largely devoid of large trees, though there are some impressive oaks on the fringes. The district and other groups over the past few years have planted acorns by the hundreds to try to change this.

“If you look at the hillside behind us, that’s what this space once was,” McKee said.

That hillside outside of park boundaries is the slope of the Mayacamas Mountains and it looks like a forest. This largely bare section of Alston Park may never look like that, but McKee can envision it in coming decades as becoming a less-dense version of the city’s Westwood Hills Park, a kind of oak savannah.

Ted Witten came to the acorn-planting event as part of the Rotary Club of North Napa. The 80-year-old Napa native remembers when orchards covered the land now used for the park and nearby subdivisions.

“Napa was mainly plums, prunes, pears and apples,” he said.

Despite his long Napa history, this day marked his first time being in Alston Park. He liked what he saw.

“I think it’s good people can use it,” Witten said. “I know housing is an issue, but we need to preserve this for people.”

Mike Walund planted acorns with his 8-year-old daughter Dresden. They dug the hole and installed the wire basket designed to keep away hungry gophers.

Walund is an Alston-park user. He comes to run, ride his bike and walk his dog.

“It’s a great dog park,” Walund said. “I would say it’s one of the best around.”

He remembers the 1999 proposal to put ballfields in Alston Park. But he also sees a check on such ideas.

“The dog walkers are a strong force up here,” Walund said.

Almost any conversation about Alston Park at some point comes around to dogs. McKee, for example, likes to talk oaks, but he can also talk dogs. An Alston Park with more natural vegetation would mean less foxtails and thistles that can plague dogs.

“I have a dog and this is a very dog-accessible space that’s close to town,” McKee said.

Battles, battles, battles

Napa County bought the Alston Park land 40 years ago and the controversies soon began.

The land had been owned by the Alston Land Company and the owners wanted to build a subdivision. Attorney Robert Zeller made the case to the city in the summer of 1975. The land was only marginally suitable for agriculture and the owners paid taxes based on future residential use. The $720-a-year grazing lease didn’t cover the $8,600-a-year in taxes, he said.

Despite that plea, the city left the land out of its urban boundaries. With no development possible anytime soon, the landowners were eager to sell.

In December 1975, the City Council decided to explore buying the 157 acres. City officials wanted to build sports fields and possibly even a golf course.

The land deal finally went through in early 1978. Napa bought Alston Park for either $300,000 or $350,000 – reports vary – and paid for it using federal and state funds. Then the planning began.

Napa in April 1979 unveiled its Alston Park master plan. Five lighted ballfields, soccer fields, trails, an amphitheater, a community pool, a community building and other features would make the park a recreation hub.

Mayor Ralph Bolin called the idea a “beautiful-looking complex,” but added “I only wish we had the money to do it all.”

Opposition soon arose. One opponent called the plan “a $10 million boondoggle.” Voters in June 1980 voted to keep the park outside of city limits and voted down a measure to raise park development money, all in hopes of scotching the master plan.

Finally, the city in 1990 decided to open Alston Park as a passive-use park for hiking and similar activities. Opposition arose from some neighbors who didn’t want to see any public use there at all.

“They are not going to get a park, they are going to get a pasture with a parking lot and Porta-Pottys,” an opponent told The Napa Register. “It seems like a rather senseless use of taxpayers’ money.”

Alston Park opened on Aug. 4, 1990 and disputes continued.

In 1999, ballfield proponents wanted to locate a complex there. That fight led to the 2003 ballot measure that took such development off the table for 15 years.

In 2007, several citizens complained about hot air balloon landings in Alston Park. The City Council classified ballooning as recreational rather than commercial and allowed the landings to continue. A conservation easement on the park held by the Land Trust of Napa County allows “public recreational activity.”

In 2008, some dog owners wanted more than 31 acres as a dog off-leash area. They wanted the entire park. Opponents responded with stories about being knocked down by romping, off-leash dogs.

The City Council in July 2008 said “no” to making Alston Park one, entire off-leash area. Instead, it increased the off-leash area from 31 acres to 39 acres. Posts and signs went up delineating the boundaries between on-leash and off-leash areas.

No Alston Park battles seem to be brewing at the moment. No group is going to the City Council in an effort to change the uses there. The city’s next planned improvement for Alston isn’t ballfields, but a restroom hooked up to the sewer to replace the portable toilets.

Alston Park has found an identity that’s different than the elaborate plans of four decades ago.

“It’s become a go-to spot for dog lovers, hikers, nature enthusiasts,” Coates said.