(Editor’s note: The Register asked residents from four age groups for their thoughts about life in the Napa Valley today and their concerns for the future. This is the fourth installment.)
There’s no question there’s been a lot of change in Napa over the years, but amongst the over-60 crowd, that’s not necessarily a good thing. I talked to a cross-section of locals who have spent much or most of their time here for their thoughts.
Kathleen Thomas, retired nurse and current president of the local writer’s club, came to Napa many years ago from San Francisco to take an RN position at the state hospital. Thomas, now in her late 60s, said: “retirement gave me a pension and a PTSD bubble that periodically rises up to bite me. Now, instead of writing chart notes, patient updates and incident reports, I write my own stories.”
The changes she’s seen bring more worries than hope: “The lack of affordable local housing and the consequent number of commuters driving our busy roads just to keep food on the table and a roof over their head worries me,” Thomas said. “I seethe at our current president, whose words and deeds disgust, frighten and anger me and many others here. The state of our healthcare is problematic to people here on low or fixed incomes. Too many people don’t have healthcare at all, or what they have is inadequate.”
Napa’s rising cost of living is changing lives and lifestyles in Thomas’ opinion. “The high cost of living, eating out, shopping and entertainment is challenging and I don’t have much hope for big change. But I hold out a bit of hope with our local activists and elected officials.
“I volunteer my time with Napa Valley Writers and other arts organizations. I continue my annual RN volunteer stint with Lighthouse for the Blind summer camps on Mount Veeder. Fortunate to be healthy and fit, I regularly get on my bike, see a few friends and family, and occasionally launch my kayak.”
Rob Orr, builder and developer, has been in Napa since junior high school, aside from a few years in Australia after his graduation from Chico State. Builder of homes and boutique hotels in Napa, Orr recalled when Napa was a slow-paced and comfortable little community: “My earliest recollections are of a languid, somewhat isolated Bay Area community which embraced my parents who were seeking respite from vigorous overseas tours of military duty.
“We appreciated the small, family-owned clothing, surplus, shoe, paint and hardware stores. And the novelty of a downtown Montgomery Ward with squeaky wooden floors and a lunch counter that seemed, even then, like a dream out of a black and white movie,” Orr remembered wistfully.
“I recall also weekly vigils to the Uptown movie theater with its antiquated orchestra pit and double features, and summer volleyball in Fuller Park played over a net strung between two palm trees,” he said.
“As a young fisherman I often toted my gear through town down to the river on drowsy Sunday afternoons, every store closed in dead silence and often not a car or person seen on First Street, oblivious to the specter of the impending disastrous revitalization of the ‘70s,” Orr recalled.
“The heart of downtown was torn out by a bureaucrat’s dream, the venerable stone office and retail buildings that imbued the town with a sleepy sense of place now suddenly rubble, replaced with a fabricated Town Center that residents never comprehended nor even touched, setting downtown adrift in the doldrums for ensuing decades.”
Later, as a hotelier, Orr said: “I can still summon the disheartening recollection of guests I proudly directed from my hotel to downtown walking tours, who returned only hapless and confused by their experience.”
He believes Napa today is changing rapidly and may soon be unrecognizable to many longtime residents. “This injection of restless capital into wine bars, restaurants, boutiques and hotels has brought an unfamiliar, explosive energy that a long timer greets with reticent enthusiasm. A brave new town, a core humanity now of visitors and investors perhaps in too exuberant celebration,” Orr said.
Some quintessential aspects of Napa are not likely to change ever in Orr’s opinion. “But no matter, I think it will be fine here: the river uninterrupted, unchanged, the fine edges of the encompassing hills and the relentless Mediterranean sky rendering unending solace.”
Sue Kesler, in her mid-70s, transplanted to Napa with her late husband many years ago. She has noticed many changes, but not necessarily for the better where the retired crowd is concerned. “Being a long-time resident,” said Kesler, “and having achieved a mature status, entitles me to voice my opinion and pretend to be an expert.”
“In the past year, I’ve discovered Napa is a different place to live without a partner,” she sighed. “I doubt I am alone. I gained a new granddaughter-in-law and grandson-in-law my partner scarcely knew. Adjusting for me, and others who have found themselves in a similar position, is difficult.
“When we moved to Napa, we found an agricultural community divided into ‘Old Napa’ and the rest of us who came in the past couple of decades. Now my current age group here seems to be the dominant demographic,” Kesler observed.
Changes over the years have been good, and not so good, in her opinion. “In the years following, we rejoiced as the town acquired more culture: the Opera House, Jarvis Conservatory, etc. But I now find myself an unexpected creature, a local in a tourist destination. What did this mean?” she said.
“The Town and Country Fair, once a gathering place to meet up with old friends is now a concert site. The local symphony is replaced by traveling big name acts not of the classical persuasion.”
“Five-star restaurants abound. In the days when we could dine on someone else’s nickel, this was great. As a retired person, as any retired person who lives here well knows, an affordable restaurant is rare, even with a senior discount,” she said.
“The other change I would mention is Napa’s gone corporate. The locally owned wineries are scarce, long time retailers closed, the local hospital now part of a large conglomerate seems less attuned to the local health needs and concerns.”
Kesler concluded: “I suffer from incurable condition called old age and realize change is inevitable, but not enviable.”
John Tuteur, longtime public servant and current county assessor, has been a local institution. Tuteur moved here when his parents purchased a ranch in 1951. “I have had a connection with Napa County for all but 10 of my almost 76 years,” Tuteur admitted. “Over the past two-thirds of a century, our family has tried to provide stewardship for our ranch so that the fourth generation will be able to keep it for many more generations to come.
“When we moved here from Ohio, the City of Napa had about 18,000 residents. While its population has grown more than four-fold, the city still maintains its small town qualities; some of which are good—caring for each other and being community oriented; some of which are bad — gossip, backbiting, knowing everyone else’s business,” he said. “Compare Napa today with Concord or Walnut Creek and you understand the difference between a small town and a metropolis.”
Tuteur noted the local economy has changed dramatically. “In 1951, Napa County’s animal products, including dairy products, accounted for almost twice as much dollar revenue as prunes and grapes combined,” he said.
“Today, thanks to the vision of property owners and elected officials who created the Agricultural Preserve on the valley floor almost 50 years ago, there are probably 500 wineries and the major crop is grapes with dairy and livestock barely registering.”
He said the foresight of local politicians and citizens will serve Napa well for generations to come. “Given Napa County’s location in the fifth largest metropolitan area in the United States, we are blessed by geography and concerted action by our citizens in preserving the environmental integrity and natural beauty of this national treasure. As Napa County assessor I know that Napa County enjoys one of the three highest per capita assessed values in California because of the managed growth policies that have been followed for the past 50 years,” Tuteur concluded.
Elizabeth McKinne, a resident for the past quarter century, says in her 60s she is old enough now to be grateful for many things in her life. “I’ve lived here since 1990, when my husband, already a Napa resident, and I were married. He is the reason I came to Napa — for love,” she said.
“I’m a visual artist (a painter) and color consultant,” McKinne said. “Napa is experiencing some growing pains. People are asking: ‘How big do we want to be? What are our values? What matters most to us as a community?’ We are in a time of flux.”
McKinne feels Napa has a lot going for it, and becoming bigger is not necessarily going to make it a better place to live. “Napa is beautiful, has great weather and it’s still possible to get close to nature here while enjoying some of the finer things in life, like good restaurants. And for now it’s still small enough to feel like a big town rather than a city,” she said cautiously.
“I don’t know that trying to make it into a big city is going to make it better, just bigger. I like knowing my neighbors and I love my Old Town neighborhood for its beauty and its history. I don’t want to lose any of that,” McKinne said.
McKinne has a few ideas of where the city should go. “Napa needs to find a balance between new development and preservation in the cities and the county. I don’t think we want to ‘pave paradise and put up a parking lot’ nor do I think we can freeze this moment in time,” she said.
“We have to take a hard look at some of the regional factors that are putting pressure on us, and all of the Bay Area, and try to find our own solutions to some of those problems. I don’t think one size fits all when it comes to fixing traffic and housing, but clearly some work needs to be done in those areas.”
Although noting it was beyond her control, she wishes one thing for the area:
“If I could change one thing I would make the natural disasters, like fires and earthquakes, go away,” she said emphatically.
As for the writer of this article, I am 67 and am presently a freelance journalist and adjunct professor at Chico State.
I spent my high school and college years growing up in Napa in the 1960s, returned to live here for several years in the 1980s, and have finally come home here to retire, so I may be more aware of the changes than others.
The first most obvious change that’s impossible to miss is the cost of living. It has skyrocketed, particularly in the area of housing, which makes it very difficult to live here if you have not been a homeowner all along. And, nothing affects your quality of life more than where you hang your hat. With the growth restrictions and the fact my big earning days are well behind me, that will not change in my lifetime.
Yes, Napa has many more high-end restaurants than it once did, and yet I never had a problem with the restaurants we had in the 1980s or even the 1960s. The main difference now is I can rarely afford to eat out.
All of the above has led to an inevitable change in the culture and nature of the populace here. It is definitely swinging towards the nouveau riche, and forcing out the old guard little by little. Although I came back this time to be close to family, I may well be one of those people forced out by the high cost of housing in the not too distant future.
Of course, many in my age group here have enjoyed great careers, invested well, and most importantly, have owned their own homes in Napa all along, setting themselves up for a cozy retirement.
Even though I can afford to eat at Napa’s chic new eateries, I would give anything for the days of an Alfredo’s pizza, Chic’s burger or grilled cheese at the Woolworth lunch counter.
It’s impossible not to reminisce about the good old days in Napa, and as many have pointed out, good they were. All the new eateries, hotels and fancy retail shops cannot change that.