Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine History Article August 2007.
Finding the History of the Present Moment
By Lauren Coodley
Napa for half a century has been slumbering in a Rip Van Winkle sleep but she has awakened at last–Mayor JA Fuller, on the day the electric train service began from Vallejo through Napa, l905
As Napa is transformed, yet again, it might be helpful for us to look backwards. In the early 1970s, the Napa Community Redevelopment Agency reported: “Not since its settlers decided that Napa should be more than a mere stopping place for riverboats or mainly a miners’ refuge from the harsh winters of the Sierra foothills, have the sight and sound of new construction, public improvements, and general renovating proceeded at such a pace here… Drab thoroughfares are being dressed up as tree-lined malls, topped by an exciting new plaza.”
At the same time, many longtime residents were reluctant to see their hometown so radically changed. Journalist Jane Smith observed: “The city is getting a new city. The Migliavacca Building, a landmark of dove grey stone at First and Brown Streets, soon will crumple under the wrecking hammer. A modern department store in the urban renewal area will take its place. Century old trees, which gave the corner of Second and Seminary Streets its cool and shady aspect, have been destroyed for construction. The city is changing as never before…as fields and meadows fill up with new building, parking lots, stores, and apartments. Will the new city be as unique as the old, as beautiful and shady and comfortable? In fifty or a hundred years, will today’s structures have been as graceful and enduring as the homes built in the 1800s?”
While some Napans favored what looked like a revitalization of downtown, many businesspeople questioned the benefits of redevelopment. Brewster’s co-owner Rachel Friedman recalls how a group of Main Street merchants formed “Citizens Against the Destruction of Napa,” using her store as a meeting place. Friedman’s husband Larry particularly opposed the construction of a Clock Tower on First Street, and took his fight all the way to the California Supreme Court, where the case was lost.
As historian Richard Rice notes: “The decades from the 1960s-1980s were a creative period in resource and environmental policy…Although most local governments remained firmly in the grasp of development interests, slow growth movements captured some city governments as early as 1970…California’s environmental organizations increasingly acted as adversaries to business and government. A few paid professionals led a growing army of volunteers, often women, in projects that took on the intensity of crusades. They backed or opposed candidates for office on the basis of their stance on environmental issues.”
John Wagenknecht, who was the advisor to the University of California’s Co-op Extension here, cites Napa in the Seventies as an “example of the way community action can work.” Citizens resisted the plans to convert rural land into subdivisions and shopping centers, and succeeded in preserving open space for over a decade.
Blue-collar workers and professionals united in a group called “Neighbor,” led by Harold Kelly and Barbara Corotto. Wagenknecht describes them as “storming City Hall.” Their dedication led to the l973 referendum on development in Napa. The citizens voted to maintain the city boundaries, and to keep downtown as the center of the shopping district.
In 1975, city planners reflected that mandate by allowing for only minimal population development up to the year 2000.
East of downtown, Elsie Crane heard that the Lewis Dairy, just past Silverado Middle School, was going to be developed into expensive housing. Crane helped found “Keep Coombsville Green,” and the hard work of this organization kept the east side of town an agricultural region.
Although the battle to save the land was won, the crops themselves changed dramatically. John Wagenknecht remembers looking over Napa each spring, and seeing nothing but snowy blossoms on prune, pear, and peach trees. Wagenknecht says, “The conversion to monoculture was not healthy– but farmers were market driven and growing grapes always paid more money.”
By 1977, Louis Ezettie offered this poignant observation in his weekly newspaper column: “Once one of the great prune growing areas in the state, Napa County had seen the industry give way to an almost complete turnover to grape growing. Sunsweet disposed of the packing and shipping departments on Jackson Street, and reduced their workforce from 100 to 25 people. Napa Valley grown prunes, in my estimation, surpassed the quality of the fruit grown in other parts of the state. Every year we kids earned enough money picking prunes at the Frank Bush Ranch near Little Trancas to pay for school clothes and schoolbooks.”
In February l986, Napa experienced an event that neither could have been controlled nor predicted by developers or slow-growth advocates. What the Napa Register called “the most disruptive natural disaster to affect Napa County since the 1906 earthquake—and the most devastating flood since the winter of 1896,” saturated the soil, followed by 20 inches of rain in 48 hours. Southerly winds pushed the Napa River to levels none living had seen before. Nearly 5,000 people were evacuated from their homes, 250 homes were destroyed, 2500 homes were damaged, and three people died. Soscol Avenue turned into a river, ruining hundreds of cars on “Auto Row.” Two thirds of Napa’s businesses were damaged from the floodwaters, and the downtown stores were covered with mud.
Downtown was devastated, but merchants vowed to rebuild. The Napa Register reported: “Meyers Jewelers president Ian Fuller quipped, ‘I’ll wash all the diamonds and be back in business.’ Larry Friedman thanked his employees for saving the rest of the store by stacking sandbags until almost midnight; nobody has flood insurance. “If there’s such a thing as an ‘off the floor sale’ we’ll have one,” Friedman joked.
The town rallied behind the merchants’ resolve and plans began for a massive fundraising event to be held at the downtown parking garages. The People for People Flood Benefit was put together in less than two weeks. Lynda Otis of the Rockaholics band joined with local musicians to coordinate live music for the fundraiser.
But the day of the event, the promised sound system never arrived. “We were saved at the last minute by Vallejo Discount Music,” says Otis. “Those guys drove through the terrifying wind and rain to Napa and then up the ramps of the parking garage, through the crowd, hauling that huge concert system so the show could go on.” Backed by The Pablo Cruz Band, headliner Buddy Miles finally got on stage two hours late.
Lynda Otis remembers: “I was scared… so many of us in that giant tent on the top level of the garage. The winds were treacherous and the building shook under our feet—two thousand people stomping to the music—I wondered if the building would hold—or the tent—which looked like it might collapse from the wind gusts. I was standing by the firemen and I thought they looked nervous, too, but under the spell of the music, most people didn’t seem to notice the storm anymore.”
The building held and so did the tent. Fifteen thousand people attended the event, and $300,000 was raised. Napa Valley Times reporter Lou Louro describes the scene: “What a day! The Hatfields and Mc Coys celebrating together. No growthers buying a cup for growthers—nukers and no-nukers side-by-side, garage opponents and proponents splashing each other with champagne.”
The Great 1986 Flood brought the town together, creating countless legends of community daring and generosity. No one could have imagined that a decade later, the consequences of the flood management plan would begin to change the face of downtown—again—dramatically.
Mayor Fuller’s quote from Swett, Ira, The Napa Valley Route, 1975.
Ezettie, Louis. “Looking into Napa’s Past and Present,” Napa Register, August 6, 1977.
Louro, Lou. Napa Valley Times, March 17, l986
Napa Register staff reporter, February 27, 1986.
Rice, Richard, William Bullough, and Richard Orsi, The Elusive Eden (New York: McGraw Hill), 2002.
Smith, Jane. Napa Register, November 8, 1972
Interviews with Wagenknecht and Friedman conducted by Lauren Coodley in 2003. Lynda Otis interviewed by Paula Amen Schmitt, who collaborated with Lauren Coodley on the new edition of Napa, the Transformation of an American Town.