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How First Street keeps us together

by Steve McKee on December 16, 2007

In eighteen years in this here town, I don’t think my family has ever missed the Open House Christmas thing on First Street, yet we’ve never attended the tree lighting ceremony that starts the evening. I attribute this to the fact that we live just a few blocks from “Adobe” whose Christmas lights pretty much outdo the Las Vegas strip for visual intensity (really, they do), so it never occurs to us to go watch a single tree get lit. But the shindig that follows, in which cars are blocked from First Street and Benicians lay claim to their downtown, is surely worthy of pilgrimage. Like partygoers taking over a living room, Benicians fill up First Street, only at this party the whole city’s invited, and who can miss that?

Writer and deep-insight guy Christopher Alexander (author of what I consider the best design book ever: “A Pattern Language”) writes that “each subculture needs a center for its public life: a place where you can go to see people, and be seen.” Therein explains the fantastic success of these First Street get-togethers we do in Benicia. No matter whether it’s the Fourth of July or the start of Christmas, I believe the holiday is secondary to the act of getting to go out and rub shoulder with each other, an important social “glue” for a community. Our farmer’s market serves this need in smaller doses throughout the summer.

We live in a nation that tends to have limited places for promenading. We don’t have piazzas or ramblas the way our euro-counterparts do, so we Americans create these opportunities in other ways. Happily, Benicia has an honest to goodness downtown for this. We schedule these big get-togethers and then erect traffic barriers and, darn it, it works mighty fine.

Think of how these gatherings contribute to our sense of ourselves as residents of this place called Benicia. Now think of all the Orange County non-towns with their strip malls. We’ve got it pretty good.
This party is one where all ages are welcome with young and old alike using the occasion to find friends and renew connections. Melody and I were comfortable enough to release our eleven year old to go off on his own to make his rounds, thanks to the connectivity offered by cell phones.

The Benicia High School band roved about, the Middle School band too. I came across Voena singing in “Petals.” The highly animated saxophone guy was seen playing with a jazz band in front of Prudential Realty. Snacks were served throughout. On our walk back down the street we saw friends John and Marsha so we stopped to chat and soon were joined by mutual pals Phil and Debbie. Then others stopped by our gathering for a brief howdy-do. And so it went.

Later I bumped into Gary who I’ve used for years to do all my Title 24 energy reports, but who I hardly ever see anymore since email has allowed us to do our interactions digitally. It felt pretty good to press the flesh with ol Gary, it did. Looking pretty good, ol Gary was.

Then a friend told Melody and me about a cool room we should check out behind Mi Mexico. So we ventured down a narrow passage with a “Buddah-ful” sign over it to find a stark brick room filled with more revelers. A friend set me up with a glass of wine. What a great speakeasy it would have made during prohibition, at least it seemed to me with my limited knowledge of such worldly things. I was reminded of a professor of mine from twenty-five years ago, a small jovial fellow from Turkey or perhaps some other mid-eastern place with thousand year old cities, and how he once made a point that a city can have special places that feel like secret rooms that only the locals know about, special places that allow the city’s residents to have another way to make the city our own.

There were rectangular openings in the brick wall that overlooked the backside of this room to reveal even more of Hidden Benicia: in the dim light I could see some of the quixotic spaces that I know exist behind the buildings along First Street, the quirky and haphazard and occasionally delightful spaces that resulted when buildings were built over the years next to each other. These spaces are an underutilized resource for our life as a town: places with forgotten patios and funky fire escape stairs and overgrown little yards. Remember it was behind the restaurant where Lady and the Tramp found romance over a shared plate of spaghetti on their lovely bella notte. To cite real life examples, Sahara and Kinders use their quirky backyards to good effect for outdoor dining.

Walking further down the street revealed that the wine bars toward the south end of First Street were doing brisk business. Booming business even. The hustle and bustle I found at “Upstairs at the Cafe” reminded me of the lively bar scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life” right before Nick the bartender gives George Bailey the bum’s rush. Every table was crowded and lively, and a singer-guitarist at the head of the room added to the happy din.

Back outside I saw that Phil Joy’s big three story Queen Anne, unfinished and still on its trailer in the boatyard, had a Christmas tree shining brightly in an upper window. Bravo, Phil and Celeste. (Insert polite golf applause here.) It was a perfect gesture, right between ironic and sentimental.

So it went, an evening of music, friends, snacks and little whimsies. A night for Benicia, a lovely bella notte.

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