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Benicia versus the country club

by Steve McKee on March 27, 2008

About fifteen miles south of Benicia is a small town called Alamo, a place really more suburb than town. In the way that Benicia is about the water, Alamo is about hills and oak trees. I know because I grew up there.

In the seventies, right before I shipped out for UCLA, developers had the idea of transforming nearby cow grazing land at the base of Mt. Diablo into a “gated community” where quarter acre parcels of land could be sold for top dollar. They named it Blackhawk Country Club. Because I had lived in Round Hill Country Club in a house overlooking the fourteenth fairway, I sort of understood the whole country club thing, and the buzz at the time was that the new club was going to try to outdo the existing clubs already in the area.

It’s easy to presume there’s a snob aspect to country club life – I’m picturing the Ted Knight character in “Caddyshack” – but if it existed I was unaware of it. As a kid, Round Hill Country Club seemed a fine place to live. There was a big swimming pool at the club where you could find your pals on summer afternoons. Always some new house was being framed nearby that served as a superb jungle gym with open stud walls and 1×6 diagonal braces. At my age I had no use for the golf course, except as a big lawn suitable for games of “three-flies-up” after dinner when the golfers were gone. It was somewhat of a Norman Rockwell childhood complete with a paper route I did seven days a week even if I sometimes used the family golf cart to deliver the big Sunday papers.

Of course the new Blackhawk Country Club did turn out to be an effort to “one-up” the other clubs nearby, like my Round Hill. There was money to be had in doing so. My own country club merely had a small fountain at the front entrance (often foamed up with laundry soap by hooligans) while Blackhawk had a manned security gate. Blackhawk really was sort of stunning (and I intend that word in all its various meanings) with winding tree-lined streets, greenbelts, and ponds added here and there – assuming you could get past the guard at the gate.

I remember coming home from my architecture studies at UCLA for Christmas, probably about 1982, and bluffing my way past the guard at the Blackhawk gate so I could see the newly opened (and highly touted!) clubhouse. I was there to check out its design, not in any sort of respectful way (oh gracious no) but rather in the way an anthropologist might study a foreign culture. Though I’d been raised in a country club, I must have been engaging in that growing-up-thing in which you feel the need to distance yourself from your previous life. I was there to see what kind of spaces the country club set needed to feel good about themselves.

At the time I was studying design under such cutting edge architects as Frank Israel and Robert Mangurian, so the decidedly suburban swank of the Clubhouse definitely underwhelmed. Today I’d probably be a little more forgiving. Frankly, it wasn’t half bad, but not great either. A solid six and a half on a scale of ten.

I returned to Blackhawk recently (because of a remodeling job for a builder friend) and found the neighborhoods had matured, the trees were bigger, the expanded ranch-house look from my day had given way to “French country” style houses currently in vogue in that part of the world. You know the type: Stucco houses with some stone veneer accents, steep tile roofs and two story tall entries with elaborate chandeliers.

Many houses there overlooked immaculate green fairways (nothing new about that in the world of country clubs) but even away from the golf course there were good looking features like big ponds surrounded by lawn that also had a water jet that kept a fountain of spray shooting up in the middle of the pond. Perhaps it stayed on at night. Maybe there was even lighting under the water at the spray. That I don’t know.

The Blackhawk creators, faced with the need to turn a cow pasture into a community, ended up doing what so many have done with such a challenge – they brought in things that could be obtained by writing a check. Is it any surprise that they would default to using ponds with fountains and elaborate fake stone driveways to try to instantly create a sense of place?

After finishing my chore in Blackhawk I returned to Benicia and was driving down West K Street. The immaculateness I’d been experiencing all morning in Perfectville was gone and, to be honest with you, it felt great. A freshening breeze had set the Straits to its usual afternoon sparkle. With fresh eyes I noticed the little things about our little town that were decidedly unBlackhawk: The occasional gravel driveways; the front yards in various states of landscape or not; the duplexes mixed in here and there into the older neighborhoods; segments of sidewalk that didn’t match each other. Telephone poles, lots of them.

But in addition to these more haggard aspects, there were the delightful ones: cliffside parks with benches shaded by trees, alleyways that beckoned a stroll, and best of all, house after house, blocks full of them, each seeming to hold the memories of multiple generations. A century and a half of American life contained in the very essence of a town. Here was a real sense of place, the kind you can’t buy with a check. It felt good to be home.


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