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A Benicia sense of place

These are a few of our favorite things
by Steve McKee on February 18, 2010

In fair Benicia, where we lay our scene, we find a modest sized burg that has always been more “town” than “city.” Historians tell us the original founders had a vision of urban grandeur for our city, and you can see this for yourself when you look at early city maps showing a planned grid of streets and blocks that would do a major metropolis proud. Anticipated streets extend over hills and into the water with heady optimism. But with the gold rush, the role of alpha city for the region was quickly usurped by San Francisco, so Benicia ended up a century and a half later being much more Mayberry than Manhattan. A failed vision of glory that ended up being a perfectly glorious place to live.

Is there a “sense of place” that is particular to Benicia? I propose that the answer is yes.

Wikipedia says that “places that have a ‘strong sense of place’ have a strong identity and character deeply felt by inhabitants and visitors.” This definition will do just fine.

For starters, there is our somewhat unique geography. This town of ours resides at a bend in a large waterway that is neither river nor bay, but something in between the two, where the rivers of California gather themselves into something substantial before joining the oceans of the world. The force of the tide here is fierce, as any local boater can tell you. Stationary dock pilings will actually leave a detectable wake in the water when the moon’s gravity works its magic on the waters of the delta.

Massive boats ply these waters on a daily basis. They are part of the backdrop to our lives. At night their myriad lights look like small cities silently on the move. Our night view also includes the sight of the now beloved Carquinez-Zampa bridge with its parabolic curve highlighted by accent lights. These lights weren’t even originally planned to be part of the bridge until the temporary construction lights placed along the curved cable became fantastically popular with all who saw them, especially when viewed from a distance. What is it about the curve shape found in a suspension bridge that is so easy to love? Could it be that some natural principle is on display in that curve, something elegant and expressive of a force in nature? It’s like an arch, only upside down and in tension instead of compression. Our view of this shapely bridge is less than a decade old and now seems part of our Benicia birthright.

At this bend of water and hill that comprises Benicia, the cold fog likes like to linger extra long in December and January, as if to create a sort of California version of winter. This fog can get so dense as to seem to swallow the sound of our footsteps during lonely dog walks. But in this stillness it’s easier to notice something I’ve recently decided is one of my favorite things: the barely audible sounds of distant train whistles that linger on the edge of consciousness, plaintive and haunting like good haiku. These beautiful tones are part of the air here in Benicia. You just need to quiet down enough to notice them.

I have an ongoing debate about the sounds of train whistles with my pal Chris, who dislikes the occasional loud train blast, especially in the dead of night. Point taken, I say, but how about all others? Don’t let the occasional bad apple ruin your appreciation of the bunch. Think of the glass as ninety-five percent full, I say.

Six months after the foggy times, our particular combination of hills and water will create a funnel for strong breezes in the summer that will deny the worst of the California summer heat. They say that the source of this strong wind is the inland heat near Sacramento causing air to rise that then results in cooler air being pulled in from the ocean. Or as “Latitude 38” the sailing magazine puts it: “The bay doesn’t blow. The valley sucks.”

Those who live on the hilltops, where the wind is at its strongest, will speak of growing weary of the wind. There are those of us down the slope in the softer pockets who love the way a moderate breeze brings the tree leaves to life and the water to a dazzling silver shimmer. To live with trees that rustle and whisper and a big waterway that absolutely sparkles is definitely a Benicia thing.
I thought by now I would surely be writing about a Benicia “sense of place” found in memorable interior spaces and other manmade environments, such as the big upstairs room of the Clock Tower, or the view of First Street through the trees from the side porch at Matsuri Sushi. I suppose those items may be discussed in a future column.

So it would seem there is no shortage of ways to find atmosphere unique to Benicia, in the humble opinion of this scribbler.  Should someone you know ever express concern about this, you could reassure them by patting them on the back and saying something like this: “There there, my friend. There’s there there.”


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