Home Is Where the Heart Is Open
By Carol Lloyd, Special to SF Gate
When I was 8, my family moved from Kumasi, Ghana, to Carmel, California, and I fell into a depression. It wasn't about having to make new friends -- in our peripatetic lifestyle, I was used to that. The cause of my downward spiral was something else: It was about space, urban design and the way that an environment shapes our souls.
What is it about a place that makes someone happy?
Since I had moved from a region known more for desperation, danger and deprivation to one known as a veritable paradise, I've always thought my melancholy a curious example of the ways that America's urban design -- even at its best -- can fail us.
In Ghana, where my parents served a two-year stint as Peace Corps volunteers, we had very few of the things now assumed to make children happy. We lived in a house with cement floors, no refrigerator (at least, not one that worked), no toys, no TV, no sweets.
But there was a kind of permeability about the place that made me supremely happy. Even though we lived on the university campus in a single-family home (not like the gated mansions of diplomats but more private than many other homes), there was little sense of boundaries. There were no fences. Doors were always open, and everyone -- including the cantaloupe-sized tarantulas -- took this as a sign of welcome.
Friends, neighbors and strangers constantly visited the house with their agendas and needs. Traders dropped by in the evenings to offer my mother "the best price" for their wood carvings, antique brass canisters and kente cloths. Women with green-tinged oranges piled high on their heads and babies on their backs sold us fruit. Locals knocked on the back door to offer to smoke out the sewer rats -- once caught, they'd be spit-roasted in the backyard -- or harvest the bananas from the tree.
The streets were filled with kids (including me) running races barefoot -- the only sport in a society of children without things. Even our lack of a refrigerator contributed to our use of public space -- we had to buy food from the open market almost daily.
Even though we were newcomers and foreigners, I never felt isolated. We had been plunged into a place where the demands of everyday life required us to interact often and intensely. The result was a thrilling sense of spontaneity and story -- things seemed to happen more often there.
In fact, the sheer lack of urban planning made the place surprisingly vital. There were villages -- with family compounds and giant fire pits and all-night drumming -- inside the city. There was a jungle in the ravine behind our house. Nothing had yet been zoned, and though it made for some extreme juxtapositions, the different kinds of space seemed to be in constant conversation with one another.
Carmel was a very different story. It was not as if the town embodied everything bad about American urban planning. Far from it.
The downtown had everything to make an 8-year-old happy and more. In addition to a cozy house with the all-American staples of sweets, TV and toys, I got to romp in a hobbit land of big trees and tiny village shops seemingly crafted by a child's imagination. And because it was safe (or thought safe), I had a lot of freedom: walking along a forest path to town with my best friend, buying bread and cheese from her big sister at the cheese shop and picnicking on a white-sand beach.
So what was it about this idyllic village life that sent me into a downward spiral?
In many ways, Carmel proper is the prototypical planned community. It was conceived as a place to make people happy.
In 1903, when San Jose real estate developer Frank Devendorf began advertising plots for his new seaside community, he had a quasi-utopian vision that many urban planners would still applaud today. He designed a dense, pedestrian-friendly town that preserved the natural beauty of the site. He sold the first plot to a black woman to support the idea of racial diversity. He gave discounts to artists, with the aim of nurturing local culture.
To this day, the town tries to control development devastation and nurture community. The towering Monterey pines are treated as community treasures -- developers and pavers are expected to work around them, not cut them down. The town doesn't deliver mail to people's doors. Instead, residents visit the local post office with its thousands of tiny brass mailboxes.
And it works: For many retirees and second-home owners who live within the central village, something akin to community is palpable.
Whatever people may say about it, as a planned community Carmel is a success for many. The local people are exceedingly kind to one another. The densely built, nature-friendly village has done what few communities have managed to do: It embodies many of our culture's highest values.
Yet despite all the resources and good intentions in the world, the American ideals behind this most privileged housing development -- which emphasize luxury, privacy and controlled beauty -- didn't make me happy.
When I moved there in 1971, Carmel was betwixt and between its old bohemian village self and its new "real estate über alles" one. Although there were no poor or even working-class neighborhoods (even if there were plenty of lower-income renters and elderly living on fixed incomes), the subtle gradations of class difference were well known even by the children in my fourth-grade classroom. I recall one friend telling me in a hushed voice that Mission Fields, the modest subdivision south of the Carmel mission, was the slums.
After living in a place with extreme stratification between rich and poor, but where I had no sense of social segregation, I was now privy to the geography of status and the separation it fosters.
As you got closer to the beach, the property values went up. South of Ocean was better than north of Ocean -- unless, of course, you were next to the beach and near Pebble Beach, one of the country's most exclusive gated communities. Each of the various subdivisions just outside town represented distinct rungs on the ladder.
When I arrived, the monster cottage (with its 4,000 feet of living space squeezed into a 4,000-square-foot lot) had not yet become the new development norm, and chain stores were virtually banned from downtown.
Within a few years, it all began to change -- the drugstore, hardware store, everyman's grocer closed. Carmel Plaza -- with its stronghold of corporate stores like I. Magnin -- opened amid much controversy. Just outside town, the artichoke fields at the mouth of Carmel Valley were being replaced by shopping centers, condo developments and office parks, floating in massive parking lots.
With the contrast of another, far less affluent culture so vivid in my mind, it was clear where life in Carmel was headed: While downtown might fight hard to preserve some of its original ideals, ordinary citizens were leading more and more suburban lives -- getting in their cars and driving to shopping centers to buy a bag of groceries, a bottle of aspirin, a wrench. Gradually, fewer and fewer people bought in Carmel with plans to live there: Currently, about 60 percent of the houses are used as second homes.
Outside town, where we (along with most of the middle-class families) lived, the sense of a village faded away.
In fact, I recall an ominous sense of lawlessness. It was in a liminal zone on the path behind the Holiday Inn off Highway 1 that my 10-year-old friend was raped in broad daylight. It was on my suburban street that I was nearly attacked by a man who had dropped his drawers. It was on the unpaved edge of Rio Road, which connected the tract-home subdivisions to the local elementary school, that bicycling children were occasionally victims of hit-and-run drivers. In each case, no one saw the perpetrators because people were inside their houses with the shades drawn.
At the age of 8, I was acutely aware of these juxtapositions. After being exposed to poverty, diversity, filth and dangerous animals, I was suddenly living in what might have been called the "prettiest place on earth." But it didn't always feel so pretty. After my stay in Africa, Carmel seemed like a very lonesome place. A feeling that all the money in the world was helping to create.
Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about Bay Area real estate. She teaches a class on buying your first home in the Bay Area, and another class based on her best-selling career counseling book for creative people, "Creating a Life Worth Living." For more information, email her at email@example.com.