The Coastal Post - February, 1996

Mill Valley: Yuppie Dream Town


Mill Valley, curled up in the armpit of Tamalpais, the Sleeping Lady, the serene goddess of Marin, is an idyllic little town. It is one of those villages the white race imagines when they picture their dream home. It's not the white picket fence, green grass and barbecue dreams of the old paradigm from the Dick and Jane readers.

No, it is the hobbit houses in the trees of Tolkien fantasies, the dream of hippies turned yuppies moving into a village built by loggers turned shopkeepers. The old-timers still run the City Hall, but the newcomer yuppies are most visible acting out their dreams.

Living our dreams out to their natural conclusion is part of the magic of Marin County. All the villages and towns in the county have clung to their unique identities in spite of homogenizing economic forces. Mill Valley has created a surreal video of the aspirations of baby boomers twisted in on their self-indulgent highest hopes and dreams. Mill Valley holds its own unique mirror for those waves of babies flooding the land after World War II.

Mill Valley has been in the news a bit lately, from nude art banned from City Hall, knife-wielding madmen being wrestled down in the Book Depot, teen skateboarders being arrested for illegal coasting, dog-pooping rights versus soccer-playing kids in the park, yet there's more to the place than a few sordid headlines.

The setting is amazingly beautiful, like some alpine chalet village with power lines. The view of Mt. Tamalpais from the valley floor strums strings deep in the soul. It's healing to the heart just to calmly gaze on her, reverentially grateful for the simple gift of living in Marin, and not outside the moat.

There's a disturbing trend, "yuppification," when the rich, the "talented tenth," flock to beautiful areas and build mansions. With the best of intentions, pursuing their dream, they slowly drive the less economically motivated out until all their servants commute. Mill Valley and Marin County, like many other beautiful places, has largely succeeded at this.

The main avenues into the downtown area of Mill Valley from the freeway are always busy with traffic, noisy and throbbing with commuting residents and servants, shopping visitors, service vehicles, delivery and garbage trucks, and cars with racks of mountain bikes on weekends.

The traffic could sound something like the ocean, if it weren't for the sirens. The narrow, winding, neighborhood streets braiding up the armpit of the valley are clogged with parked cars. The latest yuppie driving machine, sports/utility vehicles, or family mini-vans, are mixed with the solid well-maintained cars of the old timers who would have been forced into trailer parks or nursing homes if not for Proposition 13.

The price of houses in Marin has pretty much excluded middle class owners without a mountain of mortgage, vulnerable to default. Inherited or earned wealth is essential to maintain a stable living situation in Marin, but the determined Marinites without those means somehow still manage to cling to precarious rental niches or crouch in heavily-mortgaged debt holes. Mill Valley has plenty of these, but it also has lots of million-dollar mansions in the redwoods or on the ridges above the valley.

If your dreams are shaped around palisading out the outside world, barricaded in wooden towers on shaky hillsides, then you had better develop a rich inner world. Money has always been an adequate substitute for inner peace. The shopping experience of downtown Mill Valley has been featured in upscale Sunday supplements.

It's basically quaint and charming boutiques of relaxed clothes, luxury services, gourmet markets, foreign restaurants, expensive furnishings, useless, precious kitsch, and eat and run cafes. The town runs on caffeine; espresso machines everywhere pump out the fuel of choice. Naturally, everyone talks a blue steak if they talk to you at all. The ones I've talked with are generally entertaining, well read, and absolutely idle if they can help it. Developing their inner life. Most get to-go cups and race around with cellular telephones pressed to their cheeks, the art of the deal.

The six-dollar-an-hour latte pumpers and sandwich slicers, if they are living in town, are crammed into rental slums, spending all their extra cash on herb to calm their jacked-up coffee nerves.

The yuppie families are having babies or dogs, or both. Marin County is a Caucasian breeding ground. On weekends, cute white kids on tricycles are being bowled over by pedigreed dogs, or neon lycra-garbed bicyclists on thousand-dollar mountain bikes. In fact, you might as well walk if your bicycle costs less than first and last plus security deposit.

The teens are on speed or nicotine or both if they can bum them, and would rebel against their divorced parents' values if they could afford to buy their own skateboard wheels. That's a generalization, of course, just like most of this meditation on Mill Valley.

There are some sober, polite, and ambitious teens in town. They've started their own Fusion teen center. Those aren't the ones knocking on my friend's door to see if he knows when the speed dealer across the hall will be in. I don't, no, I don't have a cigarette either. Aren't you too young to smoke? He's a responsible guy.

One mother spied the 7-11 clerk on Miller Avenue, selling cigarettes to a 16-year-old boy she knew and made a citizen's arrest on the 37-year-old clerk. The police probably would have arrested the teen; they buy donuts and coffee from the clerk. He's been smoking since he was 12, anyway. That should be a deterrent.

The old timers at City Hall, between mediating the dog poop vs. kid soccer players' controversy and the nude art ban, have charged the local police department with keeping the teens from destroying the Plaza and intimidating the shoppers. Skateboarders were thrashing the benches and tables, in principle not much different from someone taking a sledgehammer to them, or mountain bikes on singletracks.

Teens in Marin in general are like cute little puppies growing too rambunctious for the fenced-in yard. What do you do with the rascals except let 'em run off the leash? In Mill Valley, the strange way the commissioners dealt with the teen's wheeled obsession was to dredge up an anti-coasting law from the early part of this century. Back when brakes weren't so great, they passed a law prohibiting all wheeled conveyances from free-coasting down the steep roads. Obviously, they've only enforced it against skateboarders. Even the pre-operative transsexual who pushes around on a cute little scooter doesn't get ticketed.

The police department is bored for lack of real action. They have these nifty Swat Team, military-looking uniforms, which must feel odd when pulling over a skateboarder with a nose ring. It was impressive to watch them blockade downtown last fall, when they apprehended four runaway teens from Nevada who'd stolen their mother's car. Mill Valley's finest had their shotguns and revolvers aimed and ready to drop the runaways if they made any sudden moves emerging from the Chevy Nova. On-lookers expected to see a bomb or weapons cache in the trunk as the nervous, gun-waving cop ordered the skinny little runaway to pop the lid. Dirty laundry fell out.

With that kind of response, maybe it's a good thing no police officers were around when the "machete-wielding" psycho began raging in the Book Depot. He was wrestled down by a man who recently moved to Mill Valley from New York City where they usually don't get involved. Well, maybe it was only a knife.

I should admit when I first moved to Marin County 13 years ago, I lived in Mill Valley. Even then it was obvious that the yuppification was creating drastic changes from the town which rose from the stumps after the mills sawed through the valley's ancient redwoods. It's a tribute to tenacity that Mill Valley has held onto its identity as long as it has with the crushing economic forces focused on it.

It's special, like all the villages and towns of Marin. They deserve to be preserved and maintained, not as museums, but as vital communities with all socioeconomic levels involved, and not just be allowed to devolve into an island of wealthy, aging boomers. Determined people will have to come to an understanding that this is our home, our land, that we are part of Tamalpais, just as the Miwoks were. This is the land where our hearts feels happy. We must work to actively ensure the unique magic be protected.

Our home is more than simply an economic investment. Our dreams are more than just shiny suburban vehicles and domestic images from Martha Stewart magazines. If our dreams are merely of steel, glass, stone and wood, then look at the mountain. Don't be content to navel-gaze in the mud of the valley floor.