What 'Gorgeous' Bodega Bay Is Missing

BusinessWeek reader Peter Laufer says BW's recognition of his California community failed to mention that it's lacking one

Item: BusinessWeek names Bodega Bay, Calif., one of the most expensive small towns in America.

Item: The Santa Rosa Press Democrat responds to the news with the headline, "Worth the Price."

Plenty of bumpers in Bodega Bay sport the too-cute sticker that reads, "Bodega Bay—a quaint little drinking village with a fishing problem." In fact, one of the most serious problems with Bodega Bay is neither fishing nor drinking. It is that this jewel on our coast—the place I call home—lacks even a remote sense of community.

Part of the problem is geographic. Bodega Bay stretches for a few miles hugging the coastline and its few streets are just offshoots of its main drag: Highway One. Summertime and weekends, Highway One is jammed with tourist traffic, and its lack of sidewalks and shoulders makes walking treacherous. There is no focal point or crossroads. Bodega Bay offers no main square, village green, natural or traditional gathering point.

Since the Tides remodeled, there's no saloon featuring the type of atmosphere that attracts tourists and locals alike. The Tides, which gained fame as one of the locations in Hitchcock's The Birds, now looks and feels more like an airport departure lounge than a place to play liar's dice and tell fish stories. We're lucky for the hole-in-the-wall coffee shop up at the north end of town, but it's too tiny to serve as a hangout. We have no library, bookstore, hardware store, drugstore soda fountain, or even a city park.

Fleeting Encounters

The closest thing to a community center in Bodega Bay is the post office. If we happen to show up at the same time to collect our mail, we may get a chance for a quick chat with neighbors. Funeral notices are posted ad hoc on the post office doors, and if we're lucky Jaime, Sue, or Mary may linger over local gossip when we buy stamps.

Exacerbating the geographic and commercial challenges to community-building is the social and economic stratification of the place. At the south end of town is Bodega Harbour, or "Harbor with a 'U'" as I call it in an effort to mock its pretentiousness. Bodega Harbour is our wannabe Sea Ranch, a golf course surrounded by fancy houses, most of them vacation rentals. On the west side of the bay, the University of California Marine Lab draws more short-timers: students and researchers. Old Town maintains the last vestiges of the fishermen and their wives who built the first houses along the bay. Abalone shells decorate their yards and boats sit on trailers alongside motor homes. Old Town still feels blue collar. The house trailers and cabins at Porto Bodega house much of our Mexican immigrant community.

But as a journalist, what I miss most of all is a local newspaper. Despite all of these challenges to community, a viable weekly Bodega Bay newspaper would serve a vital purpose: It would bring the 1,423 of us who live here together on its pages. It would introduce us to each other and tell of what's happening in our midst. It would unite this disparate collection of strangers who for whatever reason chose to settle here and it would help explain us to ourselves. Or as my wife says, "I live in a vacation paradise. May I go home now?"

Needed: A Rip-Roaring Read

Last year the Bodega Bay Navigator stopped printing and moved its operation to a minimal Internet presence. "Not enough advertising dollars," is the reason cited by editor and publisher Joel Hack (a great name for a newspaperman). "Bodega Bay is a small retail market, and the merchants in Sebastopol and Santa Rosa don't need us." Hack shifted his attention down to West Marin, joining with a handful of reporters and editors to start up a newspaper in Point Reyes Station to compete with the now infamous Point Reyes Light.

The Light was owned and operated for more than a generation by iconoclastic David Mitchell, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who nurtured (and often irritated) his community with the paper. When he sold it to newcomer Robert Plotkin for half a million dollars, some of the natives were incensed with the resulting changes, insisting Plotkin showed more interest in drawing attention to himself than in reporting local news.

But a newspaper war an hour south down Highway One does nothing to fill the void here in Bodega Bay, and the slap-dash Navigator Web site is no replacement for a running commentary on local life produced with ink on paper. A hard copy weekly newspaper sits on the kitchen table for days and is read and reread. Stories from it are torn out and stuck on refrigerators or sent to distant friends and relatives. Back issues are stored in libraries. Articles can be pinned up, and debated, in diners or the post office.

We can't know what's going on in our midst if no one is lurking around, asking questions, and compiling reports. There is no dearth of news here, news that's important to us but not worth the bother for the Press Democrat headquartered almost an hour east in our county seat Santa Rosa, a newspaper with no beat reporter assigned to the Sonoma County coast.

Who Watches the Watchers?

Case in point: We are still reeling from two recent, unsolved murders. Without a newspaper, who is providing oversight of the sheriff's investigations? Our fishing economy is in crisis—what is being done to restore the fishery? Construction started on a long delayed and controversial housing project. Who is watching to make sure the developer adheres to his permit? What's going on at our Coast Guard station? Who's tracking the results of our Fire Board and Utility District meetings? What goes on in the windowless Grange Hall? Who is preaching what up at the Union Church? Where is the communal record of our births and deaths, our marriages and high school graduations?

A town without a newspaper is a town in crisis. A community newspaper, as Hack laments when he talks about closing the Navigator, "teaches a community how to talk to itself." He cites California's car culture, the hours we spend in front of the television, and our tech-enabled tendency to exist in personal cocoons as examples of our growing isolation and alienation. "There are a gazillion things that work against community," he says, "and a newspaper is one of the things that offsets lack of community."

A town's character is influenced by its physical location and its architecture. But its mythology and sense of self develops as events occur. And we can't all be everywhere talking with everyone about what's going on around here. We need a witness to chronicle those events, to put them into historical perspective. Newspaper reporters and editors perform those critical community-building roles. We need a curmudgeonly editor-in-chief poking around and commenting on other people's business—someone who loves Bodega Bay and prints stories that help us question and understand ourselves.

BusinessWeek may praise Bodega Bay as "a gorgeous town" and a "very good spot for wine aficionados." But without a local newspaper, we're just another pretty spot on the road.