Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Northern California Tour: Checking on Suisun City

For those readers who don’t live in Northern California and don’t follow the news from my part of the world, it has been a historically dry year for the northern half of the Golden State.  Depending on the metric used, it may be drier than any previous year in this century or the last.  (Next week, I’ll attend a meeting on the relationship between land use and drought.  I hope that much of the information is worth sharing.)

Once one adjusts to brown lawns, shorter showers, and higher produce prices, living in a drought can be rather pleasant.  Day after day of blue skies, no roof leaks, and no umbrella shopping.  It’s not the kind of weather that leads to cabin fever.

Nonetheless, I found myself antsy about a week back.  I’d been without a reason to go out and visit interesting communities since the fall.  The absence of on-the-ground ah-hah moments was wearing on me.  So I scheduled a family lunch at the far end of a daytrip, made an itinerary of good and bad urban spots between home and lunch, packed up my camera and notepad, and hit the road early in the morning.

I’ll share my observations and insights over the next few weeks.

The first stop on my Northern California tour was Suisun City, immediately south of and tucked against Fairfield.  I hadn’t visited the community in more than a year, but regretted every time I drove I-80 without stopping in.  This was a day when I would absolutely make time for one of my favorite evolving urbanist communities.

I’ve written about Suisun City several times previously, noting first my surprise at how much urban redevelopment had taken place in the small town and then my comfort in the community.

Both emotions resurfaced immediately upon my drive into town.  I can’t help smiling at the tidiness and sense of rightness that Suisun City exudes.  It’s not a perfect little town, but it’s on a good path, with newer and older residential neighborhoods within a short walk of an increasingly vibrant downtown and a stock of interesting, if under-utilized, downtown buildings that can be gradually put to better use as the community continues to mature.

 But there was something else that struck me this time.  It lurked beneath the other emotions, but was always there.  It was a shiver of fear that the community had begun to drift.

The signs on vacant downtown lots that advised of coming development had sun-faded since I last visited, with nary a piece of construction equipment in sight.

The vacant land on the east side of the channel, for which I though retail was essential for the walkability of the eastside housing, continued to lay fallow.

And when I took a short drive through the eastside, I came across a neighborhood where ill-maintained cars and inept home improvements were beginning to accumulate along a street that had been sparkling and new only a few years ago.

 What I saw wasn’t the beginning of an inevitable and fatal slide.  But it was a warning sign about the need to nurture urbanism.

The analogy that popped into my mind was that drivable suburbanism and walkable urbanism are both gardens.  Drivable suburbanism, with its gasoline pricing that doesn’t reflect all the real costs and its subsidized streets and parking, gets constant attention, watering, and fertilization.  It produces a crop that I find tasteless and bland, but the production is consistent and dependable.

On the other hand, walkable urbanism gets infrequent attention.  When the all the pieces fall into place, including good redevelopment laws and a city staff with a great vision, progress can be made quickly.  That’s what happened in Suisun City a decade ago.  But when that attention is withdrawn, nature begins to gather at the perimeter of the garden, ready to reclaim its former domain.

Right now, Suisun City seems a lovely fledgling garden, with hearty young fruit trees and raised beds filled with healthy vegetables, providing goodness to the community.  But the gardeners have been withdrawn and the garden is at risk.

The problem isn’t that urbanism needs excessive care.  Every garden needs a little tending and I suspect that walkable urbanism needs less than drivable suburbanism.  The problem is that we provide constant care to drivable suburbanism and only sporadic care to walkable urbanism, a situation that is completely backwards.

I’ll continue to check in on Suisun City, hoping to see a little more garden-tending in future years.

For those who’ve remember my previous posts on urban dining, it should be obvious that I had breakfast at Bab’s Delta Diner, in the heart of the redeveloping west side.  The Delta Diner is a magnet to me.  As always, it provided a warm and welcoming atmosphere on the morning of my visit.  The staff was attentive and fun, perhaps responding to the felicitous environment of Suisun City.

Regarding the food, I was somewhat less impressed by my omelet this time than last.  The seasoning wasn’t as focused, leaving the flavors muddy, plus an extra slice of cheese on top dampened the character of the seafood.  But the option of fried rice in place of breakfast potatoes will save any breakfast.  Bab’s doesn’t serve exceptional fried rice, but it doesn’t need to be exceptional.  Even a competent fried rice is a fine complement to breakfast.

I expect that there are other good dining options in Suisun City and I should try them someday.  But for now, the Delta Diner is my place.  And I recommend that anyone wandering off I-80 into Suisun City make time for breakfast or lunch there, preferably with the fried rice.

For now, it’s onward with my Northern California tour.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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