Friday, May 16, 2014

Unsettling Encounter in Copperopolis Town Square

I know a couple who split their time between the North Bay and Twain Harte, a community in the Sierra foothills near Sonora.  Several years ago, the husband recommended Copperopolis as a town they enjoyed for stopovers on the drive between their two homes.

I still don’t know if he meant the slumbering village that remains from intermittent copper mining booms or Copperopolis Town Square, a supposedly urbanist setting built from scratch in the middle of open grasslands a few miles from the village.

But I was intrigued, and more than a bit dubious, about the goal of building an urbanist community divorced from any other development, especially in a setting remote from any large cities and without significant local industry.

And so I found myself in the empty Copperopolis Town Square early one Sunday morning back in 2008.  And by empty, I mean truly and completely devoid of other human beings.  The lofts overlooking the square hadn’t yet been offered for sale.  Nor was the adjoining residential yet built.  Even the parking lots surrounding the eight to ten existing buildings were empty.  Except for the hum of the occasional vehicle on the highway a short distance north, I was alone.

But I wasn’t without music.  The town square, with a cute but trite gazebo at one end, was wired to play music even if I was the only audience.  The music of the day was 1960s pop.  So my wanderings were accompanied by tunes from the Beatles, Byrds, Monkees, and others.

It was an interesting but disconcerting amble.  The setting and buildings were nicely done, but felt like a
movie set.  I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Doc Emmett Brown speed past in his modified DeLorean.

Ultimately, the buildings couldn’t escape the fact that they were bogus, carefully designed to emulate how we think a late 19th century town square should look, but built to conform to 21st century building codes and sensibilities.  Amidst a throng of people, the deceit might have held.  But standing alone as the morning breezes off the grasslands whispered around the buildings, the fakery was too striking to be ignored.

And then, suddenly, I was no longer alone.  A man and his pre-teen son, in a full-size pickup towing a fishing boat, had driven into the town center.  They’d likely made a wrong turn enroute to a nearby fishing lake and now looked completely out of place.  As the music continued to play, the man drove down the far side of the square, crossed the bottom, and headed back toward me and his escape.

You wouldn’t think that a simple pickup and fishing boat would have seemed strange, but the incongruity between the modern vehicle and the empty square was riveting.

I had the right as a pedestrian to cross the street in front of the truck.  But the truck exuded an urgency to escape.  So I stayed on the curb and waved them through.  My wave seemed to make no difference.  The driver and passenger sat still in the truck, not looking at me, at their surroundings, or at each other.

The truck slowed to a stop next to me and then accelerated away from the square.  At our closest, I’d been ten feet from the man and his boy and yet no sign of acknowledgment had passed.  It was as if I was an alien species to be to be studiously ignored until a getaway could be completed.

Meanwhile, the music played on.  The playlist had reached “Henry the Eighth” by Herman’s Hermits.

I'm Henry the eighth, I am
Henry the eighth, I am, I am
I got married to the widow next door
She's been married seven times before

The music completed the absurdity of the encounter.

Earlier this week, I revisited the Copperopolis Town Square.  The square was no longer deserted, with children playing around the gazebo and older couples lunching at picnic tables.  But neither was it teeming with people on a midweek afternoon.

A few more buildings had been built.  Some of the lofts seemed occupied.  The gazebo still seemed pristine.  And the town hall still loomed with majesty over the scene.  But many of the storefronts were vacant and the graded lots for the nearby residential development remained empty.  After six years, it wasn’t much progress.  Meanwhile, my traveling companion could only gaze about in wonderment, astonished that an Iowa town square had somehow been plopped into the California foothills.

According to the yardsticks used by developers and their bankers, it was a failed project.  Perhaps it had a few artistic successes, but by the measures that mattered, which mean money, it was a disaster. 

And I’m torn on how I feel about it.  On one hand, it might have been thrilling if Californians had flocked to their version of Seaside, Florida.   But on the other hand, it’s so much better when urbanism can come to the rescue of a struggling town such as Suisun City.  Copperopolis Town Square, sitting amidst the empty grasslands of Calaveras County, is little more than Main Street at Disneyland without a nearby Space Mountain.

Ultimately, perhaps all for which I can hope is that the man and his son escaped their brush with mock urbanism unscathed and even caught a few fish.

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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