Monday, July 14, 2014

Fitting a Meeting Place into a Neighborhood

Many years ago, my wife and I took an anniversary trip to London.  Planning for a stay of nearly two weeks and unwilling to pay hotel prices for that many nights, I looked for a flat to rent.  I found one a few blocks south of St. James Park.  It was a fine location from which to explore London with the St. James Tube station only a block away.

Between the flat and the Tube station was a small pub.  Most of the week, it was a sleepy place.  As I recall, my wife and I ate pub fare there one evening and I might have tipped a pint there on another occasion.  The place was usually more than half empty.

But on Friday evenings, it boomed.  All the nearby office workers stopped in for a pint or two before jumping onto the Tube to begin their weekends.  There were more patrons than the establishment could contain, so they spilled onto the sidewalk.  And when the sidewalk was full, they moved into the street, still holding their beer mugs.  (Alcohol control is different in England than in California.)

Eventually, the pub patrons filled enough of the street that the two-way traffic had to take alternating turns using the only lane that remained open and pedestrians had to work their way around the edge of the crowd.  But no horns were honked and no one complained.  Everyone seemed to give a free pass to good-natured Friday evening drinking.

Although I had no interest in braving the Friday evening mob for a pint of my own, I enjoyed the scene, all the while doubting that I would see the equivalent in California.

Adjusting for the fact that California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control would never allow drinkers to congregate off the sidewalk blocking a traffic lane, I wrong.  Within the posts and chains that limit the area of alcohol consumption, Ray’s Delicatessen and Tavern on the west side of Petaluma is much like that London pub.

And even outside of the posts and chains, Ray’s non-drinking customers tend to congregate on the sidewalks and in the first few feet of the crosswalks, occasionally causing traffic to slow.  Only a few drivers show annoyance.

It’s a friendly, comfortable, non-pretentious place that seems to expand and contract to conform to the number of patrons.

In fact, one can argue that Ray’s beats the London pub on a couple of points.  In place of English pub fare, Ray’s deli serves sandwiches and salads that beat pub fare any day.

And more importantly to urbanism, Ray’s is tucked within a residential neighborhood.  Having a friendly, comfortable place for good food and beverage somewhere in town is a good thing.  Having it a walkable distance from home is even better.  (I live a long block from Ray’s.)

Ray’s and its small group of westside brethren, a picturing framing shop next door, a convenience market, barbershop, and lighting shop a short distance down Western Avenue, and the DeSchmire restaurant on Bodega Avenue, have the distinction of being the most isolated businesses in Petaluma, furthest from any other commercial  establishment.  (If I’ve missed other candidates, let me know.)

And those westside stores are fine additions to the community.  Every bit of business that can be conducted on foot is one less car on the road.

One of the founding fathers of urbanism, Andres Duany, regularly makes a point about Charleston, South Carolina.  He loves the city and uses it to judge zoning codes.  In his phrase, “If you can’t build Charleston under a proposed zoning code, then the zoning code is no good.”

I’d make the same argument about Ray’s.  If your zoning code wouldn’t allow you to build another Ray’s anywhere in the community, then your zoning code isn’t good enough.  And very few zoning codes meet that test.

Drop by Ray’s one day for lunch and ask yourself if you’d want a Ray’s within a walkable distance of your home.  If so, congratulations, you’re an urbanist.  And I know a London pub you’d really enjoy.

In my next post, I’ll build on a theme related to Ray’s, community tables.

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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