5:22pm

Tue April 2, 2013
Arts & Culture

Is the Bay Area home to the "last rustic town of metropolitan America"?

One of the attractions of living in the Bay Area is that you have the buzz and activity of towns located near impressive natural surroundings – even if most people have to drive from the former to the latter.

One community that has a balance between the two is the settlement known as Canyon. It’s less than a mile from the Oakland city limits, and even closer to Moraga, yet towering redwood trees surround it.

“Canyon,” says John van der Zee, author of Canyon: The Story of the Last Rustic Community in Metropolitan America, “is the example of meeting nature half way, and doing it with ingenious and inventive ways of living, that don’t involve things like mortgages, or huge houses, or conventional zoning.”

It hasn’t always been this way, of course.

The current redwoods are second growth, the originals having been logged out during the Mexican period, to build missions and other housing. But the trees eventually grew back, and people found the coolness of the shade to be a welcome break from East Bay summer heat. Several summer communities sprouted among the base of the trees, but only Canyon remains today.

“It drew people who found life in Berkeley too confining,” the author says. “And if you wanted to be at home and wear no clothes, and if you wanted to experiment with certain substances, or if you wanted to try alternate means of political activity, architecture, that was the place to go.”

It was a perfect place for new ideas, such as the Back to the Land movement of the ‘60s, but part of the reason the area remains so rustic is because most of the surrounding land belongs to the East Bay Municipal Utility District as watershed. They weren’t happy about hippies inhabiting the area, so they did what they could to buy out the residents. All of the other communities are now gone because of these efforts, and Canyon is currently only half its former size, with about 80 residents. But it’s still there, due to what John van der Zee calls “participatory democracy.”

“It’s tedious,” he says, “but if people are willing to devote the time to maintain their own roads, and their own steps and streets, that’s what it takes.”

And that’s why Canyon survives when other communities did not. It’s a powerful sense of community – what is the good us all? – balanced with personal goals and needs.

This do-it-yourself community continues to feel threatened at times. Their next big concern is losing their full-time postal employee. But if the past is any indication, both sides will work together for an acceptable solution. That’s the way a community should work – and it seems to, in Canyon.