Originally published in Berkeleyside.

John Osborn moved from northern California to Berkeley in the late winter of 2010 and has been surprised by what he’s found: the wonders of BART, the diversity of people, the good food. John has been reporting on the issues of Humboldt County for years and will now be reporting on Berkeley for Berkeleyside. He will also be writing about his impressions of our city. Here is his first column:

You can call me a refugee of the Humboldt Nation.

The folks here at Berkeleyside have given me the chance to share my story and insights with you since I come to Berkeley with fresh eyes and not much background about the community. It took me a while to figure out what to write my first column on, so I figured I’d start with where I’m coming from so you can learn a pinch about me.

I lived in Arcata, a small California coastal college town, for eight years, and even though I wasn’t born there I consider it my hometown; it is the place that gave birth to the person I am today, and it is where my heart will forever be. It was an incubator, having given me the insight into how important it is for people to live within a warm and welcoming community full of different lifestyles where innovative ideas are at least seriously discussed, if not embraced. And perhaps most vitally, my time there taught me to be myself no matter the consequence.

Imagine a town dotted with old-school Victorian homes and open spaces, embraced by thick towering Redwood trees, the raging ocean, and Humboldt Bay. The focal point of the community is a block-wide plaza where festivities and farmer’s markets of fresh healthy produce abound. Local businesses replace the sterile monotonous chain stores, adding a fresh breath of uniqueness and style – not one Starbucks anywhere in town. And the city boasts one of the country’s only wastewater treatment systems sensitively weaved into a serene wetland.

Don’t get me wrong, Arcata, and Humboldt County as a whole, is not some green utopia free from the ruthlessness of the outside world, for buried in the allure is a place is rife with a number of horrible ailments, mainly the disease of an economy propped up by illegal marijuana sales and public sector jobs, while the rest of the economy slowly crumbles away. This has caused deep poverty and homelessness bolstering a haves and have-nots system, with many of the have-nots retreating into the bittersweet comfort of the bottle, the meth pipe, or the needle.

I know so many people who had to leave Humboldt because of this economic reality, but didn’t want to; you’d be hard-pressed to find a decent job up in Humboldt and many a people decide to dive into the lucrative shadow economy because it’s there, and it’s profitable. For those, like myself, who couldn’t find good steady work in our fields, we had to leave, reluctantly so. It was one of the most difficult decisions I had to make in my life, because by leaving I left not only the wonderful amenities and silent serenity of that place, but also my family. I’m not talking about blood, but the bonds that form between people who share proximity, trials, and community for so long and who become indispensable; it is the most painful consequence of leaving that place.

I told myself several years ago after the newspaper I worked at, the Eureka Reporter, shut down that if I ever had to leave Humboldt it would be on my terms. No matter how difficult it may be financially, I couldn’t just move anywhere after living there, like some suburban nightmare of strip malls and uniformity. No, if I had to leave I wanted to go somewhere that embodied at least part of the spirit of life in Arcata, if anything to soften the impact of moving. Enter Berkeley.

I’ve had my eye on Berkeley for almost two years now. The politics here embody many of the same values I hold dear to myself: justice, freedom, and equality. There is a vibrant downtown area and Telegraph Avenue resembles Arcata in many ways – hippie street kids included. It’s close to other urban centers, and is connected to what I think is an awesome mass transit system (I’m coming from a place where we had one bus connecting the cities, and it didn’t run on Sunday). I may just be in my honeymoon phase, but it feels like this place has a community identity pulsing through all of the city’s many neighborhoods; I like that.

Although I’m still digesting all that Berkeley has to offer, I’m already eager to share with all of you my perspective on his place coming from that rural bubble nested in the mountains. For now, I’m rejoicing in what is a new adventure in a new land. Happy 2011 folks!

3 Comments

  • John, I really appreciate this, especially:

    “Imagine a town dotted with old-school Victorian homes and open spaces, embraced by thick towering Redwood trees, the raging ocean, and Humboldt Bay. The focal point of the community is a block-wide plaza where festivities and farmer’s markets of fresh healthy produce abound. Local businesses replace the sterile monotonous chain stores, adding a fresh breath of uniqueness and style – not one Starbucks anywhere in town. And the city boasts one of the country’s only wastewater treatment systems sensitively weaved into a serene wetland.

    “Don’t get me wrong, Arcata, and Humboldt County as a whole, is not some green utopia free from the ruthlessness of the outside world, for buried in the allure is a place is rife with a number of horrible ailments, mainly the disease of an economy propped up by illegal marijuana sales and public sector jobs, while the rest of the economy slowly crumbles away. This has caused deep poverty and homelessness bolstering a haves and have-nots system, with many of the have-nots retreating into the bittersweet comfort of the bottle, the meth pipe, or the needle.”

    Good stuff — this from someone who also considers Humboldt home, by choice if not birth. Thanks again. And enjoy Berkeley! I spent a summer there during my, er, formative, years and credit that season with sending me down the path to whom I would become.

  • Dante says:

    From another refuge, good story. I’ve spent my share of time in Berkeley, I love it. Check out Peoples Park, if you haven’t. I’m happy to hear you found a good place.

  • Jon Brooks says:

    Hey John, I’ve been wondering what happened to my favorite journalist, you’ve been MIA for a while. Glad to hear you landed on your feet, writing!!!

    I’m a refugee who went the opposite direction, Bay Area (Napa) to Humboldt, way back when. There are a few jobs here, and even careers, but not a lot of variety. And no shopping after 6:00 pm weekdays, 4:00 pm on Sundays. So to all you City people; Stay Away!!!!! Beware!!!! No Akia!!!! No WalMart (yet). It’s boring up here, unless you like watching raindrops fall.

    Good for you on the move. You can write, so I am confident you’ll do well. Keep reporting on what the politicians are required to disclose but don’t want anybody to know about. Good luck to you!!!!

    Jon Brooks