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Sonoma County in the Twenty-first Century Depression

March 6, 2011 6 comments

A Sign in a Cafe Window in Santa Rosa, CA

This evening I’ll be on a bus from my home in Sonoma County to San Francisco and from there, the rest of California. But today I want to talk about my home county, which is Sonoma. This beautiful little gem sits between the ocean and a string of mountains. It has a varied landscape, including redwood forests, a fertile central plain and breathtaking coastline. The climate is Mediterranean, but around here we just call it great.

But, for all that, Sonoma County is in the world, and the world is in big trouble. As I began to talk about this project with my acquaintances and with passers-by, a different Sonoma began to emerge. First, in the beginning of the melt-down of 2008, there was the mortgage broker I knew from a business net-working group who was losing her own home. As I began to focus on this subject it became more and more visible to me. In a popular Thai spot I was unintentionally eavesdropping on a table full of high-tech employees from a “downsizing” company. The lucky ones who had kept their jobs “for now” were treating their former colleagues to lunch and commiseration.

Then, some of the bigger storefronts began to go dark. Mervyn’s closed but Macy’s remained. Tourism is down all over as people everywhere down-shift their spending habits. The only group that has not down-shifted is the uber-rich. Lucky for Sonoma County, there are features here that are attractive to that demographic. There is a slice of Sonoma County tourism that is doing very well.  As a playground for the wealthy, Sonoma County offers high end restaurants, always full, wineries, quaint little inns, and beautiful scenery. If you can figure out how to be of service to these people you will stay employed.

As I write the official unemployment rate for Sonoma County is 10.5%, which means that if we include 99ers and self-employed people that have closed their doors it is more like 22%. I went down to the food stamp office at the beginning of last year and saw that the line was peppered with the newly impoverished. You can tell the ex-middle class by their dress and demeanor. The demographic that day appeared to be older and female.

Of the people lucky enough to have a job, some really aren’t so lucky after all. I have several friends that lost a job in the last two years only to get another one many months later with longer hours, less pay, and worse working conditions. But, if you want to keep your house you just suck it up. I met a woman the other day who was working a counter at a downtown store. She pointed to her name –tag and said “my father told me, if your name is on a building you are rich. If your name is on a plaque on your desk you are middle class. And if your name is on your shirt—well, you are poor” It turned out that she and her husband had lost a business that had thrived for twenty years in the crash, and then they had lost their house when the bubble burst. She told me that their house had dropped from $900,000 to $500,000. They were willing and able to restructure the debt, but the bank refused. Later the bank sold the property for $250,000 which is half what they were willing to pay. Now a speculator will snap up the house, and she is working retail for $12 an hour. Her husband remains unemployed.

 

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