Sky over Arcata. A goat farm in the shadows. Photo: John C. Osborn.

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 issues for Berkeleyside. He will also be writing about his impressions of our city. Here he shares his views on his former home and his first impressions of our city:

You can call me a refugee of the Humboldt Nation.

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 take the place of 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, are not some green utopia free from the ruthlessness of the outside world; for, buried in the allure is a place 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, although they didn’t want to; you’d be hard-pressed to find a decent job up in Humboldt and many 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 the fields, I 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 values I hold dear: 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 Sundays).

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 nestled in the mountains. For now, I’m rejoicing in what is a new adventure in a new land. Happy 2011 folks!

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