Arcata, California: Green Town in the Redwoods

Got dreadlocks? Got a VW bus? Got a cause? If so, you’ve got a home in Arcata, especially if gorgeous redwood forests and bold community spirit complete your picture of the good life. This coastal town on scenic Highway 101 about 280 miles north of San Francisco is a place where ecology movement radicals meet timber industry pooh-bahs head on, and both survive.

Established in the 1840s as a base town for the California gold fields, Arcata later cast its economic lot with the logging and fishing industries. The early ’70s forced the city to change. While the timber industry withered, ecoforces coalesced and thrived, boosted in part by the town’s heroic tussle with the state government over the widening of Highway 101. Today 20 percent of Arcata’s voters are Green Party members; this is the first town in the country to elect a Green majority to the city council. It’s a tenuous hold, since conservatives haven’t exactly vacated the area.

Arcata’s 15,000 residents have learned over the past few years how to build a strong community through effective use of resources. Recycling is religion here, but the town is too far away from major metro areas to make it simple. So the community developed its own markets and built an infrastructure based on microindustries and value-added products. Now the town exports compost, potting mix, and soil builders instead of lumber. A local company, Fire & Light Originals, is nationally known for making high-end recycled glass dinnerware and tiles. Local produce is sold at the Foodworks Culinary Center, which houses 10 full-time businesses, including Fish Brothers’ smoked salmon, and rents community kitchens to an up-and-coming dozen more. The economy may not exactly be booming, but at least it’s improving; the unemployment rate has dropped from 16 percent in the early ’80s to just over 7 percent today.

This is a clean, hilly, walkable town, home to the Alliance for a Paving Moratorium and its feisty newspaper, Auto-Free Times. Often thought of as Haight-Ashbury reincarnated in the redwoods, Arcata weans its hippies from yesterday’s drugs and turns them on to today’s activism, although proximity to California’s Emerald Triangle, famed for marijuana growing, may make them feel at home. This is headquarters for the Hundredth Monkey, a major anti-nuke group that every year buses hundreds of local residents to a protest march at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site. As the country’s pioneer in biological wastewater treatment, Arcata also offers habitat to more than 50 bird species at the treatment ponds, a.k.a. the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary.

Culture drifts in from Humboldt State University, whose 7,500 students, mostly studying natural sciences and the arts, live in solar-paneled dorms. The prevalence of food co-ops, alternative health care, and diverse ideas in Arcata must make up for the lack of night life; many of them stay on after college.

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