Marin: The Place, The People | Prologue

by Jane Futcher


The sweeping spans of the Golden Gate Bridge reach northward toward Marin County, their orange cables brilliant against the hills beyond. Far below is the mile-wide channel where San Francisco Bay joins the Pacific Ocean. To the east is the widening mouth of the bay, punctuated by an island of rock —Alcatraz, once America’s toughest federal prison, now a tourists’ mecca; to the west lies the Pacific.

Before us, where the bridge bows and rests, are the rugged cliffs of the Marin Headlands. Three million years of geological upheaval, of folding, faulting and uplifting created those ridges, which are part of California’s Coast Range mountains. The cliffs drop abruptly into the churning surf of the Golden Gate Channel. We descend more slowly, rolling onto the Headlands like a whisper-jet arriving in another country. The city is behind us, the chilling fog is gone. The sun breaks through the clouds, casting white light on the stucco homes of Sausalito. Wind flattens the grassy fields of Tiburon, Strawberry Point, and Angel Island. The peaks and sloping ridges of Mount Tamalpais stretch before us. We have entered Marin.

Marin. A triangular peninsula whose western shores are flanked by the Pacific Ocean and whose eastern shores are formed by San Francisco Bay. Her only neighbor is Sonoma County, to the north. Marin. In land area, fourth smallest of California’s fifty-eight counties; in population, twenty-sixth smallest; in median income level, number one; in per capita income, number four. Affluent Marin. Beautiful Marin. Home of Muir Woods and virgin redwoods, of Point Reyes National Seashore, of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, of Mountain Tamalpais and vie other state parks. One-third of the county is public parkland, all just a bridge ride from San Francisco, little more than that from Oakland, Berkeley, and the other cities of the East Bay. No major metropolitan area in the world enjoys such a large and dramatically beautiful public space so nearby.

“I live in Marin,” someone tells you at a party. You nod; perhaps you even smile. For already you imagine a bubbling hot-tub, a plump portfolio of stocks and bond, a redwood deck landscaped wit red geraniums and marijuana plants. You are speaking, you assume, to an upper-middle-class professional with a job in San Francisco and liberal political leanings. Your Marinite rides a ten-speed on weekends, attends aikido class on Tuesday nights, and puts bean sprouts on Big Macs. If married, has been divorced at least once, and has recently left primal therapy for receptive-listening classes in Mill Valley. If you stick around long enough, you will probably find that on a few counts you have guessed correctly.

There is a stereotype of Marin County and its residents; occasionally you will meet someone who fits it. But your stereotype will prevail only if yo refuse tenaciously to explore the county’s coastal hills and rural interior; only if you avoid her tiny fishing villages and friendly, sunlit cafes; only if you never speak to anyone you meet and keep your eyes firmly to the road.

For if you look more closely at Marin, if you walk through the sunken valleys of Point Reyes, talk to an old-timer on the streets of Novato, or stop for a drink at Sausalito’s no name bar, you will find your stereotype vanishing. You will see that Marin is more than a playground for the rich.

You will find militant political activists as well as dilettantes, newly arrived organic gardeners as well as dairy ranchers whose families have lived in Marin for over one hundred years. You will discover Marin’s colorful history: her early days, when the county was proud to be one of the original twenty-seven created by California’s first state legislature in 1850. You will hear of the railroads and ferries — in the 1880s and ‘90s —that opened the county to developers and summer residents from San Francisco, many of whom would settle permanently after the 1906 earthquake and fire. But it was the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937 that made Marin the accessible bedroom community it is today.

Marin County is a curious mix of affluence and idealism, of isolationism and innovation. Socialites and houseboat artists lie down in front of bulldozers to protest the invasion of Sausalito’s waterfront community by profit-seeking developers. Business and Zen Buddhists attend public hearings to discuss the fate of a coastal valley. Single mothers and senior citizens tangle with county supervisors over the need for low-cost housing.

Perhaps that’s just affluence California, some say, where people have the time, money and freedom to get involved in community affairs. But in California there are many affluent counties, and they are not like Marin. Their affluence has brought rigidity and, very often, indifference to social issues. Marin, on the other hand, has more than its share of involved, dynamic citizens willing to fight for causes others eschew. It has been estimated that there are 99 organizations in Marin dedicated to social causes—Mill Valley’s Bread and Roses provides free entertainment for prisoners and shut-in; Sausalito’s Commuter Connection has developed a car-pool system to replace solo commuting.

How do we account for the contradictions that seem to abound in Marin? Perhaps the temperament of Marin today is the legacy left by earlier generations: the spirit of cooperation, a blessing left by the peaceful Coast Miwok Indians; today’s geniality and love of luxury, the legacy of the Mexican dons who welcomed visitors to their ranchers and entertained lavishly. Perhaps the fortune-seekers from freewheeling San Francisco brought to Marin’s small towns a liveliness and sophistication most communities lack. And Marin’s Swiss-Italian and Portuguese immigrants, who so cherished the county’s mild climate? Perhaps they gave their love of the land and the sea and of the burning summer sun. The fierce individualism and ambition? Perhaps these traits came from the Yankee settlers who arrived in the Gold Rush and never left.

And today’s settlers? What have they brought? The young people and activists? The singles? The families with children. Perhaps their gift is their mobility, the flexibility that gives them a knock for finding new solutions to problems that seem hopelessly complex.

And perhaps, above all, it is the land itself that makes Marin unique. Poised at the edge of a continent, at the edge of a culture, the Pacific shores, the interior hills and valleys, the bay shores inside the Golden Gate, all have their own character and appeal. The land has welcomed ranchers as well as conservationists, professionals as well as poets, backpacks as well as briefcases.

But, as unique as Marin seems to many of us, in some respects it is typical of every county in America today. Marin too is threatened by the very residents it has welcomed. Developers carve up rural valleys to build houses only the rich can afford. Soaring real estate prices are driving out the poor, the senior citizens, the artists, who have given Marin its heterogenous, quirky constitution. Industrial pollution endangers bay marshes, and freshwater streams are damned for reservoirs.

How Marin will survive the transition to the twenty-first century is of interest to all of America. How the county will deal with the polarities between rich and poor, young and old, profit-makers and conservationists, may be a lesson for all of us. And if there is a land that deserves to survive and a people willing to fight for its future, they can both be found in Marin County.