Saving Slatter’s Court

Residents of Davis’ last bohemian enclave fight against the encroachment of change

Slatter’s Court resident Kelly Torres is among those who want to prevent their area from changing.

Slatter’s Court resident Kelly Torres is among those who want to prevent their area from changing.

photo by Larry Dalton

At the edge of downtown Davis, on the other side of the railroad tracks, any Olive Drive dweller will tell you their trees are older, their shade is cooler and their roots grow deeper than those in the surrounding community.

Residents of a quirky cottage villa long known as Slatter’s Court say they’ve maintained a bohemian rhythm for more than 80 years, even as the rest of Davis has been pulled toward the Gap-sporting, SUV-wheeling, consumerist mainstream.

“A lot of us choose to be minimalists and that’s a choice,” said Henry Alvarez-Garcia, an urban gardener who has relished life in Slatter’s for the past eight years, despite the leaks and creaks of an aging neighborhood.

Since its genesis during the late 1920s, sprouting up along the old Lincoln Highway—the first paved transcontinental route linking San Francisco to New York—Olive Drive has been a key route to Davis’ reputation as a stronghold for progressive ideas.

Some describe the park as a natural refuge of sorts, with 300-year-old oaks arching over trailers and helter-skelter gardens. Others like to think of it as an artists’ zone, with its subtle signs of creators at work, like the bright collages pasted outside of Dave Young’s house. But all agree that it is a unique old throwback in this changing town.

Behind the woodsy mystique of Slatter’s Court lies a spirit that scorns the norm and questions authority. People still talk about the time Dora Maggiolo nailed a big “Not for Sale” sign above her door, just to make her stance doubly clear to developers who had offered her a pretty sum for the house her father built in 1933.

Even the businesses along Olive Drive are progeny of non-conformity. Eighteen years ago, Barbara Beck started inviting customers into her home when she realized her homemade knick-knacks, antiques and Elvis clocks were spilling out of her home. Thus was born the business alias Granny’s Nook and Crannys.

But even newer additions to the neighborhood, like graduate engineering student Ryan Hammond, carry on the tradition of what he calls “back country living.”

No one complains as Hammond stokes a billowing fire on a hot Saturday morning. He’s boiling a kettle of coffee to wake up fellow villagers because today, June 30, city officials are dropping by, accompanied by potential developers. A few early birds sip burnt grounds, trading qualms about the 122-unit apartment complex that might replace the eight-acre field facing Slatter’s Court.

Kelly Torres, who left the fashion industry of South San Francisco behind to finish a degree in Nature and Culture Studies, says expensive apartments, fancy cars and high-maintenance neighbors will inevitably spark a culture clash along Olive Drive.

“I think it’ll upset the common denominator in our community,” Torres said. “The units are going to be expensive and nobody in Slatter’s Court would be able to move into any of those units.”

Hammond says he would lament the loss of the open space around Slatter’s. After growing up in Orange County, he never wants to be hemmed in by cyclone fences and manicured lawns again.

“There are no fences that surround a sailboat or a trailer park,” said Hammond, throwing another log into the blaze. But soon enough, the fire is being doused, as Slatter’s residents hustle over to the third city meeting regarding the neighboring field’s development.

A motley cast of characters has gathered in front of the meadow in question: from punk rock DJs and mild-mannered students to city officials and diagram-wielding developers. In the midst of the crowd stands Reed Yeomans, whose family owns the town’s Ramada Inn and has been trying to develop this Olive Drive property for more than 30 years.

“We have proposed several alternatives from a hotel to office complexes, a skating rink, condominiums,” Yeomans said.

Time and again, the city of Davis rejected such proposals for the eight-acre parcel. At a previous community meeting, an Olive Drive resident asked Yeomans about his long-term goals for the three-story apartment complex, where studio rents would start at $700 a month.

“To make money,” Yeomans replied.

It’s an attitude to which many Slatter’s Court residents can’t relate. They see greater value in the field’s wildlife. Many want to see the field persist as a habitat for Swainson’s hawks, an endangered species in California. Several witness accounts report identifying the bird’s black-tipped tail soaring above the field and roosting in its oak trees.

Yet the city’s biological survey found no Swainson’s hawks during a one-day survey, and it didn’t mention the oak trees in the meadow. Other residents are more concerned about how the development would increase traffic, making a clogged intersection even worse.

According to a city traffic impact analysis, new apartment residents would generate approximately 1,400 extra car trips through the impacted intersection, bumping the average daily car flow from 600 currently to more than 2,000 vehicle trips.

Yet many Slatter’s Court residents don’t trust the studies. Actually, they don’t trust the city.

Many Slatter’s Court residents still hold bitter memories of how the city made a grab for the east side of Olive Drive via “eminent domain” in 1992 to build a Raley’s Supermarket shopping center.

Noni Storm, who has owned the design furniture store on the corner of Olive Drive for 22 years, recalls how she first caught wind of the city’s deal: “Because I was a business owner they sent me offers to take part in the arrangement, but they forgot they were talking about my property. Of course, I wasn’t interested.”

Not only did Storm decline the offer, she rallied fellow residents and activists to launch an opposition campaign two months before the 1992 city election. In less than 60 days, community members collected a few thousand signatures protesting the supermarket proposal. The heap of petitions pushed a last-minute referendum onto the ballot, and Davis citizens voted the Raley’s plan down.

Had the plan won, bulldozers would have razed Slatter’s Court along with many of the historic homes and businesses lining Olive Drive. Attempting to make amends for their plan gone awry, the city invited community members to help them draft guidelines for future construction on Olive Drive.

“The vision for East Olive Drive, crafted by residents and merchants of that neighborhood, is to maintain the fine-grained mix of uses and small-scale character of this historic area,” states the Olive Drive Specific Plan, which was completed in 1996.

But while some residents push for the field to stay fallow, most acknowledge that the property’s development is just a matter of time.

“They can’t leave the place barren. He’s paying property taxes on weeds,” said Daniel Jacobs, who’s been fixing cars since he was 10 at his dad’s shop, J&J Auto, which faces the field.

Whatever gets built, residents say, the thing that matters most is that their input counts, such as the desire to incorporate garden space into the proposed complex.

Carol Klesow, longtime practitioner of the healing arts, said she felt offended by architect David Mogavero’s promise to “create a sense of place on Olive Drive.” Slatter’s folk have been cultivating a “sense of place” since the 1920s, she said, and the only way a new development could “foster community” would be to establish a connection with the earth-bound lifestyle already on Olive Drive.

Several Slatter’s Court residents have suggested during city meetings that garden space might provide the missing link between Slatter’s longtime minimalists and higher maintenance student neighbors.

Alvarez-Garcia swears he and Klesow started the Court’s present-day garden fever when they planted vines and flowers in a no-parking spot by their trailer. Soon enough, tomatoes and squash were sprouting all over the court, said Klesow, bringing cottagers out into the sunshine and reviving a sense of neighborhood camaraderie.

“If we want human beings who are gonna love the place they’re in, there’s nothing that’s going to do that faster than connecting with the earth,” Klesow said. “Once people connect with the earth they are gonna take care of a place, we see that here it works that way.”

Yet Yeomans’ project manager, Renner Johnston, said his research shows that prospective student residents wouldn’t have room in their busy schedules for gardening. From her own experience, Torres said she knew plenty of students searching for rooms at the campus co-operatives that specialize in gardening and sustainable living.

So she conducted a survey of UC Davis students to test Johnston’s assumptions, and found that more than 60 percent of her survey pool said they prefer quarters with garden space, even if it meant paying extra.

Klesow said the call for more garden space is not just about Olive Drive. Davis is in danger of losing its agricultural heritage. While it perpetuates an ecologically savvy reputation, Klesow said the average Davis lifestyle strays far from basic earth-conscious standards.

“We’re living in a fantasy world,” she said. “We call ourselves an ecological community and yet you go downtown on a Saturday afternoon and the garbage cans are overflowing with paper products from people eating genetically engineered corn tacos and hormone-fed meat.”

Dora Maggiolo can remember a time when farming was less about reputation and more about day-to-day life in Davis. She scoffs at the exorbitant cost of organic foods at the town’s health food stores. When her family tended their 15-acre vegetable patch, they took chemical-free grub for granted because that was all they had.

Although most of the farm has been sold off and long since covered with gas stations and burger joints, one thing that hasn’t changed is her rooted knowledge of who she is and where she belongs.

Maggiolo says she just might dig the “Not for Sale” sign out of the garage now that developers are on the move again. She knows this breed of spunk and assertion is what sustained Olive Drive through the “redevelopment” saga of 1992.

Nine years later, a different mix of residents face a different proposal from a different developer. While this time the neighborhood is not threatened by demolition, residents are challenging the builders’ claims at every turn, in what Torres has called “a defense of community rights.”

Even non-residents such as Sunny Shine, a longtime Davis artist and activist, said the field’s fate will ultimately test the city’s openness to community visions when making long-term, big-money decisions.

“Here’s a chance to not just get mired in politics and bureaucracy but to break through that and let a dream come to life,” Shine said. “Every time we don’t do that some part of the soul of the community dies and you don’t replace that.”