February 23, 2024

Sonoma has made headlines as a tourist destination and locals say inclusivity, history add to town’s charm

4 min read
Sonoma has made headlines as a tourist destination and locals say inclusivity, history add to town’s charm

The city celebrates local citizens with special honors each year: the Treasure Artist, Honorary Alcalde and Student Creative Artist Award recognize the talents and contributions of community members. The Celebrate Sonoma program honors community members who make up the fabric of Sonoma. Roger Rhoten, longtime manager of the historic Sebastiani Theatre, is the latest resident with a day designated in his honor by the city council. Roger and Diana Rhoten, for decades affiliated with the historic Sebastiani Theatre, are the latest residents with a day designated in their honor by the City Council.

Residents also encourage citizen-to-citizen diplomacy through the Sonoma Sister Cities Association. The community has sister cities in France, Italy, Egypt, Hungary, China, Ukraine and Mexico – more than any other city in the county.

“We don’t have a place, we don’t have an office,” said Diana Short, association president and chair of its Greve in Chianti (in Italy) committee. “We’re one of the best-kept secrets in Sonoma. But when something happens, we are there to help our sister cities.”

Just two days after Russia invaded Ukraine, the association sprang to action collecting donations for its sister city of Kaniv. To date, through donations, a movie screening and a dinner, the association has raised $90,000 for Kaniv. The monies have gone to humanitarian efforts, body armor and the construction of bomb shelters at three elementary schools.

“Our community is so gracious,” Short said, noting the fundraising dinner sold out both seatings before it was advertised.

Inclusivity is a town priority

First-generation immigrant Jack Ding serves as Sonoma’s mayor and he was the first Chinese-American on the city council. He is a member of the Penglai sister city committee that is working to build a Chinese pavilion, or ting, in a local park to honor the Chinese laborers who played a significant role in establishing the region’s wine industry in the mid-19th century.

While the city’s population isn’t particularly diverse – the majority of residents are White, with about 18% Latino/Hispanic – the community has “lots of cultural experiences” and welcomes people from throughout the world, Short said. “When you go down to the (Sonoma) plaza, you hear all different languages being spoken.”

Sonoma Community Center Executive Director Charlotte Hajer said in an email that the town “really cares about being welcoming to minorities, including BIPOC and LGBTQ+ folks.”

The center does outreach with the Latino community and others who traditionally haven’t interacted with the center. The organization has hired bilingual staff and now offers a sliding scale fee system for classes to encourage inclusivity. It also runs programs specifically intended for LGBTQ+ teens and allies.

Local nonprofits, Hajer noted, are working hard to address systemic inequities like the high cost of housing in Sonoma Valley and general wealth inequality.

The community center, located in an historic former schoolhouse a few blocks from the Sonoma Plaza, offers a wide range of classes, workshops, programs and cultural events to foster community engagement. The center’s Andrews Hall is home to Sonoma Arts Live stage productions and other special events.

Activities, groups to join

Although local teens reportedly long ago dubbed the town “Slow-noma,” there are plenty of things to see and do in this small town encompassing 2.74 square miles. The pace is just laid back.

Sebastiani Theatre on the plaza hosts live music and theatrical performances and screens new releases and vintage films. The beloved movie house, with its grand neon marquee, has been a cultural gem since it opened in 1934.

Sonoma has two community newspapers, a radio station and a public-access television station. Longtime musical organizations include Sonoma Valley Chorale, Sonoma Valley Jazz Society and the Sonoma Hometown Band, the oldest local band in the county. Readers’ Books, a small independent bookstore, hosts book launches and author events. The Sonoma Speaker Series brings politicians, newsmakers and inspirational speakers for civic engagement and community education.

During the summer, locals head to Arnold Field for Sonoma Stompers collegiate league baseball games. A new, long-anticipated public swimming complex opens in early October at the local high school. There are city bike paths, Montini Open Space Preserve, the Sonoma Overlook Trail and several parks to explore, including 375-acre Bartholomew Park, a protected space with vineyards, gardens and hiking trails.

Those who enjoy the Sonoma Plaza can thank, in part, the founders of the Sonoma Valley Woman’s Club, who long ago raised money and rallied for plaza improvements. When the club was founded in 1901, the downtown square was considered unsightly.

Many locals can’t imagine living elsewhere.

Bauer, the retired teacher, has deep roots in the community. Her relatives operated the historic Union Hotel, now gone, and the venerable Steiners Tavern, which first was located within the hotel. Her father’s cousin, Mathew Andrieux, was one of several local World War II soldiers lost in combat for whom residential streets were named many decades ago.

“It’s a little bit slower pace than being down in the Bay Area,” Bauer said of her hometown. But whenever she leaves, she’s always happy to return. “There’s something about Sonoma that draws me back,” she said. “It’s a good place.”