The first time I ever saw Brentwood, California was on a Saturday morning in late June 2015. I was informed by a sign on Highway 4 that, should I wish to visit downtown Brentwood, I should take the next exit. Said next exit was Sand Creek Road, which turned out to be a spiffy boulevard with landscaped medians and sidewalk strips.
Me being me, one of the first things I noticed was how clean Sand Creek Road was. Debris was at a bare minimum along the medians and sidewalk strips. The grass along the road was mowed, edged, and without weeds or bare patches. The roadway itself was new and smooth. The traffic lights all had sensors and so didn’t just go cranking through their cycles, but adjusted themselves to traffic needs.
I was intrigued, even more so after I reached a major north-south thoroughfare, Fairview Avenue, and decided to make a right turn. Here was another four-lane boulevard with a tree-lined median and gorgeously landscaped sidewalk strips, all of it immaculately clean. I mean, really really clean. I went several blocks without seeing so much as a wadded kleenex beside the road or wedged in the shrubbery. Another big street loomed: Central Boulevard. I coasted on Central for a while; the pavement wasn’t quite as smooth as Fairview but everything was just as clean as it could be, and the landscaping was gorgeous.
I progressed from being intrigued to being a bit enchanted. By the time noon had rolled around I had seen a lot of Brentwood and was having lunch in the charming downtown. By late afternoon as I headed back west towards San Francisco I was certain that Brentwood was going to be my home in the very near future.
And it was.
Upon further exploration, I discovered Brentwood’s extensive park system. There is about one park per 1000 residents. Amazing. Brentwood has gone the suburban route of creating numerous smaller parks that serve their specific neighborhoods, spearheaded by a few larger showcase parks. Since it’s a small city of 60,000 people nothing is all that far away, so one has a wide variety of landscapes and facilities within easy reach. Some parks offer basketball courts, others baseball fields, others swimming pools, others bocce ball courts, others skateboard parks, and the like. There’s something for everybody, including parks that are glorious expanses of grass, trees, shrubbery, and flowers, and nothing else beyond a playground, picnic facilities, and water fountains.
But here’s the thing: they’re all pristine, every one of them. They’re all perfectly maintained. They’re all so clean that a kid’s candy wrapper by the side of the path sticks out like a sore thumb. The grass is mowed, edged, weeded, aerated, and emerald green. The shrubbery is trimmed. Fallen leaves don’t stay fallen for long. The water fountains are shiny, and they work.The trees are healthy. The playgrounds are modern, sturdy, and imaginative—man, I wish there was stuff like that when I was a kid—as are the paths and trails.
To make that happen requires a goodly crew of landscapers and gardeners, and they’re always busy taking care of everything, including those street medians and curb strips. They’re invariably friendly and, as far as I can tell, take justified pride in the quality of Brentwood’s public spaces.
But there’s another reason everything is so spiffy: Brentwood folks really care about the city and its public places. Even after big festivals or holidays the parks here are clean, and I think that’s because they just don’t get very messy in the first place. People here are great about picking up their stuff, including dog poop—and every park and trail has dispensers with free plastic poop bags. Folks use the trash cans. They don’t do anything mysterious and gross with the water fountains. And if anything seems a bit out of place, a heads-up to parks & rec—they even have an iPhone app for that—gets quick results.
Which leads me to think about demographic differences. San Francisco sports spectacular and gigantic parks, but they’re regularly overwhelmed by slovenly users. I’m not even counting the depredations of the pervasive vagrants, druggies, and transients who have so diminished an already marginal quality of life; I’m just thinking about the mess everyday people tend to make in their city parks. (Vide Dolores Park after a sunny warm Sunday.) Nor are they particularly responsible about the streets, parking lots, and the sidewalks.
So why is this? In my opinion, it has to do with the uprooted nature of so many San Francisco residents. They are renters, not owners, people who may live in SF for a while but don’t plan to stay. There aren’t many kids. It’s not a city for families. The people who abuse the parks aren’t vagrants as a rule; they’re residents—at least for the interim between college and marriage/kids—joined by out-of-towners who come into SF for a night on the town or a Sunday bash. San Francisco just isn’t a place where people come to settle, to stay, to raise a family. They have no skin in the game, so if the parks are dirty and/or dangerous, if the roads are full of potholes and lined with blowing trash, if the sidewalks are next to impassable due to dirt and excretion and tents and crowds, it doesn’t really matter. Not their problem.
But Brentwood is a small city inhabited almost entirely by homeowners; renters make up a minuscule percentage. There aren’t even very many condos; it’s almost all single-family detached houses. The people of Brentwood have a lot of skin in the game—they bought, which means they came to stay. They came here to raise their families, or they came here to retire, in a safe and clean environment. The schools are first-rate. The city is filled with big houses on big tree-lined streets, and home builders are industriously adding more new homes in immaculately landscaped new neighborhoods. Brentwood real estate is relatively inexpensive compared to the inner Bay Area, but by just about everybody else’s standards the property prices are sky-high. Settling here is a big commitment, and not just because of the real estate prices—there’s the whopping commute to the inner Bay Area to consider as well. And that line item concerning park and public maintenance on one’s yearly property tax bill serves as a potent reminder that all this order, all this pristine landscaping, all this well-maintained everything, comes at a price. And it’s property owners, not businesses, that pay most of the bills.
Homeowners. Landowners. Families. Retirees. Small businesses that depend on the goodwill of those homeowners, landowners, families, and retirees.
So of course everything is tidy and shipshape. It’s in everybody’s vital interest that it be so.