Small town spirit;
Ecological and agricultural bounty and beauty;
Rich cultural tapestry
Willits, population 4,872, sits in the heart of Mendocino County, California at the intersection of oak and redwood, coastal fog and valley heat. This is outer boundary of the far West, where the pursuit of individual opportunity, the Western creative and industrial spirit, and a hearty sense of frontier-like self-reliance continue to define the culture and people, who today come from very diverse backgrounds but are united by a sense of individualism and interconnected destinies.
Nestled in the Little Lake Valley, at an elevation of 1,391 feet above sea level, 20 miles from the Pacific Ocean, 129 miles North of San Francisco, the weather here is temperate and amenable to agriculture and farming, with summer highs in the 80s and 90s and winter lows hovering around freezing. The town sees about 60 to 90 days of precipitation annually, with a few days of light snowfall each year.
For thousands of years, the valley was home to a tribe of Pomo Indians. White settlers, including Hiram Willits, arrived in the 1850s, seeking gold, agricultural land, and the coveted redwood tree. The railroad came through soon thereafter, and a strong logging industry was born. Highway 101 soon bifurcated the town, establishing Willits as a “last stop” for travelers before the road winds into the deep redwoods and up towards Eureka and the northern reaches of California. The logging boom proved temporary, however, and has been in decline since the end of the 20th century.
According to the 2010 US census, the population is 65% White, 20% Latino, 5% African American, 2% Native American, and 15% other races and/or two or more races. 26% of the population of Willits is under the age of 18; 25% is between 25-55; 26% is between 45-64; and 14% are over the age of 65. The per capita income is about $17,000 a year; the average household income is about $38,000 a year. About 20% of the population lives below the poverty line. The nearby area around has a total population of about 10,000, including the families living inside the 3 square miles of town itself. The neighboring community of Brooktrails lies just north, up Sherwood Road, a subdivision of 1,000 homes built in the 1960s and originally conceptualized as vacation homes for the wealthy from around the Pacific and abroad.
Brooktrails and Willits, just like so many other Mendocino and neighboring county communities, remain in a period of economic challenge and transition. The region has been struggling for decades to reimagine itself in a post-industrial era and establish a strong and sustainable economic base for the future.
There is no doubt, however: people love living here. The innovative and resilient spirit of the west remains palpable everywhere you turn: the trees stand tall, the air is clear. A local bond program has rebuilt the schools and community college campus and installed solar panels at each school site. Local, forward-thinking efforts, such as sustainable agriculture, solar energy, health care, and small businesses provide encouraging—if still emerging—opportunities for future localization and productive community development. Culture is everywhere. In Willits, the local movie theater plays first run movies and interesting documentaries. There are galleries, small shops, performances. The local farmer’s market is a weekly magnet for the community. The Grange runs a radio station and is home to many other projects focused on economic localization. The Episcopal Church on Main Street was recently rebuilt through the creative and sustainable technique of hay bale construction. Community celebrations like Frontier Days, the Hometown Celebration, and the Kenetic Carnivale draw thousands of visitors every year.
Artists continue to be inspired by to the beauty, ruggedness, and human scale of the environment. Without a doubt, there is a future here—but it needs to be reimagined and sustained to meet the challenges of a new economy, our new society.
Remembering the past, reflecting the present, and re-imagining the future through creativity, connection, and community, is the promise of the North Street Collective.