Benicia can provide future generations with what they need to thrive – without losing its identity
By Ashton Lyle, June 28, 2023
My cousin just graduated in her small town, complete with a ceremony reminiscent of my own experience at Benicia High School. Her school, with only 63 graduates, exists firmly outside the suburban identity of Benicia – but all the same, as I watched these newly minted young adults striding confidently across the gymnasium floor, I was left considering the shared nature of our small-town identity.
A small town’s character is bound up in its most community-minded individuals, the folks who organize around important collective desires. Whether in California or not, these leaders tend to be parents, motivated by the intense desire to provide opportunities for their children. Such is the case in Benicia, a town whose identity is deeply tied to the high quality of education provided to its children.
Education is why my parents moved to Benicia, bringing me to my new home in the golden hills for the first time as a five-year-old. This is a common experience amongst young families in Benicia, who are making sacrifices of all types to find homes and enroll their children into the regionally acclaimed schools. This intense drive to provide for children’s success is admirable.
Quality primary education naturally leads to higher education, and in America, university-level instruction often takes one away from one’s hometown. Meaning that for me and many other young people raised here, the reason why I arrived in Benicia became the reason I left. Like many others across the region, this city is designed to send its children away.
This is the story of my upbringing and of many others in the community. Even after I finished my education and returned to the Bay Area, I did not come home. Why was that, and what does it say about the continuity of Benicia’s community?
First, leaving one’s hometown is a privilege not guaranteed by growing up with access to good schools. Many of my classmates have not left their own hometowns, largely for economic reasons, a common experience as between 30% and 50% of young people live with their parents. There is a vicious cycle of stagnation everywhere in America, epitomized by the inability to afford the move to better opportunities, which is difficult to leave behind without generational wealth.
Of course, choosing to continue living in one’s hometown as a young person is a perfectly acceptable choice, especially because Benicia and its surrounding communities have many positive aspects. In addition to the incredible weather, culture, and people, the Bay Area is also notable for its jobs, a consideration that is especially important for young people looking to build financial independence. Even better, these jobs are the type of employment that allows for a future unburdened by concerns about making rent and servicing debt.
Benicia can evolve to keep its young people while still providing them with the economic possibilities they need to thrive. The town will never be for everyone; some will always be drawn to the big city, and others to rural tranquility. However, I know many of Benicia’s parents want to keep their children close, and it’s worth considering what policy choices could help keep families and the broader community together over the long term.
Where Benicia falls short in comparison to its neighbors is its ability to offer the same opportunities – in business, leisure, and otherwise – which allow for easy connection to other early-career workers. The problem facing current residents is how to provide essential social and economic possibilities for young people while maintaining Benicia’s identity.
This intersects in complex ways with the rise of remote work. As office work has become less frequent for many in the professional class since COVID, the value of housing has risen in the areas surrounding major cities, including Benicia. While I believe we need to increase the town’s housing stock, it is also true that in order to compete for the attention of young people looking to make a home within neighboring towns, Benicia must work to maximize what makes it so special.
I see two main areas that would provide increased opportunities for young adults while improving the city’s livability. One is Benicia’s connection and ease of transit to neighboring cities that provide services and experiences incompatible with the nature of small-town life. For example, Vallejo contains many shops and amenities from a movie theatre to big-box retailers that are currently infeasible or out of step with the size of Benicia. This means transit connections should continue to be built out, for example, by further exploring the potential for a 9th St. ferry, building increased bus connections, and allocating funds to better maintain our roads.
The other avenue would be to double down on what makes Benicia great to begin with – our downtown. The walkable, mixed-used character of downtown, with its intoxicating mix of neighborliness, town events, art galleries, and small businesses, draws visitors and residents alike to the area. The city is looking into expanding mixed-used zoning to areas like the Eastern Gateway, an amendment that I am happy to see passed, as it not only invites the business and social spaces which attract young people but will also expand our tax base. These sustainable developments, which could expand eventually to include the Raley’s and Safeway shopping centers, build on Benicia’s historic character while providing more opportunities for business and community growth.
These new additions can continue the tradition of Benicia’s small-business-focused downtown, while also being free to experiment with new types of buildings and businesses which are better suited to the contemporary remote work city. Co-working spaces, formal and otherwise, would bring people to the Eastern Gateway, incentivizing more services within the new “midtown,” providing an alternative focal point to 1st Street. This would help alleviate some of the parking issues facing Benicia’s downtown, however, the development is also only a short drive away, meaning workers drawn to the area would still be likely to patronize existing businesses and keep the community thriving. By providing additional locations for remote work and social gatherings in town, these new areas incentivize young workers to spend their time in and amongst the community, making our town more engaging for both current and future residents.
The last few years have signaled the start of a new status quo in the nature of small-town life, both built by and increasingly unbound from the concept of a traditional California suburb. Planning a Benicia better suited for the age of remote work and open to increased social and business opportunities is the key to providing a lifetime of opportunities for its children and residents of all ages, allowing the community to stay and grow together.
Author’s Note: In the spirit of full transparency, I am related to the recently appointed Planning Commissioner for the City of Benicia. That said, the opinions expressed in this piece are fully my own, they were not unduly influenced by our relationship, and should not be taken to represent his or anyone else’s opinion.
MORE FROM ASHTON LYLE:
- ASHTON LYLE: BENICIA CAN BALANCE BIG OIL (AND OUR BUDGET) | June 7, 2023
- BUSD ELECTION – USE DISAPPOINTMENT AS MOTIVATION | April 27 2023