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Jim Hemig: A Tale of Two Cities

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…” – A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Many years ago, before becoming publisher, I visited The Union’s office for a few days to work on a newspaper project. The first night after work I sat in the back of an employee’s car as we left The Union’s Glenbrook Basin office. Quickly we ended up on the highway, proceeded to downtown in minutes and ate at Cirino’s at Main Street. The next evening we got on the freeway and ended up downtown at Friar Tuck’s.

I remember the looks on The Union’s staffers’ faces when I mentioned I liked this town with these two good restaurants.



I don’t recall who said it, but someone politely explained we were in a different downtown from the night before.

We love our two cities. For better or worse. The important thing is we benefit from having a choice. Two similar towns. Two different personalities. Two different themes.

I’ll confess, from an outsider’s perspective, downtown Nevada City and downtown Grass Valley didn’t seem any different to me. Both are historic mining towns. Both have nice little shops, bars and restaurants. Both have gentle sloping hills, scarce parking and old sidewalks to contend with.




At the time, I could hardly tell the difference. But say this to locals and you’ll get an earful about which town is cleaner, prettier, more popular, better governed, more progressive, more conservative or just plain more fun.

Such is life in a small town with another small town only a couple miles down the road. I’m sure as you’re reading this, you’re thinking which is your favorite, which is “your” town.

Being a relative newcomer, I like both Grass Valley and Nevada City equally. Both have what I want from a small historic downtown. Old hotels, check — The National and The Holbrooke are fascinating to explore and read up on. Wine tasting, check — Smith, Lucchesi, Sierra Starr and Avanguardia in Grass Valley; and Nevada City, Clavey and Szabo in Nevada City. All produce excellent wines and have great customer service. Art, entertainment, shops and restaurants, check. Too many to mention, and that’s the way I like it.

So I enjoy them both. However, like the book, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, our community is all about twos. In our case; two cities, two governments, two chambers of commerce, two police departments and, in some cases, two separate lifestyles, which I’d like to suggest creates two different themes.

I had an opportunity this week to witness these themes while touring both downtowns across two evenings, just as I did years ago. This time I wanted to see the impact of the rumored “trimming season.”

Tuesday night I walked downtown Grass Valley with Lt. Alex Gammelgard and Wednesday night I was in downtown Nevada City with Officer Shane Franssen. Both police officers provided an experienced look at the activities this time of year. Both were very upfront, honest and free with information.

Gammelgard and I walked Mill and Main streets in Grass Valley just after dark. Restaurants were rather busy for a Tuesday night with families, some with very young children, happily conversing over an evening meal. Traffic around town was moderate with the occasional couple, family or small group walking from restaurant to parked car. I wish I could say they were shopping, but all the stores were long closed. This sleepy downtown had some activity, but all the signs showed it wouldn’t last for more than an hour or two. Only the bars would have patrons later into the night. What was obvious during this evening in Grass Valley was that everyone appeared happy. Happy to be dining, talking or walking about. The evening had a pleasant, safe and joyous vibe.

We did see two cop cars on our short walk. Police coverage downtown was present and noticeable. I asked Cpl. Colin Nelson, wrapping up a traffic stop, if this time of year has any increase or differences in calls for service. He mentioned a slight increase but mostly shared the influx of out-of-state license plates he’s seen. After that, Gammelgard and I started counting out-of-state license plates, but didn’t see too many.

Other than one obviously homeless guy, with sleeping bag and backpack, and a couple younger guys making a beeline to the Nevada Club, it was a typically pleasant evening in downtown Grass Valley. I didn’t even see anyone breaking the no-smoking ordinance.

The next night I walked Nevada City with Franssen at just about the same time in the evening. Franssen specializes in Nevada City downtown activities focusing primarily on homelessness and seasonal marijuana issues. Nevada City after dark is definitely a different place than Grass Valley. The mix of mature adult couples and younger groups was instantly noticeable. Some of the same types of people from Grass Valley were present. But the additional younger folks were the difference.

Walking in downtown Nevada City, we met some younger people from around the world. One polite young couple told me they were from Latvia. Franssen backed this up with stories of the world travelers he’s met. We also noticed vehicles packed to the windows with clothes and belongings. Young folks were hanging out, sitting on sidewalks listening to live music played from a second floor apartment deck above the street.

Franssen said calls for service haven’t really increased due to the cannabis season. However, this international trimming crew doesn’t know about our smoking or town camping ordinances. This Nevada County officer explained a large part of what he does is educate the incoming group about our rules and regulations. He said most are willing to comply once they know. Sure, there are some bad apples, Franssen explained, but most of those folks are not from other countries or even other states. Most of the bad apples he’s seen have been from Southern California, some with previous records or warrants.

It didn’t take much to see the difference in people and activities in Nevada City. Considerably more people were hanging out there than in Grass Valley during the same timeframe. The age was definitely younger, people smoked in no-smoking areas and tie-dye and dreadlocks were apparent. Just like in Grass Valley, the Nevada City police officers were present and visual around town.

I have to ask though, does this seasonal pot culture make Nevada City “bad?” Walking around that night, like I did years ago, I noticed everyone was happy and peaceful, another joyful vibe. Different, but I’d still say joyful.

So what is bad for our community? If you look at it strictly from an economic standpoint, Nevada City is likely making more money than Grass Valley after, say, 8 p.m. The people coming from all over the world to harvest pot would likely call our fall harvest a “season of light,” while others looking at it would only mention the “darkness” it brings.

Some folks I talk to believe this culture is killing Nevada City. Some are even glad Grass Valley isn’t like Nevada City. But others say Grass Valley would benefit from more of a “night life,” like Nevada City. From different perspectives, both towns can be viewed as the best of times or the worst of times. I hear Grass Valley is aging, slow and will ultimately fail. Conversely, I hear it is a great place for a nice quiet evening and provides an oasis from Sacramento and the Bay Area, and the area will succeed. I’ve heard some say Nevada City is full of law breakers, homeless and lazy people while others praise it as a great place to express your individuality, explore your freedoms and be “off the grid” a bit.

But what do the numbers show? Gammelgard sent me a report that shows very little difference in calls for service for drugs or theft this time of year compared to other months, both in Grass Valley and Nevada City. And these numbers are relatively low regardless — for example, only five service calls for drugs in Nevada City for September 2015. (See this report at TheUnion.com.) Not what most people would guess for the “law breakers” during the trimming season.

These two town’s themes don’t seem connected at first. But below the surface of these extremes are people just looking for quality of life. I’ve lived in places far worse with more stressful things to worry about. People in both of these cities are just looking to be happy and enjoy the wonders we have in western Nevada County, whether that’s a glass of wine and dinner on Mill Street or a late coffee, a little cannabis, and music on Commercial Street.

A Tale of Two Cities isn’t just about the French Revolution. It is really about the need for a revolution or a transformation in every man’s heart. And in the real world sometimes revolution happens through violence, but sometimes revolution can be created through love.

We love our two cities. For better or worse. The important thing is we benefit from having a choice. Two similar towns. Two different personalities. Two different themes. Wouldn’t you prefer to have a choice? Which do you prefer? Which is “your” town?

To contact Publisher Jim Hemig, email jhemig@theunion.com or call 530-477-4299.


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