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St. Helena's long-time power alley: Kearney St.

By DAVID RYAN - Register Staff Writer

There are plots of soil in the Upvalley known for the way they nourish a cabernet grape, but for those who toil in the political field, the modest homes of St. Helena's Kearney Street seem to yield the most fruit. On a roughly 1,000-foot section of the street north of St. Helena Elementary School, the homes of government power brokers past and present dot the neighborhood.

Among Kearney Street's more notable residents are Congressman Mike Thompson, former county Supervisor Mel Varrelman, St. Helena City Councilman Eric Sklar, deputy district attorney Lee Philipson and Local Agency Formation Commissioner Guy Kay. That's not counting Napa Valley Wine Auction Boosters, past St. Helena mayors Lowell Smith and Louis Stralla; former resident and current Napa County Superior Court Judge Richard Bennett, fire chiefs, police officers and one forestry official -- all of whom have lived on the street over the past several decades. Kearney's public servant history even dates back to the time of horse and buggy.

While the list is lengthy, few longtime residents can name a reason that the street has been home to so many public servants for so long. "I think it's the water," joked Varrelman. "Yeah, I don't know, it's just one of those things." Many restored Victorian and Craftsman-era houses dot the east side of the street, while modern and ranch-style homes line the western side. The homes are not more or less expensive than other homes in the city, and not especially large. Thompson said his house could be 1,700 square feet, but he thought that might be stretching it.

Local Realtor Terry Wunderlich said prices in the neighborhood range from $600,000 to $1 million depending on the house, the property and other factors, but that's not an unusual price range in town. "There's not too much available in St. Helena," she said. Residents say it's a quiet street that, more than those in other St. Helena neighborhoods, is within shouting distance to some important places in town. It's two blocks from downtown restaurants and shops, the post office, police and fire stations and City Hall. It is bracketed on one side by Robert Louis Stevenson Middle School and on the other by St. Helena Elementary School.

Polly Keegan, a recent New York City transplant who runs the Adagio Inn bed and breakfast on Kearney, said she can't get enough of the quality of life there. Her neighbors are helping her carve out a window in her living quarters. "I sit on the porch all the time with my guests and have wine and cheese," she said. "I wave to everyone and everyone waves back. I mean St. Helena is very friendly." Then Keegan pauses, one more resident at a loss to explain Kearney's uniqueness. "I don't know that it's more friendly than other parts of St. Helena."

If anyone would be able to pin down the essence of the street that makes it so attractive to civic life, perhaps Thompson could. The congressman grew up on Kearney Street and lives on the same property now. His great-grandfather bought the house sometime before he died in the 1950s. "It's a great street," Thompson said, mentioning there's usually a Fourth of July block party every summer. "The neighbors are very friendly. You have the elementary school on one end and the middle school on the other end of the street, and it's not a through street." That means Kearney residents live without the frequent sound of passing cars, unlike neighboring Oak Street, which local residents use to bypass traffic backups on Main Street. One thing Kearney residents do listen to is each other's conversations. Walter Raymond, who helps his brother Roy run Raymond Vineyard & Cellar, remembers living on Kearney Street as a child. "It was fun growing up on the block, everybody knew everybody," he said. "I know for a fact that there were people who were involved in public service there and their neighbors decided to get involved or they were talked into getting involved." Himself included.

Raymond's father, Roy Raymond Sr., used to help out the local youth football league known as the Carpy Gang. Walter and his brother, Ray Raymond Jr., followed in their father's footsteps after graduating from school. Councilman Sklar thinks the familiarity that grows on the street could explain what leads residents to civic activity, but with a few caveats. "First and foremost we live in a small town, there's only so many places to live and there's a sort of coincidence to a degree," he said. "But there's a real sense of neighborliness there and obviously someone who goes into public service likes people."

Kay, who has spent more than 20 years in various public posts, said he never intended to slide down "the slippery slope" of public service. When he first moved to town in 1972, Kay bought a house on Kearney mostly because it was the only St. Helena home in his price range large enough to fit his family. He said he often stopped to talk to his neighbors, or chat with someone on their porch as he walked home. One day a local business owner talked him into being the recreation commissioner. "I asked 'What do they do?' and he said, 'Pass out balls to kids who want to play,'" Kay recalled. "Well, it wasn't that easy." In fact, there were a lot of land-use issues involved, which he talked about with his neighbor, Lowell Smith, who was at that time the mayor of St. Helena. Pretty soon, Kay found himself appointed to the city planning commission. One thing led to another. Kay later served on the city council, spent six years on the county planning commission and became the public member of LAFCO, a post he's held for almost a decade. He also ran for county supervisor in 2002. "I did say it was a slippery slope," he said. And it seems Kearney Street residents have been sliding down it from the early days of Napa County's history, or at least have had it in the family.

Varrelman discovered a surprise when he found out about the history of his Victorian home. "The woman who used to live there back 125 years ago, her father was elected to the Board of Supervisors, which kind of tweaked my mind. You would have to hop in a buggy and ride all day to Napa (to attend meetings)."

Whatever the neighborhoods' history of civic service production, Kay said there was no magic to the neighborhood. "I don't think you can just pour water on Kearney Street and make another politician."

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