Tahoe residents sticking together
August 29, 2005
South Lake Tahoe may have learned a thing or two from Antarctica with respect to creating cohesive neighborhoods.
“March of the Penguins,” a French-turned-National Geographic documentary, highlights the remaining inhabitants of the desolate region – the birds that discovered as a matter of survival they must rely on each other.
The emperor penguins have walked great distances to a breeding ground where they huddle to stay warm in one of the harshest climates on Earth. The tribe comes to the rescue on several occasions.
That same helping hand is seen throughout the close-knit neighborhoods of Tahoe’s South Shore. The three featured here in the Tahoe Daily Tribune are actually streets that represent a microcosm of life in the Ski Run, Bonanza and Tahoe Island areas.
Despite stagnant wages amid rising property values that price people out of the market, the residents who are left watch each other’s backs in extraordinary ways.
“Wolves react the same way. There’s always strength in numbers,” said South Lake Tahoe Mayor Kathay Lovell. “We have to stick together.”
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Lovell has seen her own neighborhood change dramatically in the last five years. Out of 17 homes on her Tahoe Keys street, hers is one of three owned by a full-time resident. She and her husband, El Dorado County sheriff’s Lt. Les Lovell, check on vacant properties. And they make a point of getting to know their neighbors.
“They are our neighbors. They just don’t live here,” she said. “If we want to have a good neighborhood, we need to extend a welcome. We’re all in this together.”
Some second homeowners will ask her where they may want to invest in another Tahoe home. She affectionately remembers the close-knit group near the first home the couple bought in 1983 on Big Pine Avenue, one of three neighborhoods featured in this package.
In the evolving community, Lovell has noticed one particular trend.
“What really strikes me is I don’t see many children anymore,” she said.
With more than 70 percent of the homeowners listed as investors or out-of-towners in a 2005 report by El Dorado County, personal contact is critical to the future of the town, Lake Tahoe Community College sociology instructor Scott Lukas pointed out.
Lukas has seen an emerging trend: The town increasingly caters to tourists, whether locals are consciously left out of the mix or not. It’s considered the nature of the beast in a tourism town. The argument is: Support the tourists who have the money to spend and you support the locals who work in the tourism-driven economy, he said.
One need only look east to see South Lake Tahoe’s last major expense – a $250 million redevelopment project that’s anchored by two Marriott time shares off Heavenly Village Way.
“Our attractions support a higher socio-economic class. When people don’t fall into that class, they’re not as connected,” Lukas said. “It’s not enough to support the economy. We need the political and spiritual. The concern is, if we keep ignoring those aspects of life in Tahoe, the community, as we know it, may go away.”
Lukas is exploring the quantity vs. quality of social interactions in an LTCC class this quarter that’s based on the Zygmunt Bauman book, “Liquid Love: On the Frailty of Human Bonds.”
“In the past, we had our immediate family as the basis of our relationships. Today, we moved toward valuing the quantity (of relationships),” he said.
No civic or business leaders in South Lake Tahoe would venture a guess as to where the evolution of this community might lead, except that most believe it will remain a transient community.
“It will always be transient – especially in a casino market,” Lovell said.
And it may become harder to keep the growing number of Tahoe’s low-income and shrinking middle class housed here. Supply and demand seem to drive up the cost of property. Those values have increased at a steady pace of 18 percent to 22 percent per year over the last six years. Rentals are no different. July’s median price for a single family home came in at $430,000. The average rent went up 25 percent between 1990 and 2000 – from $512 to $642, according to the U.S. Census. The next Census report is due out in 2010.
Real estate agents expect the market will remain on an upward slant. Then again, agents have found the people who can afford to buy don’t necessarily move here for the sense of community unless they’re planning to retire here. In particular, Cheryl Murakami of Re/Max said she’s not hearing many of those requests.
“Every single person I’ve had asks about the recreation. ‘Am I close to Angora Lakes?’ ‘How close am I to the beach?'” she said. “No one asks about the sense of community. These second homeowners come here to escape. They want to relax. They don’t ask about the sense of community.”
The dynamic translates into declining school enrollment and low civic participation including difficulty in filling seats on city commissions every year. The pool of people to tap into has shrunk as people have moved away. But there are bright spots in the community when the effort goes into outreach and improvements.
“We do see little hubs where there are vibrant little communities. Definitely in commercial – Ski Run is only the tip of the iceberg,” said Realtor Deb Howard, who serves on the Tahoe Valley Community Plan team. The group is creating a new design for the “Y” area.
And to the residents who live on that side of town; money isn’t everything.
“I feel the value of my property is in direct relationship to the value of my neighborhood. I couldn’t buy this. This is priceless,” Ted Wendell said, while glancing at his Tata Lane neighbors gathered around a firepit Lyell Evans built for them. Evans’ expansive back yard has become a cornerstone for gathering on Tata Lane.