Why is Walnut Creek the best-dressed place in the Bay Area?

To emerge on the other side, all it takes is going through the Caldecott Tunnel.

Heading east out of Oakland, you pass through the tunnel, over the rolling hills of Orinda and Lafayette and arrive in Walnut Creek. Here there is not a single Uniqlo puffer in sight. Instead, manicured women in Tory Burch dresses and well-preserved men in pastel Lacoste button-ups dot the town square, making tremendous effort on what seems like just an ordinary Friday afternoon. Whole families look like they’ve stepped out of a Draper James campaign. Matching bags and shoes, without a shade of irony. Coiffed hair and nails to match. In Walnut Creek, dressing to impress is the local currency.

When I moved to the Bay Area about seven years ago, someone well-meaning advised me to buy real estate in Walnut Creek. They advertised it as the perfect place to start a family, but it was already too late for real estate moves, and the promised land seemed too far from San Francisco.

I did, however, go to Walnut Creek to shop. I perused an entire floor of discounted items at a gloriously huge Anthropologie, searched out cheap Zara thrills across two levels and strolled through quiet, neat boutiques like Lou Grey and Aritzia. Walnut Creek, you see, is home to Broadway Plaza, an incredible open-air mall, which, unlike San Francisco’s Westfield or Stonestown Galleria, is actually fun to walk around in. It was then, on those shopping trips, that the realization started creeping in: Everyone in Walnut Creek was extremely dressed up.

San Francisco circa 2013 was deep in its Everlane phase — neutrals, denim and utility ruled. (Once, at San Francisco Opera, I was greeted by multiple sightings of North Face vests and hiking boots.) Today, San Francisco fashionistas have opened up to color and feminine silhouettes, but practicality and comfort still dominate. Compared to that, or to Berkeley’s year-long tie-dye festival, Walnut Creek seems like New York’s Upper East Side with a hint of Pleasantville. With its preppy, polished style, the wealthy suburb is 23 miles — and light-years — away.

“Oakland and Berkeley are laid-back and ‘crunchy’; granola-y, casual, eco-friendly, eclectic,” says Erin Alison, a recent Walnut Creek transplant. “It seems like people dress more for practicality than presentation.”

Alison, an e-commerce consultant, moved to Walnut Creek with her family from Emeryville a year ago, in pursuit of “more space and better-rated schools.” In her new ZIP code, she says, “people try to look very presentable all the time. You can tell they take pride in their appearance and maybe even want to show off. People overdress more often than underdress.”

But why?

 Why is Walnut Creek the best dressed place in the Bay Area?

An easy and crucial answer is affluence. According to historian Sheila Rogstad from the Walnut Creek Historical Society, in the late 1800s, the area served as a vacation destination for wealthy San Francisco lawyers and bankers, who’d often buy a ranch or a vineyard and move there in retirement. To this day, its population is older than San Francisco’s and nearby East Bay hubs: 29% of Walnut Creek citizens are 65 and up, compared with 15% in San Francisco and Berkeley and 13% in Oakland.

In recent years, before becoming unaffordable, Walnut Creek was one of the places San Francisco tech families escaped to, resulting in a 2005 Diablo Magazine article declaring a housing boom and prompt price increase. The same story called Walnut Creek an “increasingly stylish” spot. These days, according to the U.S Census Bureau, the median household income in Walnut Creek is $86,845, lower than San Francisco, but well above both Oakland and Berkeley.

But money alone can’t explain Walnut Creek’s dressed-up tendencies. After all, San Francisco — where the median income is $96,265 and the median home price hovers above $900,000 — is still a place where the new Allbirds store is packed with shoppers, while sophisticated multibrand boutiques like Unionmade and Pia are closing.

Perhaps it’s also Walnut Creek’s warmer, fog-free weather that allows for significant sartorial freedom, or the city’s safe distance from the never-try-too-hard standards of San Francisco’s It-crowd. (In Walnut Creek, it seems, trying hard is the norm.) Then there’s my own secret theory: a large Russian population. As someone who was born in Russia, let me tell you — many stereotypes might be wrong, but we do love dressing to the nines.

But the best explanation for Walnut Creek’s stylish culture is the high-end shopping center that anchors downtown.

 Why is Walnut Creek the best dressed place in the Bay Area?

In the 1950s, a major population boom in Walnut Creek coincided with the opening of Broadway Shopping Plaza, the open-air mall that serves as the town square to this day. It’s the city’s beating heart and an asset the local municipality takes very seriously.

In 2016, the center underwent a massive renovation and expansion, costing developers Macerich $250 million dollars, according to the Mercury News.

With over 50 stores and eateries, Broadway Plaza’s retail-dotted promenade is akin to the Grove in Los Angeles. Classic department stores like Macy’s, Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus mingle with Madewell and HM, while Peloton and Tesla have their own storefronts. Soft music pours from the speakers, mixing with the sound of water gurgling in the fountains, while moms with Gwyneth Paltrow hair push strollers. This is a place of leisure, not errands, a place to see and be seen.

“It’s a small suburban town, and chances are, if you go to the plaza you’ll run into people you know,” says Emma Krasov, a lifestyle reporter who has contributed to Walnut Creek Magazine. “You want to look good when you do.”

It’s no wonder that when Danetha Doe, an Emeryville financial journalist, planned an events arm for her finance-centered social club, Money and Mimosas, she named it Walnut Creek Socialites and based it there.

Hosting charitable and educational events, the open-invitation group takes the local affinity for standing out and capitalizes on it. About 60% of the socialites are Walnut Creek residents; the rest travel from around the Bay Area to attend, decked out in seasonal styles.

 Why is Walnut Creek the best dressed place in the Bay Area?

“People don’t expect to see dressed-up style in a suburban city,” Doe says of Walnut Creek’s fashion focus, “so you do get surprised.”

Doe chose the Contra Costa city for her group because she “was looking for a place that combines fitness, fashion and financial education. The energy of Walnut Creek is very magical. When women walk around Broadway Plaza in the middle of Tuesday afternoon, or dress up for Whole Foods, they live every moment fully. They’re really present.”

Or, as Alison puts it, “There’s money out here; there’s also a lot of stay at home moms, which creates a ‘Real Housewives’ culture.”

With its distinctive style and demeanor, Walnut Creek is the Bay Area outsider that, once exposed to its world, you can’t quite shake. You may find yourself infatuated or occasionally roll your eyes, but on foggy summer days, when San Franciscans stride about in their down coats and fleeces, I still cross the tunnel just to gaze at the unapologetically dressy denizens of Walnut Creek. It’s an act of self-care, of preserving my sanity. I may never be able to afford a house there (nor do I really want to), but basking in the fashionable effort of Walnut Creek’s residents is strangely agreeable — and free.

Flora Tsapovsky is a Bay Area freelance writer. Email culture@sfchronicle.com

Article source: https://www.sfchronicle.com/culture/article/Why-is-Walnut-Creek-the-best-dressed-spot-in-the-14812189.php

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