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April 8, 2009 > Book Review: Niles is Here, not There

Book Review: Niles is Here, not There

Submitted By Matt Hayden

The notion of spirit of place is one of America's cultural obsessions. From William Bradford's aspirations to make Boston a "shining cittie on a hill" to Gertrude Stein's "There's no there there" about her native Oakland, Americans have been seized by the sense that the land is alive, that it has what Emerson called "the Genius of place," a spirit animating particular landscapes.

Paul Welchmeyer's new book, Niles is Here, not There, is profoundly important because it dares to evoke the spirit of place of Fremont's Niles District, painting a picture of a small community with a rich history and great promise. Residents of Fremont may know Niles as a place of too many bars and bikers or as a concentration of antique stores. Neither perception, however, captures the essence of this small district.

Nestled in the mouth of a canyon in the East Bay Hills, Niles started out as a junction - literally a crossroads where the Central Pacific Railroad converged the first rail line going east with existing lines going north to Oakland and south to San Jose and points beyond. Unlike other Bay Area towns, it was not named for a saint or for places remembered by settlers. The town's name was the result of CP's desire to honor a railroad-friendly judge, Addison C. Niles, who may or may not ever have set foot in the place.

Niles - at least, Old Niles - is largely landlocked, bounded on one side by Mission Boulevard, by the creek to the south, and multiple sets of rail lines to the west. To get in and out of town, there's only Niles Boulevard or the trail along the creek, so it's managed to avoid the worst of the sprawl that afflicts much of the rest of Fremont.

Unlike other areas, it's got a walkable (if small) downtown, several good restaurants, a school, a few small businesses and, yes, antique stores. On a quiet day, walking through Niles provides a window into what the Bay Area must have felt like 60 or 70 years ago, before every largish street became a four-lane expressway, and where children and their parents walk to school and socialize with their neighbors.

To evoke the spirit of place, Welschmeyer takes the reader on a tour of Niles. It is a sensory treat as much from the visual delight of the beautiful photography to the text, which provides a number of different perspectives of the town. He begins by introducing Niles and how it piqued his curiosity and passion for local history.

The book proceeds to a photo essay, "Niles Juxtaposed," where photographs from the 1930s and earlier are set alongside current images of the town, showing how the essential form of the town has survived despite the depredations of time and an indifferent or even hostile City Council.

He proceeds to mount a spirited defense of Niles' difference from the tract-house, strip-mall development of the rest of Fremont, and indeed most of the Bay Area. He notes that the City's 1997 rezoning placed a significant percentage of Niles homeowners in the uncomfortable position of having their homes classified as no longer compliant with zoning regs.

Having laid out an exposition about how incorporation into the City of Fremont disadvantaged the Niles district, Welchmeyer launches into an inspirational photo essay entitled "Welcome to Niles" which takes the form of a memoir. The images range from interiors of Old Niles bungalows to the glorious, small, visual details that exemplify the best of the district.

With a wry wit, he also indirectly notes that there remain problems, such as the City's unwillingness to assume responsibility for Iron Horse Lane and Victory Lane, two alleys deeded to the City at incorporation in the mid-fifties. He states that the City's unwillingness to deal with the alleys has led to their disrepair. During the winter, Lake Iron Horse is a local joke due to the huge potholes filling with water because the alleys are unpaved.

The photography of this part of the book also encompasses architectural details, such as the hand-laid brickwork that exists all over town and photos of streets lined with mature trees, which provide an image of a calming, secure area. There's also mention of the personalities to be found in Niles, seen through the lens of architecture, with bright colors, vivid plants, and Kraftile details on historic buildings. The essay ends with, "This is home," which, as much as anything else, sums up Welchmeyer's approach.

The alley theme comes up again in the following section, Alley Talk, which brings together a set of online newsgroup discussions regarding the Niles alleys from the late 1990s and early 2000s. Readers unfamiliar with the inception of the City of Fremont may find the account interesting, and in some cases disturbing, as it paints a picture of a city built around stability and developer protection at the expense of districts with existing character.

Among the characters forgotten in the rush to develop farmland was the architect William Wurster, whose work in Niles provided a more balanced perspective on land use and building design than the eventually prevailing as-many-houses-as-cheaply-as-possible developer model.

The book ends as it starts, with photos bookending old pictures of Niles with current images. At the beginning of the book, the story behind the photos is not yet laid out. This time, the reader has been through the book and can understand the gravity and meaning of the juxtaposed images, and may understand Welchmeyer's concerns and hopes that this unique, small community does not get absorbed by regulations intended for suburban tract development, as has so much of the rest of Fremont.

Niles has something special, something that causes people who live here to love it.

Niles is Here, not There can be purchased at www.blurb.com and Niles Essanay Theatre.

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