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What America needs is a big slice of downtown Sonoma on the Fourth of July.

Granted, it might not be the complete answer for making a more perfect union, residents and visitors said Tuesday at the town’s annual Independence Day parade. Even so, the consensus was that Americans still could benefit by standing in the town’s Plaza and joining a diverse celebration honoring both a nation’s ideals and the hometown folks.

Among parade participants who drew applause Tuesday were firefighters, schoolteachers, veterans, elected leaders and hospital workers.

“These are the people that make this community go,” said John Gurney, a Sonoma resident who has watched or helped in the parade for over two decades.

On the nation’s 241st celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, attendees at two Sonoma County events were asked what is going well in the U.S., and what would they change.

For Gurney, who is about to become the new executive director of the Sonoma Community Center, the Fourth of July parade in Sonoma was itself a sign of what’s good with America, a celebration where participants remember and “enjoy the fact that we have freedom.”

“It’s OK to disagree and to debate,” he said, standing with his wife, Phyllis, in the scant shade of a single palm tree directly in front of City Hall.

Asked what he’d like to see improved in the U.S., Gurney answered, “I think civility would be a nice characteristic.”

Across the Plaza at the children’s play area, Jessica Hicks was quick to offer a sober assessment on the state of the nation.

“I would say it’s frightening,” she said, standing near her husband, Adam, and two children, ages 6 months and 3. The U.S. seems to have reached a time that is “strange and unusual and dangerous.”

Hicks, a nurse practitioner from Novato, said if she could wave a magic wand “I would bless everybody with the ability to have empathy.”

In a grove of shade trees near First Street West, Sonoma Valley school board member Salvador Chavez stood after marching in the parade with La Luz Center, a community nonprofit. His T-shirt read: “We are all immigrants.”

His sister, Betsy Chavez, a La Luz staff member, said her wish for improving the nation would be for Americans to begin “understanding our biases” regarding the issue of immigration.

“How do we deal with all we’ve been feeling for generations?” she asked.

Later Tuesday night at Green Music Center at Sonoma State University, hundreds of picnickers awaited the performance of country singer Kathy Mattea backed by the Santa Rosa Symphony.

Some brought homemade taco salad along with their blankets and lawn chairs, and others nibbled on $8 garlic pork sausage banh mi sandwiches and drank from a premium wine selection that was as much as $52 for a bottle of Sonoma-Cutrer chardonnay, but all shared the same sentiments of those at the earlier Sonoma parade.

Daniel Hanlon, a retired state appellate judge who lives in Santa Rosa, said he was grateful for a country where citizens honor and respect their military veterans. He noted the reception was quite different when he returned in 1967 as a Marine vet from the Vietnam War.

He wishes younger citizens would gain a greater understanding of the liberties Americans have today.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

“So many of the young people I see feel entitled, and they don’t know why,” Hanlon said.

Despite bitter partisan political divisions, people remained hopeful for the future.

“What makes me most proud is that despite all of our issues, over time and over the long haul, we find our way through it and do the right thing,” said Michael Young, interim vice president for student affairs at Sonoma State, who was there for the show.

An African-American, Young said his wish is for all citizens to be able to finally achieve what the authors wrote in Philadelphia on the rights of all for “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

“We need to find a way for all Americans to truly have access to the full array of opportunities and privileges,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com.

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