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FUN IN SOFA

What: South of A Street (SOFA) "Winterblast Celebration," with open art studios, live music, food, wine and beer vendors.

When: 5-9 p.m. Saturday (Nov. 15), with parades and 6 and 8 p.m.

Where: South A Street and Sebastopol Avenue, Santa Rosa

Admission: Free

Information: 293-6051, 573 9551, sofasantarosa.com

Not far from downtown Santa Rosa, there’s a portal to another time and place. But it doesn’t look like some mad scientist’s time machine. It looks more like a miniature hometown scene from the last century.

With the Santa Rosa Plaza shopping mall just a block away on one side, and busy Santa Rosa Avenue on the other side, there lies a quaint little town right in the middle of the city of Santa Rosa, next to Juilliard Park.

Loosely gathered around the intersection of South A Street and Sebastopol Avenue, the neighborhood once had a shady reputation, but about a decade ago it began to change, and over those years it emerged as a destination for cuisine and culture.

And it continues to evolve. Today, you’ll find a picturesque cluster of small, independently owned shops, galleries, restaurants and even a live theater company,

“It’s almost like a little separate enclave down here, off the beaten path,” said Kelley Rajala, who has lived and worked in the district for the past four years. “People here really taken advantage of that by working together, instead of struggling alone. That’s how a small town works”.

Rajala and her partner, Eric Robinson, produce organically grown fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers on two plots in the A Street neighborhood and a half-acre in Forestville. They supply food to several nearby restaurants, including the Spinster Sisters, the Naked Pig and Dierk’s Parkside Café.

Jason Sakach and Dalia Martinez opened the Naked Pig, an eclectic farm-to-table restaurant, six months ago at 435 Santa Rosa Ave., on a site that once housed a Greyhound bus station.

“We use produce from Kelley and Eric’s gardens, and local farms and our own garden,” Sakach said. “People in the neighborhood offer us figs and apples from their trees. There is a communal sense of giving here.”

The neighborhood continues to evolve and change for the better. The Spinster Sisters restaurant, which opened two years ago at the corner of Sebastopol Avenue and South A Street, has proved so popular that it plans to expand.

“We have purchased the lot next to the restaurant and we’re planning to open a pantry and takeout counter there,” said Giovanni Cerrone, co-owner of Spinster Sisters. “But we’re looking at a year to a year and half to do that. We want to continue to invest here and serve the local demand.”

Last year Evelyn Cheatham, the founder of the widely respected Worth Our Weight culinary youth training program, bought the area’s favorite longtime diner, the Cook House, up the street from Spinster Sisters. The restaurant remains closed, but Cheatham has announced plans to serve food there and offer advanced culinary experience for students. Cheatham couldn’t be reached for comment.

Earlier this year, Robin and Simmon Factor, former owners of Village Art Supply in Montgomery Village, took over the former Gallery of Sea and Heaven at 312 S. A St., and renamed it the Chroma Gallery.

“After working for so long in a shopping center, where you’re basically selling, I was struck by all the casual, informal collaboration that goes on in this neighborhood,” Simmon Factor said.

His gallery is only one of several in the district, including Gallery 300 and the Backstreet Gallery and Studios on Art Alley, just off A Street. And behind the Chroma Gallery, in the same building, 13 artists maintain eight studios.

Painter Max Dubois, who has her studio there, is optimistic about the rising public profile of the district, and winces a bit at the traditional description of the area as “off the beaten path.”

“Our goal is to get on the path,” she said. “This has become home base for a lot of people.”

Art is on display everywhere throughout the neighborhood, from the lobby of the Imaginists Theater on Sebastopol Avenue to James Podchernikoff’s Atlas Coffee, which has a new kitchen and will start serving breakfast and lunch in January.

It’s typical of the district’s ongoing collaboration that the Imaginists Theater serves coffee from Podchernikoff’s and treats from the Criminal Baking Co. & Undercover Noshery, almost next door on Sebastopol Avenue.

Amy Pinto, co-founder of the Imaginists Theater, believes it’s the people who live and work there who give the A Street neighborhood its distinctive character.

“Yes, the arts are here, and yes, there are cool restaurants, but the people who live here have been such amazing supporters of the crazy things that go on here,” Pinto said.

For a good example of the area’s benign craziness, you need only wait a week. The South of A Street district neighborhood, dubbed “SOFA” by locals, will celebrate its independence, and interdependence, with its 10th annual “Winterblast” street fair Saturday, complete with two parades of artistically decorated sofas equipped with wheels.

You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com.

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