Gaye LeBaron: What’s in a name like Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park?

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There was a story in our paper last Sunday about the truly odd things Google Maps has done to place names. New York Times reporter Jack Nicas’ story about how tried and true names of San Francisco neighborhoods — like “South of Market,” which began as “Butchertown” — have been changed on Google Maps to perplexing things like “East Cut.”

The story is both intriguing and hilarious.

(If you missed it you can, if you pardon the expression, “Google” it.)

It certainly struck a chord with me, because I had been pondering neighborhood names — here, not in SF — for several months. Just one neighborhood, actually: the damaged but ever-so brave and resilient Coffey Park.

In the past months I have taken a poll about the name, a haphazard survey that can be dismissed as faulty from all sides.

Coffey Park is a term that originally applied to a subdivision in the northwest section of town built by Condiotti Construction in the 1980s. It wasn’t the first subdivision in the area, not even in the first dozen.

But when the reportage began on the tragic occurrences of October last, it was to fire crews, radio and this newspaper, the term applied to everything from Piner Road to Dennis Lane, and from the freeway to Fulton Road, including, right down the middle, Coffey Lane.

What I asked people was if they had thought of that area as Coffey Park before the fire.

It was interesting how many people said they had never heard that area referred to that way. Not ever.

I started my questioning when Phil Trowbridge asked me that same question. Phil was executive vice president of Condiotti Construction when the company built and named Coffey Park. He even named some of the streets, including Espresso, Mocha and Kona. Clever devil.

He pointed out that he had never heard the name used in that expansive manner. Nor had I. So I began to ask around. I talked to maybe 80 to 100 people over the next months, asking if they had ever known the whole area as Coffey Park.

These sporadic and highly unscientific efforts at a survey have included some interesting discussions and suggest, without any proper evidence, that this may be a generational difference.

Older people — 60 and over — are more likely to say they never heard the term Coffey Park applied to the whole area, and express some surprise. One of these, I might add, was a man who lost his house he bought in a subdivision before Coffey Park was built.

He said he never called the area by that name. Sal Rosano, who became police chief in the ’70s, admitted to being surprised by the designation as well. The cops called that area “Northwest” into the ’90s.

Several conspiracy theorists suggested The Press Democrat had invented it — fake news!

Others, usually younger, said they have always known the whole area as Coffey Park, even if they have no idea which subdivision is which, or where the boundaries are.

It took me awhile to figure out it was a generational thing. I got a lot of “No” answers early on because most people I asked originally were over 60. It was the pack I travel with, being of a certain age myself.

But when I branched out, starting with my young friend Gabe Meline, the answers became emphatically “Yes!”

It has turned out to be a kind of study of how neighborhood identities change with time. It wasn’t always age that governed the answers. Sometimes it was how long people had been in the area.

When a friend who lost her house in Fountaingrove, another name that has overwhelmed many smaller subdivisions for historic reasons, told me she was living in a condo in Bennett Valley, I pictured it as pastoral. Turns out it is on Creekside Drive. The pastoral-sounding neighborhood name refers to the school district. Which is another way these things happen.

I did a little checking — nothing that would hold up in court, but interesting. In the PD’s online archive, the first mention of Coffey Park as an area rather than a single development was Dec. 21, 1995 in a story about Christmas lights.

Admittedly, the archive only goes back to 1994, about a decade after the Condiotti project. But neither is there a paper file in the old office archive for Coffey Park.

Also interesting is that the first story I found was written by reporter Chris Coursey, currently Santa Rosa’s mayor. So there’s your answer: Blame the politicians. Just kidding, of course.

I abandoned all theories that The Press Democrat had created the generic name as a quick way to describe the area in the northwest part of town that was destroyed.

I amended my poll, asked some other questions and determined that the younger crowd — the Coffey Park familiars — often didn’t know where the Grace Tract was. Or, sometimes, Proctor Terrace. They were surprised to learn that a lot of what they call “the Village” is (or was) actually Mayette Village and several other smaller subdivisions on the east end.


Just in time for the city’s 150th anniversary, this is all about how Santa Rosa grew and changed perspectives along the way.

If you ask what part of town I live in, I would say the Doyle Park neighborhood, not Brookside Terrace, although that is the name on the map for this tiny three-street 72-year-old subdivision.

But the powers that govern such matters today, like the online site called Nextdoor that tells me I live in the Memorial Hospital neighborhood. Some might even put me in Montgomery Village, which I figure starts about three long blocks away.

Now, as the town subdivides again for district elections, these names may well be tossed into a cocked hat and come up as another East Slice or whatever.

One of the things that came from my search for truth in geography is the addition of a new word — toponymy — to my vocabulary.

It was a gift from my anthropologist friend Margie Purser, a proper term for the study of place names and their origins.

While this is way too highfalutin for just going around asking people you know about a name, it does lend just a whisper of authenticity to the results. And a larger dose of regional history, as in, how a city grows.

A look at the city planning department maps tells us how that area from Piner Road north to Dennis Lane and from Highway 101 west to Fulton Road grew.

The beginning was in the 1960s. (I remember, in my early days as a reporter, the long discussions at City Council meetings about the wisdom of “sewering the Santa Rosa Plain.” It was a hot-button topic.) First came the new 101 freeway and then the industrial parks beside it. And just two or three very small subdivisions through the 1970s.

But the ’70s, remember, were the largest growth decade in the city’s history, and that population leap is reflected on the northern edges.

By the early ’80s, developers had focused on that section of the Santa Rosa Plain. There were a half a dozen or more maps filed and homes built in the early ’80s. Developer Art Condiotti’s Coffey Park was approved in ’86. It was the first of five adjoining additions all named Coffey Park — with a good-sized neighborhood park in the middle.

It wasn’t the first, but, within a couple of years it was the largest, and was followed in the ensuing dozen years by 10 or more new developments with names of their own — Brookstone, Barnes Meadow, Laurelwood, Bristol Court — all of which would become, in the way neighborhoods roll, Coffey Park.

Last but not least — because it is exactly what we’re talking about — is where the Coffey name came from in the first place. For this kernel of historical truth, we are indebted to the diligence of Press Democrat reporter Robert Digitale, whose Coffey Park Chronicles have faithfully followed for readers what happens in the area. Robert credits Katherine Rinehart, the county archivist who manages the history and genealogy division of the Sonoma County Library, and retired Santa Rosa High School teacher Mike Daniels, who wrote last November about the origins in the history library’s blog.

As a name on the map, Coffey Lane was the start. Before there were automobiles, it was a horse-and-buggy path leading to the property of one Henry Coffey, who bought 320 acres there in 1885, gave 20 acres each to his nine children and, by the turn of the 20th century, had moved to the East Bay where he was selling real estate. Smart fella!

So, while my chatty questioning of people I met won’t make a sociological or anthropological monograph, it has shown me that towns like Santa Rosa divide in many ways as they grow.

And sometime we have no idea how it happened. In the case of the ascendancy of Coffey Park, heaven help us, we know.

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