Now, Then, Later: Perspectives on Walnut Creek's Changing Times
By Ed Del Beccaro
NOW: 8am April 8, 2019: GROWER’S SQUARE
Latte steaming at an outdoor table at Starbucks on N. California Boulevard, I am reminded of the changes that took place on the edges of downtown during the city’s formative years. On what used to be a city-block-size parking lot until 1982, the two, six-story Grower’s Square office buildings tower across the street. As I sip my hot drink, busy people with cell phones and coffee in hand hurry by with briefcases and knapsacks, most likely on their way to BART. Above the cityscape rises the emerald green summit of Mt. Diablo, vibrant from the recent rains.
As I look at the glow of the Lesher Center for the Arts, I am reminded how commerce and culture stand together. A fruit processing factory then a walnut plant formerly occupied this spot. During the boom years of the 1950’s, money flowed into Walnut Creek, allowing the theater loving city to revitalize its local playhouse, ‘the Nut House’, into a destination attraction.
In the other direction, beyond the bold rust red facade of the Lyric, cranes are constructing a new residential hotel tower on the old McDonald’s site. Walnut Creek is changing again—the next two years will see more new apartments built on the former La Virage restaurant site on N. California Boulevard and a new Marriot Residence Inn open.
THEN: 8am April 8, 1952: WALNUT PLANT
A sharp whistle jolts me as an electric passenger train on the Northern Sacramento Line heads north to Concord. Across the tracks sits the three-story Walnut Growers’ Association Plant. A truck, stacked 14 bags high, drops off bushels of freshly picked local black walnuts to be sorted and cleaned. This plant, covering over an acre, processed 6,600 tons this year.
Further down the tracks to the south, cars are crossing Mt. Diablo from the Saranap. To my right, plain yellow and beige single-story homes line the road, their kitchens staring straight into the walnut packing plant.
A whistle blows, signaling that it’s time for a shift change at the factory. Scores of women dressed in white aprons and head scarfs head to work inside the plant. The native blacks they shell are grown in Walnut Creek, San Ramon, and Clayton orchards. Others work at downtown canneries, like the Walnut Creek Canning Company, where 150 tons of locally-grown cherries, tomatoes, pears, other fruits are canned each year. A distinct smell of ripe tomatoes clings to the air mixed with a chlorine scent from the rinse used to clean the walnuts and to kill any worms.
LATER: 8am April 8, 2028: RESIDENTIAL TOWERS
The sound of screeching brakes startles me. I watch a man jump out of his old red Ford Mustang shouting. It seems he was rear-ended by a dark blue autonomous vehicle in front of Growers Square. The AV car was stopped. A male voice is heard coming from the car, “Sir, this vehicle comes with insurance, please calm down so I can take a picture of your car and send it in.”
Dozens of other driverless cars soar silently past the five and six story residential towers that line both sides of California Boulevard near Ygnacio Valley and the BART Transit Village. A helicopter drone, the size of a football, takes off from the top of the PG&E switch station on Cole. It hovers over the auto accident taking pictures and directs the AV cars to stop on the north bound lane. A calm and soothing female voice asks the driver of the mustang to walk over to the sidewalk so the AV insurance company can interview him.
A voice interrupts my trance. “Sir we noticed your coffee was cold and brought you another cup. Enjoy.” A three-foot robot wearing a green apron holds a tray with a fresh cup of steaming latte.
Sources: Walnut Creek/Arroyo De Las Nuces by George Emanuels 1999; Old Times in Contra Costa by Robert Dara Tatam 1996; 150 Years in Pictures, an Illustrated History of Walnut Creek by Brad Rovanpera 1999