For Sunset's fourth biennial salute to the West's best communities, we turned to the ultimate experts: our readers. We asked you to nominate the neighborhoods, cities, and towns you think are outstanding places to live. The response? Overwhelming. Letters and emails by the hundreds nominated places as varied as Honolulu and Ketchikan, Alaska.
It was inspiring to hear from so many people who love where they live--and who work so hard at making those places wonderful. The perfect hometown may be in the eye of the beholder. But the one constant is that it takes great people to make a great place to live.
BEST SMALL TOWN
Ask Sue Haynes what you call a Sandpoint resident, and she answers, "Lucky!" A town-council member, Haynes's roots go back three generations in this Idaho Panhandle town set on the shores of Lake Pend Oreille.
"This was a wonderful place to grow up," she says. "As teenagers, our big rebellion was to sneak out of the house at night and watch the sun come up over the lake."
The town's character hasn't really changed. Lumber was Sandpoint's mainstay until the 1980s, and as that industry waned, the town turned to other types of manufacturing, plus tourism and the arts. Today art galleries and studios dot downtown. Another landmark is the 1906 Cedar Street Bridge, now a two-level shopping promenade. And the Panida Theater, a 1927 Mission revival-style gem rescued and restored by the community, is thronged most weekend evenings.
The Panida is still a beloved spot for Haynes. "Saving that theater was a big job for a small community, but we really pulled together," she says. As if Sandpoint residents aren't already fortunate, they also make their own luck.
--LORA J. FINNEGAN
MORE GREAT SMALL TOWNS
* Port Townsend, Washington. This historic seaport of 8,500 holds numerous galleries and much splendidly restored Victorian architecture. www.ptguide.com or (360) 385-2722.
* Sutter Creek, California. A hamlet of 2,375, Sutter Creek is one of the best-preserved towns in California's Gold Country. www.suttercreek.org or (209) 267-1344.
LONG BEACH, CALIFORNIA
Carol and Leonard Thompson got their first glimpse of the Long Beach, California, neighborhood of California Heights while house-hunting 10 years ago. "When we saw it," Carol recalls, "I said, 'We have to live here.' It just felt like home."
California Heights has that effect on people. It's not lavish: Houses in the 50-block area are mostly Spanish and Craftsman bungalows built during Long Beach's 1920s oil boom. But even a casual sidewalk stroll past home after lovingly restored home gives the impression of a neighborhood that wraps itself around its residents as comfortingly as a favorite sweater.
Key to the area's success is the California Heights Neighborhood Association, which grew out of a successful 1990 effort to have California Heights designated as a historic district. Today the CHNA distributes a welcome kit to each new resident, publishes a bimonthly newsletter, runs an October home-and-garden tour, and has undertaken improvement projects ranging from tree planting to commissioning a new neighborhood mural.
To build a great neighborhood, "you need a clear focus," says Albert Guerra, president of CHNA. "Something that people will unite behind. Here, it's history. If people don't have something to do, they fall away and you don't hear from them again."
MORE GREAT NEIGHBORHOODS
* First Addition, Lake Oswego, Oregon. This leafy neighborhood dates from the 1890s and has an active neighborhood association. www.lake-oswego.com or (503) 636-3634.
* Miraloma Park, San Francisco. …