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Quaint Town Is Also Hip

Culture: Arts-loving urban transplants cultivate a sense of community, as in fund- raiser for fire victims.


NEVADA CITY, Calif. — Julie Toste, wearing her blue Friar Tuck's apron, nodded at the heaps of chipped brick and the heavy equipment in front of her. "My floor has changed a little bit," she said dryly.

The restaurant in which she worked as floor manager, Friar Tuck's, is now a fenced-off demolition site. The rustic local hangout was consumed by a fire that gutted a beloved corner of this old gold mining town, but not its historic pluck.

Toste and dozens of others who lost a place to work or perform in the March 20 blaze have each received a $400 check to make up for lost wages, and more is on the way. The money is not from unemployment or other insurance; it is from the people of Nevada City and the surrounding area, who have dug $60,000 out of their own pockets to help.

If such compassion seems archetypically small town, this place in the Sierra foothills northeast of Sacramento is not. It is tiny--population 3,001--out in the woods and has a quaint downtown. But it is a village of urban transplants who are fond of the theater, a nice glass of wine and historic preservation.

Toste, a Los Angeles expatriate who worked at Tuck's for 12 years, was taking a break recently from helping at an all-day fund-raiser, nicknamed "Firestock."

Nearly as many people as live in Nevada City crowded into a 19th century stone foundry for nine hours of performances by Nevada County's sizable arts community. There were poetry readings, dance presentations and music of just about every genre, from classical to folk and alternative rock. Local restaurants donated food and libations. The admission price was whatever you wanted it to be. Half of the fire fund's $60,000 was raised in a day.

The relief effort reflects Nevada City's carefully cultivated sense of community. Even though nearly everyone is from someplace else, they like to act otherwise. People moved here, said former San Diegan Philip Sneed, "because they wanted to be part of a community that is small enough to be manageable, small enough to feel they can make a difference."

Sneed is artistic director of the local Foothill Theatre Company. Ellen Davies, who left her health foundation job and came here with her husband in 1995, is president of the local Rotary Club and executive director of a community cultural center housed in the foundry. She belongs to a quilting group filled with women from the Bay Area.

"People just wanted a different life," she said, explaining why she and others chose this out-of-the-way town on the edge of the Tahoe National Forest.

Nevada City is a place of urbane sensibilities and small-town looks. The streets wind past 19th century brick storefronts and white clapboard houses. There are wine-tasting rooms, cafe patios, bookstores named Harmony and Inner Sanctum, and small theater companies.

And there are a lot of tourists. But although they can inspect the scene from a horse-drawn carriage, Nevada City has managed to avoid studied preciousness. Tattooed bikers roar down Broad Street on day trips into the mountains. Hints of hippiedom and an occasional ramshackle house keep excessive tidiness at bay.

Thrown up in the manic days of the Gold Rush, Nevada City boomed to nearly 50,000 residents and shrank just as quickly. Hard-rock gold mining and logging kept it alive until the middle of the last century, when the mines closed during World War II. By the 1950s, storefronts had been boarded up and the town was withering.

Hippies came to the rescue in the late '60s, followed by retirees, artists and urban refugees working in a Silicon Valley outpost that sprang up around neighboring Grass Valley. High-tech engineers from the Bay Area started moving here decades ago, and the area is the birthplace of the modems used to connect to the Internet.

More recently, telecommuters have begun to arrive with young families. Though the county population, now about 92,000, has increased steadily since 1980, there is a strong anti-growth movement powered by relative newcomers who like the place as they found it.

Last month's fire was one of many that have struck Nevada City since its inception. The predawn blaze was limited to half a block. But it was a cherished half-block that catered to body and mind. Along with Tuck's, the corner was home to the Herb Shop, several smaller businesses and the cabaret-style Off Broadstreet Theatre, which had spent its entire 13-year history on the spot.

People would dine at Tuck's, go next door for dessert and musical comedy at Off Broadstreet and then return to Tuck's bar for a nightcap. "We all have a history at Friar Tuck's," said Gil Mathew, who moved here two decades ago from Orange County and runs a manufacturing firm.

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