It’s no secret: the Bay Area has changed a lot in the last decade. But, El Sobrante, an East Bay town in Contra Costa County, hasn’t attracted the same attention as its neighbors. How long can that last?
If you drive over the Berkeley hills and six miles down the winding San Pablo Dam Road, you'll see a faded green sign peeking out from a handful of oak trees. It reads: “Welcome to El Sobrante.”
This is my hometown.
If you’ve never heard of El Sobrante, you aren’t alone. Most people I encounter haven’t heard of it, and even fewer have been there. As San Francisco spills further out into the East Bay, I want to know what will happen to a mostly overlooked place like El Sobrante. Will it remain relatively unchanged, the same it has for the past couple decades? Or is change now inevitable in the Bay Area? I’m going back to the place I remember growing up to see what’s changed, and what hasn’t.
If people know El Sobrante, it’s usually because of Thrift Town. I like to think of it as the jewel in the rusty crown of our town. The cavernous thrift store is the closest we have to a town square. In the window, there’s even a sign that proudly proclaims: “El Sobrante’s Best Thrift Store.” It’s also the only thrift store.
Sallee Collins has been the manager of this warehouse sized thrift store for thirty years. She also came here years before that, roller skating—this used to be a roller rink. But these days, there aren’t many places in El Sobrante to just hang out. There’s Maria’s Bakery, where the Tres Leches cakes are great and the free coffee comes in styrofoam cups. And a Little Caesar’s that’s pretty popular with the teen set. So if you need to kill time, chances are you’re going to end up in Thrift Town.
Here, you can find everything from antique cabinets and old board-games to colorful saris and vintage skirts. Collins has seen her fair share of spectacular finds: “One guy bought a painting in here for 99 bucks, turned around and sold it on eBay for $18,000.”
Treasure hunters include whole families, vintage lovers, costume creators, and as Collins tells it, even the occasional rock band: “Years ago when my daughter worked here, she used to follow Green Day around in here. They would shop for their T-shirts here.”
Although Collins has lived in El Sobrante for a long time, she’s still a fan of its small town feel. Surrounded by rolling hills, El Sobrante is almost hidden behind them, and its downtown can feel stuck in time. Thrift Town is in the heart of downtown El Sobrante, which, I should say, is just two streets.
El Sobrante has flown under the radar since its beginning. In fact, the name comes from when land grants were divided among the ranchos. “Rancho Sobrante” was the bit that remained—it literally means “the leftovers.”
“We like the name, I think El Sobrante-ans are proud of it,” says Donald Bastin, president of the El Sobrante Historical Society. “We like it the way it is. And that’s been kinda the attitude for residents of El Sobrante for years and years now. We like it the way it is!”
As President of the El Sobrante Historical Society, Bastin helped install twelve historic markers in downtown El Sobrante. They mark significant sites such as the location of the town’s first post office, the old rodeo grounds, and the hardware store that’s been here since the ‘40s. The rest of downtown El Sobrante is slightly less significant. There’s a whole block of mechanics shops, a couple fast foods joints, and a dollar store in what used to be a Goodwill.
The temple on the hill
But on the hills overlooking downtown El Sobrante, there’s something that seems out of place with this small town scene. The golden domes of the Gurdwara Sahib, a Sikh temple, can be seen from most places in El Sobrante. As one of the first Sikh temples in in the Bay Area, the temple is still sometimes called the Sikh Center of the Bay Area, and has been attracting worshippers and curious visitors alike since 1965.
“The main temples in India, they are on hilly places,” explains Kanwal Talwar, a volunteer with the temple. “So the founders of this temple actually compare this location to those...it has the same sort of vibe.” Besides the view, visitors come for quick prayers before work, for community events, and for special occasions, like weddings.
Visitors are welcome at the temple and all are served a free, hot, vegetarian meal. It’s a big part of the Sikhism belief of “Seva” or service. It’s also my dad’s favorite place to take out of town guests: a nice meal and a great view of El Sobrante.
The Sikhs chose this spot not just because of the hills, but also the valleys below. Many Sikhs came from farming communities in India and chose California, and El Sobrante specifically, because of its agricultural heritage.
Welcome to Cloverfield Farm
That’s still true of El Sobrante—it’s not uncommon to see folks on horseback riding near my parents' house, and small farms line the narrow streets that wind into the hills. Cloverfield Organic Farm is one of them.
Susan Abernathy is the owner of Cloverfield Organic farm. She and her helper, Michael Lancaster, work year-round on Cloverfield, nestled in a valley of Eucalyptus and Bay Trees. It’s a very pastoral scene for a place that’s thirty minutes from downtown Oakland. And while Oakland may have changed greatly in the past decade, Abernathy reports the biggest change she’s seen in El Sobrante is an influx of families.
The new-and-improved high school
Another motivation for families to move to El Sobrante is the high school, or rather the "new-and-improved high school." De Anza High School is down the hill from the house I grew up in, but I didn’t go to school here. A decade ago it was in a rather run-down building, and the graduation rate was dismally low. But in the past couple years, the school has been totally rebuilt and the student population nearly doubled in size. This is probably the biggest change in El Sobrante.
“It’s kinda close-knit, like, we have our own little community, like our neighbor is helping us bring a van to bring the tables to the homecoming dance today,” says Mariana Barsotti, a junior at De Anza. “But then you go outside of El Sobrante, and you kinda see, like, it’s starting to change a little bit, like maybe it’s some more gentrification and I’m only sixteen and I’ve seen it change since I was like...ten.”
If you had asked me about El Sobrante when I was a teenager, I probably would’ve said the only good thing about it was Thrift Town. Now I can see that there’s something oddly reassuring about El Sobrante remaining the same, quirky, leftover place. That may not last for long, though. While homes are still less expensive in El Sobrante than in many Bay Area hot spots, the value of homes in El Sobrante rose twelve percent in the past year. That’s triple the rise in Oakland.
El Sobrante never had a thriving art scene like Oakland, or historical relevance like Berkeley, and it sure never had the big city allure of San Francisco. But what it did have—what it does have—is harder to explain. The dance studio I went to since kindergarten, driving past the ponies on Santa Rita Road, and the still-pristine hills surrounding it all: those are the things I’m afraid of losing.
Unlike me, Sallee Collins, the manager of Thrift Town for thirty years is pretty zen about the whole thing: “Well, times are changing. But there’s always gonna be change!”
A previous version of this article contained errors that have been corrected. Sallee Collins was misspelled as Sally Collins.