Sierra Dawn: A Slice of Heaven in Hemet

Sierra Dawn resident Bob Soman | Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

Sierra Dawn can be a tale of Sta-Rock lawns - gravel made into a permanent kind of green welcome, painted and unmoving - in front of mobile homes kept in perfect condition since their arrival on this piece of land in the early 1960s. It is waterwise landscaping like no other - planters and edging in front of the homes are filled with cactus and yard ceramics.

It can be historic, as it remains the nation's first-ever master-planned retirement community where seniors could buy their own plot of land, move onto it a single or double-wide mobile home, and run this world. Clubhouses, pools and tennis, travel club, dancing and neighbors. My grandparents, natives of Switzerland, retired from Fontana (my grandmother worked as a nurse at Kaiser, my grandfather at Riverside Cement) and were among the first to buy in this Phase One development. (My grandmother told me last month that decades ago, a local Hemet bank was in danger of failing, until the residents of Phase One got together at the Clubhouse and voted to buy shares - $2,000 each, according to her.)

I recall so vividly when all of us grandkids would visit Hemet, and Sierra Dawn was an outpost in the middle of alfalfa fields. "Only people 55 and older can live here," as my mother would say, "so try to be quiet! No fighting."

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Old people, perfect manicured squares of stone and gravel and cactus, the metal roadrunner in front of my grandmother's front window, "Royal Lancer" on the roofline as if this metal prow led a ship now moored forever. The artificial turf on the small raised porch, where we grandkids gathered in the heat. We could walk anywhere in Sierra Dawn - the streets were quiet, with nothing but retirees. We were a little intimidated. We'd wander to the edge of the park and walk in the alfalfa, which bloomed sweet and green, and then touch our hands to the glued-together green of gravel.

An aerial photo of Sierra Dawn's first phase inside Clubhouse No. 1  | Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

We wanted to swim, but the pool at Clubhouse No. 1, which sounded so official, was off-limits to children. (So one day my grandparents secured special permission for us to swim! The turquoise water which seems a staple of Southern California childhood wasn't so for us - we had few friends with pools, and the Sierra Dawn classic kidney-shaped pool was like a fantasy.)

I went there last week to see the old mobile home, before visiting my grandmother, who is 95 now and lives in a different mobile home, further out in the country. I found her street and the old clubhouse with no trouble, like a homing pigeon, and couldn't believe the Royal Lancer was still there.

Of course it was. Sierra Dawn is still about pride of ownership, and a wonderful place to live for a retiree. This is really the story of the three Bobs, and Avalino.

In my grandparents' former home, Bob Soman is happily ensconced. He's like "the most interesting man in the world" from the Dos Equis commercials, but with a cleaner face. Bob grew up in Minnesota, the son of Lebanese parents, and he worked for TRW in Torrance back when computers filled an entire room and workers had to replace hundreds of tubes each day to keep things humming. He met a woman from Riverside at the Saturday night dances held in Sierra Dawn. Retirees love to dance - Sierra Dawn hosts many kinds of socials, but this was square dancing, and Bob Soman is an expert. The woman became his partner, in many ways, but her boyfriend, also named Bob, was immobile after a stroke in a nursing home in Riverside. So Bob would accompany his girlfriend to visit Bob in Riverside, which he still does.

Joe Eckman and his granddaughter | Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

According to Bob Soman, retired people stay in love by living apart, and by dancing, and by sharing Lebanese food. And he loves the 1970 Royal Lancer. He bought it from my grandparents about 15 years ago, renovated it, and took out my grandfather's extensive grapevines because he has no time to garden - he's always square dancing, or taking a neighbor to the doctor. His neighbor, born in Mexico, received numerous Purple Hearts in World War Two, and has medical problems - but he also has Bob Soman.

The mailbox beside us still reads "Bob & Alice Eckman." That Bob lived next to my grandparents for many years. He passed away, and Alice died in 2003, and the 1968 vintage mobile home was empty for five years until their son Joe came from Norco in 2008, having tried to retire from installing glass. He lives there now with his wife and her mother, and they host grandkids as well sometimes.

Avalino painting his home | Photograph by Douglas McCullohEveryone knows everyone in Sierra Dawn, and that's a good thing. It's the opposite of much of modern culture. The coaches are renovated, fancy, or simple and single-wide. It doesn't matter.

Avalino and his wife moved into their classic 1969 double-wide, directly across from Clubhouse No. 1, in November. He was born in Puerto Rico to an Italian father and Puerto Rican mother, but moved as a young man to New York, where he worked for many years in a factory which made birthday hats. Pointy and decorated. He met his wife there, and they were married for 37 years and two months, he told Doug, who took his photo while he painted near the roofline. After he lost "the love of my life," he moved to L.A. and eventually, he married a woman from Mexico. They lived in Tijuana, Fontana, Whittier, and then had a chance to buy this place in Sierra Dawn. Now, he says, "I'm happy again."

Susan Straight's latest novel is "Take One Candle Light a Room."  Both she and photographer Doug McCulloh are natives of Riverside, and their stories appear on KCET every other Wednesday, all which can be read here.  She is Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at UCRiverside.

About the Author

Susan Straight was born in Riverside, where she still lives. Her latest novel is "Between Heaven and Here." She teaches at UCRiverside and works with photographer Douglas McCulloh to document the Inland Empire.

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Love the Bobs. I'm nostalgic now, remembering visits to Hemet to visit my grandfather, whose 'lawn' was white rocks.