There’s a pretty wide divide between the Fairfaxes.
That’s one thing I’ve learned when my mother moved, quite unintentionally, from our hometown in Virginia across the country to a small town north of San Francisco that just happens to bear the same name: Fairfax. Having recently visiting my mother’s new home for the second time in less than a year, I’m getting pretty well-acquainted with this Bay Area community. Though there’s much for this conservative child of the Commonwealth to find, well, peculiar about this oasis of the Left, I’ve also been impressed by how much the California Fairfax seems to get right.
The two cities, perhaps unsurprisingly, share a common ancestor: the old English noble family of Lord Fairfax. The Virginia city is named after Thomas Fairfax, 6th Lord Fairfax of Cameron, whom King Charles awarded 5,000,000 acres of land in northern Virginia in the seventeenth century. Her California counterpart is named after a descendant of Thomas Fairfax, Charles Snowden Fairfax, who moved to Marin County from Virginia in the 1850s. He maintained a famous, widely-visited residence and became active in county and later state politics.
Both Fairfaxes are firmly in the pocket of the Democratic Party, though my hometown still possesses a sizeable conservative minority—it voted for a Republican presidential candidate as recently as 2000 (voters in Virginia don’t register with a party), and Trump received 31 percent of the vote in 2016. Compare that to Fairfax, California, where Trump received less than eight percent of the vote, and where only about 27 percent of the population are registered Republicans. Both towns are lauded as ideal locations—Forbes in 2009 named the Virginia city, located in the second wealthiest county in America, as No. 3 in the “Top 25 Places to Live Well.” The California Fairfax, in turn, is considered one of the best places to live in Marin County, which in 2010 had the fifth highest income per capita in the United States.
After these historical, political and economic similarities, things start to diverge pretty quickly. Fairfax, Virginia is increasingly diverse—though still predominantly white, there are sizeable minority communities of Asians (15 percent), Hispanics (15 percent), and Blacks/African-Americans (5 percent). Her California cousin is 85 percent non-Hispanic white. In the Virginia municipality, one may find more than fifty churches, encompassing just about every major Christian denomination, “conservative” or “liberal,” as well as two synagogues. In the California town, there are only three churches. To be fair, it is much smaller town, with only 7,500 residents, compared to 25,000 people residing in Virginia. Even so, it is obviously a much less religious place. This may in part be explained by the influence of hippie culture—many flower-children moved out to Marin County, and one of Fairfax’s claims to fame is that members of Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead played a pickup softball game on a local field.
Yet despite its more liberal, less religious identity, Fairfax, California, has many laudable traits. The town maintains ordinances against chain stores, meaning that most everything shop and vendor is unique and locally-owned, with perhaps the exception of a single 7-11. Settled in the 1800s and incorporated in 1893, it retains a commendable historical charm, with many old, well-maintained buildings. California Fairfax residents are also unparalleled in their environmental-consciousness, promoting eco-friendly policies that seek to preserve the majestic natural beauty of the hills and forests that surround the town. There is a notable lack of cell phone towers in town—there’s no reception at my mom’s house, and one can’t pick up a signal until one is practically out of town. Cycling is very popular here, and there are many cafes and bars that cater to bicyclists. The bumper sticker “I heart Fairfax” is ubiquitous, evincing the locality’s loyalty to community identity. Unlike the common perception of nearby Oakland, of which Gertrude Stein remarked, “there is no there there,” Fairfax has a very hearty “there.”
This, unfortunately, is less and less the case in my hometown in the Old Dominion. There is certainly a small but strong party of proud Fairfaxians—we still put on one of the best Fourth of July parades and fireworks shows in the country, I’d wager. We have a beautiful, several-block “Old Town Fairfax,” which has been around since around 1805, and was the site of multiple Civil War battles. But there are few people in Fairfax, Virginia, who, like my children, are fourth-generation residents (my mother’s father came to Virginia in the 1940s, and arrived in Fairfax County in the 1960s). Northern Virginia is largely a land of transplants, people from across the country who come for either federal jobs or occupations that directly support the federal government. Many of them are only here for a few years before moving onto another destination, either domestically or internationally. Children from these families have little sense of local identity, and many leave for other parts of the country after high school or college.
The distinction between the Fairfaxes is perhaps most palpable in the family of the man who married my mother last year (my father died in 2013 from cancer). My step-father originally hails from Fairfax, California, which explains why my mother sold her home in Virginia and moved to the Bay area. The two live on several acres of land with two homes, one for my mom and step-father, and one for his brother. Their father, a Danish immigrant who served in the U.S. Coast Guard, purchased the land in the 1950s. The two brothers—who exude a strong blue-collar, working-class ethic—both served in the military. My step-father now works in construction, while his brother, a retired machinist with incredible gifts as a handy-man, is in a never-ending cycle of repairing and refurbishing their shared property.
Neither have any intention of leaving, despite the fact that they are sitting on millions of dollars of land. When my wife asked my step-father if he had ever considered selling the property and moving somewhere less expensive, he looked at her like she had two heads. “We’re not leaving, the family will always live here,” he asserted. The brothers, whose conservativism on many things makes them a bit of an outlier, identify too strongly with this stronghold of blue California to ever leave. My step-father speaks proudly of the many homes in the town that he’s worked on, of local board meetings he’s petitioned going back to the 1970s, of his constant battles with the invasive, foreign weed scotch broom that covers much of Fairfax’s hills.
Perhaps part of the reason two working-class conservative guys can live in an unabashedly-liberal place like Fairfax, California, is because some things about the town overlap so seamlessly with the ethos of “main-street” conservatism. Here people know one another, many sharing histories going back generations. After Easter Mass, my wife asked a random passerby if he would take a picture of our family in front of the church—my step-father casually noted that the man had been one of his old neighbors, and that the man’s brother owned a popular, old Italian restaurant in town. People are proud to live here and uncompromisingly protective of preserving its identity and beauty. Ultimately, they recognize their community as something good that should be protected from radical societal or technological change. While there are plenty of things about this California township that make a conservative uneasy, perhaps there are more than a few things we can learn from it. Indeed, safeguarding an America for our children and grandchildren that is worth living in might depend on it.
Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College. He covers religion and other issues for TAC.