While Carl Hesse sat on his front porch to talk about living in the Willows, his young son burst outside and ran joyfully next door. Mr. Hesse says that his family is close to their neighbors on either side, and small get-togethers with some other younger families on their street are a regular occurrence.
"We do a lot of pet-sitting tradeoff and house-watching," he says.
That communal, yet informal, atmosphere seems to permeate life in the Willows -- from a publicly maintained traffic island (complete with plastic slide), well-supported businesses on Menalto Avenue like Cafe Zoe, and advocacy for safety measures and the preservation of San Francisquito Creek, the neighborhood's southern border.
Neighborhood resident Jim Wiley said that while there is no official homeowners association, activity in the Willows online groups more than makes up for that. A robust Yahoo group has existed for 15 years, but most activity has migrated to Nextdoor, where there are about 1,000 members, or around 50 percent of the neighborhood's homes, according to Mr. Wiley.
Mr. Wiley originally moved with his family to the neighborhood in 1980 so that his son could attend the nearby Peninsula School. However, a deep love affair with his home, the beauty of the nearby creek and the mix of residents -- people of different ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses, as well as some college students -- has kept him in the Willows.
"The word diverse is overused, but it's a diverse neighborhood," he says.
Over the years, Mr. Wiley has also taken a personal interest in the neighborhood's history, learning about an early-20th-century experiment of Charles Weeks in establishing a colony of chicken farmers. He also discovered that one Menalto Avenue store used to house the erstwhile People's Computer Center, where in the '70s and '80s early technologists created computer games. It was a precursor to the Homebrew Computer Club, which was important to the personal-computing revolution.
Today, a drive through the Willows reveals the marks of different eras. Some streets are on a careful vertical and horizontal grid, while others are tucked away in courts off of the sinuous Woodland Avenue that follows the tree-lined creek. Both Mr. Wiley and Mr. Hesse pointed out that some houses are backed by narrow alleyways, a charming vestige of older developments.
Some parts of the neighborhood are changing, however, with sleek, modern homes going up next to older ranches -- or in one case, across the street from a late-19th-century farmhouse. Multiple brand new, multimillion-dollar homes have been been sold recently, Mr. Wiley notes.
"It's a combination of people that are here for life and people that are turning over," he said. "I think it's 50-50."
An architect by trade, Mr. Hesse and his wife bought their home in the Willows in 2003 with the ultimate goal of designing a new house from scratch on the property. With the project completed around the beginning of 2008, the family of five is now completely settled in.
"We don't foresee ourselves ever moving," Mr. Hesse says.
Mr. Hesse praised the neighborhood's location, which allows the family to walk to downtown Palo Alto and his children to bike to nearby Menlo Park schools. The city also has plans to construct a new third- to fifth-grade elementary school at the site of the old O'Connor School, big news for the Willows, Mr. Wiley says.
Though Mr. Hesse wished there was a closer supermarket, Mr. Wiley notes that the area is serviced by The Willows Market on Middlefield Road and La Hacienda Market on Menalto Avenue, which has great prices for produce and a taqueria inside. The Menalto shopping center is also home to the West Bay Cleaners dry cleaners, the dance studio Captivating Dance, a custom cake shop called Studio Cake and other small businesses.
BethAnn Goldberg, who owns Studio Cake, has lived in the Willows for about 10 years. While putting the finishing touches on a cake shaped like Buzz Lightyear, she describes the neighborhood as "crunchy" and "down to earth."
When Goldberg sees some small dogs walking by outside, she prods her son to bring them treats from a jar on her desk. Dogs will pause outside the storefront to wait for treats, perplexing their owners, she explains.
Because the neighborhood is so friendly, Goldberg remarks that sometimes it can be difficult simply to go for a run.
"People actually stop to talk in our neighborhood ..." Goldberg says. "You can't go anywhere."
-- Sam Sciolla
LOCATION: between Middlefield Road, Willow Road, U.S. Highway 101, O'Connor Street, Euclid Avenue and Woodland Avenue
PRIVATE SCHOOLS: German-American International School, 275 Elliott Drive, Menlo Park (moving soon)
PUBLIC SCHOOLS: Menlo Park City School District -- Laurel School, 95 Edge Road, Atherton; Encinal School, 195 Encinal Ave., Menlo Park; Hillview Middle School, 1100 Elder Ave., Menlo Park
Ravenswood City School District -- Willow Oaks School, 620 Willow Road, Menlo Park
Sequoia Union High School District -- Menlo-Atherton High School, 555 Middlefield Road, Atherton
SHOPPING: La Hacienda Market, Menalto Avenue; The Willows Market, Middlefield Road