Futuristic ‘Popup Village’ Plans Summer Residency in Healdsburg

Bay Area techies give AI, crypto talks in town and use Foss Creek Pathway as ‘serendipity lane’

April 4, 2024
SOLARPUNK Promo materials for the 'Edge Esmeralda' village in Healdsburg are full of sci-fi images like floating cities and poolside live-work utopias. (Image courtesy of Edge Esmeralda)

Heads up: Healdsburg will likely look and feel a lot different for the whole month of June.

More than usual, we may hear crypto words like "blockchain" and "Ethereum" being thrown around in the aisles of Big John’s. We may see large clumps of out-of-towners huddled together on laptops and doing other mysterious business in local buildings.

We may see the normally tranquil Foss Creek Pathway overflowing with foot and bike traffic. And don’t panic, but we may also have a slightly more difficult time finding a parking spot.

That’s because 150-plus Bay Area techies and other thought leaders from across the globe are being invited by two outside organizations—Edge City and the Esmeralda Land Company—to become the "full-time residents" of an ambitious, monthlong "popup village" here in town, from June 2-30. Hundreds more short-term visitors are invited to stop by as well.

Onlookers speculate it might be one of the largest-ever influxes of visitors to Healdsburg in search of something other than wine.

The Edge City organization is run by Janine Leger, a South Africa native and Austin resident in her early 30s, and Timour Kosters, a young New York City startup builder and investor. They recently hosted a similar weeklong event in Denver—inspired by a couple of giant, two-month-long seaside crypto villages they attended and helped organize last year in Montenegro and Istanbul. And they’re already planning another six-week village in Southeast Asia this fall.

The raison de vivre for these excitable young entrepreneurs is nothing less than to reimagine the way society works—and they’ve chosen Healdsburg as the next staging ground for their grand experiment. They’re calling it a "gathering for people building the future."

The Healdsburg event will "help us expose top builders and funders in the SF tech scenes to the movement we’re building," Edge City organizers say on their website.

No new housing will be constructed in Healdsburg to create the village of "Edge Esmeralda," as its founders call it. Instead, attendees will be encouraged to stay in existing hotels at a discount—particularly the cluster of hotels near the Dry Creek exit off Highway 101, including Hotel Trio and the Best Western, and, about a mile south, the H2Hotel and Harmon Guest House.

Participants will then be encouraged to walk and bike along the Foss Creek Pathway to attend daily seminars, meetups, work parties, communal meals and other events scheduled within close proximity to that mile stretch.

"I’ve long dreamed of living in a small town while also being surrounded by interesting, creative people," says Devon Zuegel, the head of Edge City’s partner organization, the Esmeralda Land Company. "Healdsburg is one of the few places I’ve been that hits both notes at the same time."

Zeugel says the hope for the event is to "add to the amazing community that Healdsburg already has, mix in new ideas and people, and learn from and collaborate with locals."

Healdsburg City Councilmember Ariel Kelley, who’s been in the loop and shown her support for the past few months, thinks of Edge Esmeralda as a cross between a conference and a festival. She likens it to the weeklong Aspen Ideas Festival in that "folks who are outstanding professionals in a variety of spaces are coming to participate and walk and bike and be part of the local vibe."

SERENDIPITY LANE Healdsburg politician Ariel Kelley is seen here riding her bike along the Foss Creek Pathway—an integral part of the plan for Edge Esmeralda.

Kelley adds: "I think it’s a cool concept. We’ve mastered the art of wine tourism, but this is a much different approach to inviting people to experience Healdsburg."

Attendees from out of town will be paying around $500 to $2,000 to attend for the full month—or more if they want to invest in the concept, a la venture capitalists.

However, those with a Sonoma County address can skip the application process and pay a special price for locals: $195 to access all the Edge Esmeralda programming in town during June.

That’s less than a single meal at the Healdsburg Wine & Food Festival weekend the month prior.

Healdsburg residents can find more info, purchase tickets and submit input and ideas on the Edge Esmeralda website.

The dozens of talks, salons and sessions being cooked up for the village calendar are divided into the following themes: human organization, including "new towns and cities" and the "evolution of education and parenting"; artificial intelligence; "real-world crypto"; "health, longevity and bio" topics, including neurotech and biohacking; and "hard tech" innovations in areas like geoengineering, nanotech, space exploration and renewable energy.

Many in town who’ve checked out the Edge Esmeralda promo materials have had trouble wrapping their heads around the whole thing.

The materials are full of sci-fi imagery, like floating cities and poolside live-work utopias, and are packed with buzzwords from crypto counterculture: Zero-knowledge. Unconference. Solarpunk.

Speaking to the Tribune in the lobby of Hotel Trio, Edge City co-founder Janine Ledger says: "Solarpunk is about techno optimism. It’s about being optimistic about technology and integrating technology into nature in a more synergistic way."

A real-world map of Healdsburg released by organizers in late March shows the main local venues that will host Edge Esmeralda events or serve as a resource for attendees: at the north end there’s the Healdsburg Community Center, Big John’s grocery, Planck Coffee and the hotels nearby; and at the south end there’s the CraftWork co-working space, Raven Theater, Paul Mahder Gallery and the hotels nearby. Organizers are hoping more local institutions will keep coming forward to get involved, too, as hype builds.

CORRIDOR Organizers see these as the Healdsburg hotspots for their flash community. (Image courtesy of Edge Esmeralda)

They’ve also reached out to local nonprofits, like Corazón Healdsburg and Farm to Pantry, to see where they can be of service.

Farm to Pantry leaders confirm they’re working with Edge Esmeralda organizers to set up volunteer harvest days and other farm work for participants.

"When I met with them, I was struck by their innovative look to the future and commitment to long-term impact, despite the designated one month for the popup," says Rosa Gonzalez, interim executive director. "Farm to Pantry is a natural fit for Edge Esmeralda’s healthy aspects of building community; they seem aligned with our mission for equity and access in land and food."

Leger, one of the organizers, says: "What we want to do here is not come and use Healdsburg. We want to give back and help improve it."

Organizers are also trying to avoid a parking catastrophe downtown, which they know wouldn’t win them any fans. In messages to potential attendees, they’ve repeatedly stressed that this is supposed to be a car-free experience.

"You can bike and walk to everything," Leger says. "We want it to be fully walkable along the corridor."

By "corridor" she means the Foss Creek Pathway, an idyllic trail along the edge of town that city leaders have been building out for years. The Edge folks have taken to calling it their "serendipity lane"—because that’s "where you’ll bump into fellow attendees between sessions and go for walks with new friends."

Organizers plan to truck in "a bunch of bikes" for attendees to use as transportation—along with the notorious blue e-bikes that already litter the streets of Healdsburg, and the free Sonoma County Transit shuttle that loops around town all day.

Councilmember Kelley says it’s been interesting to watch the Edge Esmeralda people marvel at what already exists here. "We take so much of that infrastructure for granted," she says. "When people from an outside place look at how truly walkable and bikeable Healdsburg truly is … they get really excited."

Another big goal of the village is to "integrate family life with creative life" by offering ample programming and activities for kids and families.

Here’s the vision for June in Healdsburg, as described in a recent public letter from Edge Esmeralda organizers: "Imagine living in a small town within walking distance of friends, family, and people you admire. On your way to the coworking space, you run into your favorite author in the town square. After a productive morning, a friend a few desks over invites you on a walk to brainstorm a hackathon project. Then, at dinner, everyone gathers for a healthy meal grown just over the hill. The mayor pops in to share an update on the upcoming art festival, alongside a jam-packed weekend on the latest in AI and Biotech."

Leger also says she envisions a community run each morning, and a "sauna/cold plunge" situation somewhere near the hotels at the north end.

Much of the dream for Edge Esmeralda, however fantastical, does seem to come down to combating loneliness and isolation by bringing people with similar new-age interests together in physical space and time.

TESTING GROUND One of the groups behind Healdsburg’s popup village staged a similar weeklong event in Denver earlier this year. (Photo courtesy of Edge City)

It draws on a growing movement, made manifest by a crypto-backed group called Zuzalu at popup villages in Montenegro and Istanbul last year, that hopes to forge a real, sustainable home for internet tribes.

"A large part of what we are testing is different ways of living and working together," Edge Esmeralda organizers say of their Healdsburg village. In fact, Zuegel from the Esmeralda Land Company is looking to use this as a model to build an actual village—possibly somewhere north of us, in rural Mendocino County.

"My inspiration for this work was the place where I spent summers growing up visiting my grandmother," Zuegel says. "It’s called Chautauqua, a small town in western New York that, like Healdsburg, punches way above its weight in terms of culture and creativity. For nine weeks every summer, the town hosts daily lectures, workshops and performances."

She continues: "You can think of Chautauqua kind of like a college campus, but instead of having full-time students, it’s for multigenerational families. It’s a place where neighbors wave from their front porches and kids have complete freedom roaming around on bikes, because the community is so close-knit that you always know there’s someone keeping an eye on them."

So get ready, Healdsburg. Unless this is a farce of Fyre Festival magnitude, we’ve got a lot to live up to this summer.

Simone Wilson was born and raised in Healdsburg, CA, where she was the editor of the Healdsburg High School Hound's Bark. She has since worked as a local journalist for publications in San Diego, Los Angeles, New York City and the Middle East. Simone is now a senior product manager and staff writer for the Healdsburg Tribune.


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