‘Techno Optimists’ Swarm Healdsburg

What Locals Thought of Edge Esmeralda, the Mysterious ‘Popup Village’

June 26, 2024
TECH THEATER An Edge Esmeralda event at the Raven on June 10 kicked off a ‘LabWeek’ full of programming that focused on the topics of ‘neurotech, biotech, mixed reality, AI and longevity.’

Earlier this year, when Healdsburg resident and civic activist Richard Burg, 79, heard that a conference for techies and futurists called Edge Esmeralda was coming to town for the entire month of June, he was immediately skeptical.

"I thought, ‘Oh, we’re being colonized,’" Burg said.

Some called it a cult. Others, a scam. Many felt insulted by the idea of a group of outsiders coming here to tell us how to live.

Now, the core crew of 200 or so Edge Esmeralda participants who walked, biked and boarded around town this month—plus hundreds of others who dropped in for shorter stints—are preparing to vacate their Healdsburg hotel rooms, or wherever else they found to crash.

And plenty of locals are left wondering what just happened, if anything at all.

"I haven’t noticed any impact during my normal everyday activities," said Healdsburg Mayor David Hagele. Jeff Kay, city manager, added: "Most days, I don’t even notice that they’re here."

The leaders of the two main organizations behind the event, Janine Leger of Edge City and Devon Zuegel of Esmeralda Land Company—both young women in their 30s—had hoped to create the feeling of a multi-generational college campus within Healdsburg’s existing grid.

UNCONFERENCE An Edge Esmeralda talk hosted by the Convergent Research organization at a Healdsburg hotel.

"This isn’t such crazy utopian thinking," said Zuegel, who grew up in the Bay Area. "Basically, we’re just creating a little college campus. You can choose to attend the lectures. And if you choose not to, it just feels like your normal life. Only slightly more fun."

Zuegel and Leger’s vision sold more seats than they expected—including 150 month-long tickets, costing upward of $2,000 each (with dinner most nights), plus hundreds of other daily and weekly passes. More than 200 locals ended up buying in as well, for $200 each.

The "decentralized" programming calendar, where anyone with a ticket could add an event to the lineup, quickly filled out with 20-plus events per day. Most were held at a few central locations—like the CraftWork co-working space, the former Yoga on Center studio and local hotels where participants stayed.

CraftWork owner Jim Heid, incoming chair of the Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce, said many businesses in town benefitted from selling space or services to Edge Esmeralda. But a few found the flexible scheduling style chaotic and frustrating—for instance, when organizers added or canceled a session last-minute.

"We want to allow for spontaneity and serendipity," Heid said. "But it shouldn’t happen at the expense, either human or financial, of some of the businesses that are trying to be good hosts."

Topics of Discussion

Some of the topics covered at TEDx-style talks and interactive meetings throughout the month seemed stranger than fiction—like using telepathy on animals or trying out a new "spiritual machine" that induces lucid dreaming. Other sessions were more akin to group therapy, focusing on the interpersonal aspects of workplaces and communities.

Almost all centered around the principle of "techno optimism": the belief that humans should harness the power of modern technology to better the world.

If one looked closely enough, signs of foreign subcultures were visible around town. There were the nomadic cryptocurrency people in drapey clothing and toe-hugging footwear, some of whom attended a similar popup city last year in Montenegro—dreamed up by Vitalik Buterin, the billionaire behind the Ethereum crypto brand, and organized in part by Edge City.

PLAZA PICNIC Each Thursday evening in June, Edge Esmeralda organizers invited participants and locals to picnic together on the lawn of the Healdsburg Plaza.

Then there were the AI (artificial intelligence) people. Some wore little recorders around their necks that taped their daily interactions, Black Mirror-style. There were the gadget geeks: One shepherded a robot dog through the aisles of the Raven Theater; another rode a Honda Motocompacto scooter around the library.

Perhaps most mysterious were the longevity people, hosting jargon-heavy "hackathons" in dogged pursuit of figuring out how to live forever.

Healdsburg City Councilmember Chris Herrod said he barely noticed any of them. But for the sake of the local economy, he’s glad they were here—renting out venues, buying up hotel rooms and popping in and out of coffee and sandwich shops.

"Economic diversity is something that we need across the board," Herrod said. "That includes manufacturing and retail, but also tourism. So I generally have a positive outlook on anything that happens to Healdsburg that’s outside of food and wine. That would include athletics or arts—or, in this case, education."

Healdsburg resident Burg became one of the more active participants, even hosting his own forums. While he said he found some of the events "disappointing," he enjoyed many others—like a men’s healing group that he called "unusually well done."

Another regular attendee, 24-year-old Quaid Bulloch, is a Healdsburg native. "This is making Healdsburg feel new," he said while walking along the Foss Creek Pathway to an Edge Esmeralda event in town. "It’s kinda cool."

Heid at CraftWork said he’ll miss the optimism and energy that participants brought to Healdsburg—their naivete, even. "In a town that tends to grumble a lot and kind of cling to the past, it was really a breath of fresh air," he said.

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.


  1. At last, the Esmeralda Edgers are leaving town. The rainbows were becoming boring. The unicorns were eating my grass and shiting on my lawn, and the Leprechauns drank all my beer.
    Anyone who wants to live forever obviously hasn’t yet experienced old age.


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