Covelo: Small Town California

After following a winding, 32 mile road through the mountains, the altitude peaks, the trees clear, and I see a small scattering of buildings at the bottom of the valley. Covelo, California, nestled in a valley of Mendocino County, is 178 miles northeast of San Francisco. The average population is 1,300 residents, a third of which live on the Round Valley Indian Reservation. I find myself in this small town thanks to a roommate and fellow visual journalist, Mischa Lopiano, who calls this home.

With Lopiano as my guide, I get an insider’s perspective of this tight knit community. As we walk down the sidewalk, passersby greet him warmly, wish him a happy belated birthday, and congratulate him on his feats at school. His father, Denny Lopiano, owns an Italian-American restaurant, the North Fork Cafe. Being the only restaurant in town, the Lopiano’s access the heart of the community through the gathering of families and friends over food.

 Denny opened the North Fork Cafe 23 years ago, one year before Mischa was born. “I grew up in that restaurant,” says Mischa. Hired as an official employee when he turned 15, Mischa recalls hanging out at the restaurant since before he can remember.

Tony Kanowanik sits in his backyard in Covelo, California, where he was born and raised. © Sarah Bourscheid 2014

Tony Kanowanik sits in his backyard in Covelo, California, where he was born and raised. © Sarah Bourscheid 2014

The Lopianos proved to be a gateway to community members. Denny has relationships with all the regulars who frequent the restaurant, and Mischa’s mother, Tekla Broz, has taught generations of locals through her job as a third grade teacher.This is how I meet Tony.

Tony Kanowanik works at Building Horizons, an after school program for Native American youths in Covelo. According to the 2013 Census, 30 percent of high schoolers don’t enroll in higher education.

Kanowanik’s family is from the Pomo Tribe. Covelo, or the Round Valley, has been home to Native Americans for over 10,000 years. The largest tribe is the Yuki, but others in the area include the Nomlacki, Concow, and Pomo. The Round Valley Indian Reservation (RVIT) was established in 1856 to protect the Yuki and free space on their land for new settlers. The current population is 50 percent Caucasian, 40 percent American Indian, and 10 percent Hispanic or Latino.

Like other small towns in America, Covelo has a bank, a bar, a building supply store, a cafe, a feed store and a gas station.  In addition, you’ll find most establishments in this town are known on a first name basis, such as Keith’s grocery store, Dan’s Market, June Marie’s gift store, or Steve’s Auto Body. The quaint charm of this close community was both welcoming and refreshing. With such a homey atmosphere, it’s no surprise why most people stay their entire lives.