Gennady Sheyner | Palo Alto Weekly

On Aug. 19, 1904, a grocer named Frank Backus joined dozens of merchants and fellow Mayfield residents in asking the Board of Trustees to ban alcohol sales.

For Backus and his compatriots, the reasons for the prohibition had at least as much to do with economics as morals. Just north of Mayfield, in the dry, posh and intellectual college town of Palo Alto, an economic boom was taking place, with houses renting for more than $25 a month. In the freshly incorporated town of Mayfield, meanwhile, the only successful businesses were saloons — and their success didn’t exactly spill over to the surrounding area.

Backus told the Board that Mayfield residents were weary of “renting our cottages for $5 to $6 a month” and watching property values go “down, down, down.” The people of Mayfield, he said, were “tired of having the roughs from all around the country come here, get drunk and raise a row,” according to Ward Winslow’s “Palo Alto: A centennial history.”

“We need life and new capital here,” Backus said. “Fortune knocks at every door but once. It is knocking at the door of Mayfield now. If you allow this chance to go by, another may never come.”

Backus prevailed. When the ban kicked in on Jan. 1, 1905, Mayfield officials showed they meant business by arresting every saloon owner who flouted it on New Year’s Day (which is to say, every saloon owner). But it seemed to have the intended effect of making Mayfield’s downtown more like Palo Alto’s. With its competitive spirit well intact, Mayfield went on to construct sidewalks, buy new fire equipment, put numbers on its houses and form the Women’s Improvement Association and a Boy Scouts troop.

Fast forward nine decades, and opportunity is once again knocking on the door of Mayfield, now incorporated into Palo Alto and better known as the California Avenue business district. After four years of planning, designing and litigating, the city is preparing to break ground this month on a massive renovation of California Avenue, a streetscape project that includes widening sidewalks, creating two new public plazas, replacing an old fountain with a new fountain sculpture and, most controversially, reducing driving lanes from four to two. {….}