Michael Wells
by Michael Wells
Mon Feb 23rd 2009 at 1:48pm UTC

California Dreamin’?

A story in Sunday’s New York Times about a drought in Central California made me think again about Modesto, the Central Valley town where I grew up. While we focus on the problems of large cities like Detroit, agricultural and exurban areas like the Valley are crumbling. The implications for our food supply, for millions of people and for our nation, are dire.

Here’s an excerpt from the Times piece:

The country’s biggest agricultural engine, California’s sprawling Central Valley, is being battered by the recession like farmland most everywhere. But in an unlucky strike of nature, the downturn is being deepened by a severe drought that threatens to drive up joblessness, increase and cripple farms and towns.

Across the valley, towns are already seeing some of the worst unemployment in the country, with rates three and four times the national average, as well as reported increases in all manner of social ills: drug use, excessive drinking and rises in hunger and domestic violence.

Ironically, many of our neighbors and friends my parents’ age when I was growing up were Okies and Dust Bowl refugees. This drought may now impact their grandchildren the same way but it’s not clear where they can go.

Modesto sometimes seems to be suffering the plagues of Egypt. However, the region’s problems precede the downturn by a couple of decades and, in fact, Modesto suffered from the dot-com boom as well. The downtown is pretty dead, but the malls that replaced it are also suffering.

My mother lived in the house I grew up in until a couple of years ago, so I visited frequently. Our working class neighborhood has turned into a virtual slum (yes, they don’t only exist in big cities). Several of the neighbors live in the cash economy, the guy across the street ran a small junk yard in his backyard. When we were cleaning out her house, the neighbors were digging through the dumpbox in broad daylight.

I started to notice Modesto’s statistics when I read Rise, then in postings on this blog. In Rise, Modesto ranked 208 of 265 in the creativity index. This isn’t the deep South or rural Midwest, but a medium-sized city some 90 miles from San Francisco.

During the housing bubble, Modesto ranked high on the unaffordability list, as prices were driven up by Bay Area commuters earning much more than the locals. Then when the bubble burst, it was in the top ranks of foreclosures. Median house price went from $110,000 in 2000 to $350,000 in early 2006 to $175,000 today (Zillow numbers).

As I’ve watched lists on this blog, Modesto commonly is at the bottom, most recently in best places for small business (#98 of 100). It was virtually dead last in Bert Sperling’s last Best Places list. Other lists as diverse as worst air pollution and numbers of college-educated women have Modesto scraping bottom. Decades of industrial fertilizer and pesticides have sunk into the ground and poisoned the aquifer, so that the Valley is a place where drinking bottled water is an actual health measure.

The Valley is different from the farming parts of the Midwest, it’s not losing population, and grows pretty high value orchard and truck farm crops. Nevertheless, it’s collapsing and the repercussions will likely affect the nearby San Francisco-Silicon Valley region and California’s creative class economy.

9 Responses to “California Dreamin’?”

  1. Wil Says:

    Modesto, and places like Stockton are suffering. But other agricultural locations in the Central Valley, like Grass Valley, Chico, as well as suburban, and exurban Sacramento, not to mention the foothills in Gold Country, are doing much better. I think that places affected by extreme Bay Area commuters have the worst situation, which is the boom then bust of housing, along with the destruction of small farming communities by developers. However, the Foothills, and the other location I mentioned, have great potential as people leave S.F., and L.A. for reasonably priced good lifestyles.

  2. Michael Wells Says:

    I think of Grass Valley as foothills rather than Central Valley agricultural. Its become sort of an artists colony and even more than the Central Valley, its problem is going to be water. I have friends who live there and already when I visited them 20+ years ago, they said the water tables were dropping, people had to keep drilling their wells deeper because of the developments nearby. When I was a kid all of the Gold Rush country (Sierra foothills) was brown and dusty. I suspect it may be again if the population exceeds the carrying capacity of the water supply. If masses of folks head from SF & LA for the hills, it’s not going to be pretty.

    My wife’s sister lives in Chico and I haven’t heard how they’re doing economically, which I assume means it’s not desperate. But I know DR Horton was doing huge developments up there, so they’re probably going to have some housing bubble woes too.

  3. Wil Says:

    Grass valley is foothills, I suppose anything above Pollock Pines would be foothills. Your observation about water highlights the only substantial problems with those areas in terms of long term growth. Expanded irrigation might reduce the impact of low water.. Chico, which is a beautiful area, does well because of the university, and the businesses created by graduates. It wouldn’t be a bad place to start up a company that requires lots of square footage and a relatively inexpensive workforce…Fresno is also an interesting central valley(unexpecttedly)artsy town.

  4. Michael Wells Says:

    Ah Fresno, home of William Soroyan the crazy wonderful Armenian author. I wouldn’t be surprised if his hometown had become artsy, although I haven’t been there in years. Probably more Mexican than Armenian now, but I think still a melting pot, which almost always means great arts & crafts.

  5. Brian Says:

    Modesto’s unemployment rate is always higher than national averages. Today’s rate (13.6%) is not particularly high relative to recent years. In the early-90s it was closing in on 20% and there are only a few months since 1990 when the unemployment rate was in the single digits. That doesn’t mean things are great, but I’m not sure they’ve crumbled much in the past 10 years. Compared to the coastal cities the Central Valley has suffered more in terms of relative decline. The real problem is that both you and I are from Modesto and no longer live there. Aside from Sacramento, Fresno and a few other smaller towns, the Central Valley has trouble retaining and attracting professional college graduates – the Creative Class.

  6. Michael Wells Says:


    I couldn’t wait to get out, nor could most of my friends. I noticed that there were never any class reunions and figured that everyone who could organize one had left. Then there was one after a few decades and so I went, turned out it had been organized by a couple who had left but moved back to care for aging parents. When they leave again it will be back to the stone age.

    So why is someplace like Modesto so dead end and Fresno more creative (if it is, I haven’t actually been there)? It’s less than 100 miles from San Francisco, one of the more creative places on the planet. For that matter, it’s roughly halfway between Sacramento and Fresno. There’s a state college and a junior college. It is, or at least was, beautiful country. There’s some ethnic mix, although it doesn’t celebrate it like Fresno (90 nationalities! the websites brag.) Housing is affordable by Bay Area standards, but artists don’t move there. The idea of high tech is unthinkable.

    Why did we leave? Why did George Lucas leave? Why did my old friend who’s a national expert on Bonsai leave? Why did my friend who’s an artist in Grass Valley leave? It’s not as if Modesto doesn’t grow creatives, it just can’t retain them. Sort of the same question Richard asks about Pittsburgh in Rise.

  7. Wil Says:

    Modesto is so close to San Francisco/Oakland/Silicon Valley that young people can’t resist being pulled away.

  8. Aikos Says:

    I remember sitting in my backyard in 1991 in Sacramenot doing a wonky readthru of Quality of Life listing of the top 300 american metro areas. My memory is that the Valley Cities (Yuba City, Marysville, Stockton, Modesto, Bakersfield, Fresno) were in the bottom 20 or so.

    But Sacramento sucked for me in terms of tolerance of creativity. I’d have a new idea, and people would be threatened, angry, defensive, confused or ridiculing. The city I moved to, high in creativity, welcomes me and many others, and I welcome them. Perhaps this is a factor. I was struck when I lived in 1999 in Stockton how unlucky the city was, how there was no there there.

    I DO think having SF nearby is a draw, but it is so unaffordable.

    But you are right to write about the Central Valley. If we can learn about creativity by studying creative cities, we can also learn about it by looking at the uncreative cities. That said, if the economy crashes, ag will count for more, and hipness less.

  9. Wil Says:

    Akios said: “if the economy crashes, ag will count for more, and hipness less.” I think that is very true. In todays NYT there was an article about a hip neighbourhood crashing. My impression was that it highlighted the superficiality of hipness.