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.