Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Things Ain't So Pretty In Fairfield City

Mrs Elliott and I are presently down in California, visiting the kids. The two families live in Fairfield and Vacaville, two cities next to each other, located about 50 minutes east of San Francisco on the I-80 corridor.

It's an area completely lacking in charm. There is sprawl every direction, and it's endless. The cities are composed of two basic elements: housing and shopping centers. Tatty older houses on tiny lots, packed together street after street after street, and by "older" I don't mean charming funky older, I mean they were crappy houses when they were built and they've not gotten any better. They go for miles, relieved only by massive shopping malls embedded every so often into the sea of houses.

In the shopping malls you can find every damn chain store and restaurant of indifferent quality you can think of. Chili's, Applebees, Chuckee Cheeses, McDonalds, Home Buffet, -- this is breeder territory, I have not seen a single restaurant for grown people who don't have kids in tow. The stores are your Targets and Lowe's and J.C. Penny's and Michaels and the list goes on an on and not one of them is a place you haven't visited time and time again. None is unique or interesting. For Christ's sake if you blindfolded someone and set them down in any one of these asphalt surrounded clusters of charmless stores and pulled off the blindfold they'd have no way of knowing what town they were in. There's no here here.

Welcome to Generica.

The people work, come home, spend their money in the chains which suck most of the money right back out from the community. Travis Air Force Base probably dumps a lot of money into the area. So the money comes from our tax dollars into the pockets of the locals here, who then spend it in the chains, and that money that doesn't go to minimum wage store employees promptly departs the community and heads to the store corporate headquarters. This is a business model that can never result in a city getting prosperous because there's no earthly reason why anyone would want to invest in the place unless they were looking for cheap housing and all the crappy stores you could want -- as long as you are willing to drive your car to them. The distances make walking quite impossible, and as I saw yesterday, cycling is no Swiss picnic.

We bought a house here for one of the kids and the grandchildren, a place he could afford which is out of the nasty part of Oakland that they had been living in. The house here has a bit of a back yard. Each child gets his and her own room.

It's a serious fixer-upper, been abandoned for a few years.

Yesterday morning I rode my bicycle to Home Depot to pick up some cabinet hardware, a round trip of about eleven miles. And I was reminded how much I dislike riding a bike in suburban sprawl in California. The cars speed up if they see you crossing the road ahead of them, the accommodations for cycling are rudimentary and clearly show that whoever designed them is unfamiliar with bike riding. It's a struggle to get anywhere safely.

Unlike the PNW, where cycling is more mainstream, the only other people I saw on bicycles were homeless guys or Hispanic men riding little BMX bikes. So around here, riding a bicycle sends the message that one is a marginalized person.

There is a former railroad right of way that cuts through the neighborhoods in a fairly straight direction from the house to the hardware store, and the city thoughtfully put a bike/walking path where the rails used to be. It did get me off the city streets for several miles, but no one really uses it: other than a two sleeping homeless guys and some Mexican men drinking beer, I was the only one using it for its intended purpose.

Anyway, we're working to make this house more liveable, as well as trying to make a habitable "granny flat" in the garage for Mrs Elliott and me to stay in when we visit. Other than the bike ride, I found no time for an oil painting I wanted to work on, the amount of work to be done is so overwhelming.

Visiting here reminded me how places like this are just not for me. I am thankful that I no longer live in suburban California, and live in a pretty place as Bend, which has a sense of community that these soulless places entirely lack. We're driving north today.

Thinking of making it a two-day drive, and stay at this funky little B and B in Dorris, then swing by Crater Lake on the way back home. Spring may arrive later in Central Oregon than it does here, but Bend doesn't crush my soul the way these places do.


  1. "There is sprawl every direction, and it's endless. The cities are composed of two basic elements: housing and shopping centers."

    Sounds like Bend, only bigger.

  2. No, it's not at like Bend. I'm not good enough of a writer to express the dreary sameness and extent of the sprawl. Bend has neighborhoods, areas built at different times, many with their own character. The Cali sprawl is one of endless repetition. In the time it takes you to drive from one side of Bend to the other, you will not have begun to penetrate the sprawl, nor would you have any visual indication that you'd even moved, as one area looks quite like the others.

  3. I'm sure that at one time, maybe 60 or 70 years ago, those California towns had distinct neighborhoods too, but they were engulfed by the sprawl. We see the beginnings of that process in Bend and environs today. The local builder-developer-realtor bloc has visions of turning Bend into a city of 200,000 or more. How much "character" will be left after that happens?

  4. "The local builder-developer-realtor bloc has visions of turning Bend into a city of 200,000 or more. How much "character" will be left after that happens?"

    Gotta fight the bastards tooth and nail. Santa Barbara has successfully tamed the development interests, and it has been done elsewhere, too. Fucking Bulletin will be no help in this, and while The Source has some writers who'd like to see Bend not get any more fucked, they are not nearly incendiary enough.

    Is there a petition system here whereby a a change can be made in the approval process where citizens can thumbs-up or down development plans? If not, how can the charter or whatever it is get changed?

    How about getting something on the books requiring that anyone with commercial interests in proposed development has to recuse themself?

    Also, a serious scumbag photog who can get us some over the transom shots of city planners sucking developer dick would be most helpful.

    Anything that slows the growth, whether by monkeywrenching it or by letting the folk that live here have a voice is desirable.

    But I rant. But I'm not wrong: the direction the city takes over the next 20 years is not inevitable unless good and thoughtful people give up. The city just has a birth defect in its charter that gives the commercial interests too much say.

  5. Read the piece by Eric Flowers in this week's Source about how the property tax limitation imposed by Oregon Measure 5 forces cities to encourage growth because it's the only way they can generate new revenue. This is the same thing that happened in California in the wake of passage of Howard Jarvis's notorious Prop 13 in 1978. California got a head start on us, but we're both headed for the same place.

  6. I didn't say that resisting the pressure to sprawl would be easy. Ballot Measure 5 is just another force to contend with. People will move from cities that don't think that their schools should be funded well enough so their children aren't idiots to areas where the voters support schools. It's economic Darwinism in action. A few decades and there will be cities populated by knuckledragging cretins, and cities which have successfully managed to support their schools without resorting to sprawl. It just takes creativity and courage.

    Proponents of growth will cheerfully hoist the false dilemmas of controlled growth = no schools, or no growth = no jobs and they should be ignored. Ideally.

    Such arguments say that we have no choice, no choice, but to build continuously and forever because we aren't bright enough to find another way to make a living.

    The same argument could be made in favor of strip-mining parklands and our backyards for, oh I dunno, some mineral that can be sold for a profit, but people would not stand for that because it's ugly and ruins the joint. Since sprawl is somewhat less unsightly people tend to tolerate it ... until it makes a place intolerable to live in.

    Then the developers pack up and move to another place to strip-mine. They don't know any better, it's all they know how to do.

  7. One thing in Oregon's favor that reduces, the pressure to let big box shopping malls open up all over the damn place: in California, a portion of the retail sales tax collected within a city, is returned to the city by the gummint. This seriously incentivizes cities to approve asphalt and stucco strip malls.

    Cities are very close together down there, in many places contiguous, so do you want that rival asshole city five miles away to get all that tax money? I think not! Councilors, I urge you to approve this 45-acre retail development!

  8. We went to Clear Lake, CA some years ago to see if we wanted to move there, and on the return trip we went through the bay area and turned east at Oakland to get back into the middle of the state and our highway home. I had the exact same experience you're describing on the way out through the suburbs; it appeared that the same malls were repeating every 8-10 miles, with the same stores and restaurants, in the same order, even. It was surreal; I felt like I was living not Groundhog Day but Groundhog Minute.
    I remember turning to my wife and asking "how in the hell can they possibly need this many Home Depots up here?" (this after we passed the fifth one in less than a half-hour).
    I may live in a pissant desert right-wing nutjob dustbowl, but there's only one Home Depot and one Walmart within 90 miles, and you can drive for 15 minutes and forget you were ever in a town.
    I don't understand what the people that live in those places think they've chosen for themselves; that can't possibly be what they wanted.

  9. " appeared that the same malls were repeating every 8-10 miles, with the same stores and restaurants, in the same order, even. It was surreal; I felt like I was living not Groundhog Day but Groundhog Minute."

    Now that's what I was trying to say!


------------ Facebook update page widget added 3/2012 --------------
------------ ends facebook update page widget -------------