Monday, January 24, 2011

A rural state of mind

I grew up in Modesto, California, a place that no one could label rural while keeping a straight face. If we agree with the Census Bureau that a settlement with at least 2,500 people qualifies as “urban,” then Modesto has not been rural for at least a century. Indeed, by the time my mother’s family moved there a little over fifty years ago, the population stood at around 40,000. Today it is over 200,000. The city does still rely heavily on agriculture, with Del Monte, E&J Gallo, and Foster Farms dominating the local economy. But when other key employers include a major junior college and three large hospitals, it’s difficult to contend that the place suffers from the lack of resources that often helps distinguish a rural community from its urban counterpart. Whatever statistical criteria we choose to apply, Modesto is urban.

So then why does it feel rural? Why is my instinct – before I sit down and think about it – to categorize my hometown as a small community set apart from the urban world?

I have two complimentary theories. Given that I’m writing largely about my own perceptions of Modesto, each theory is based almost exclusively on personal experience. The first has to do with my memories of and associations with the city. As a child walking to elementary school, I often smelled either cows or tomato canneries, depending on which way the wind was blowing. As a member of my high school’s cross country team, I ran along creeks and canals past orchards and pastures. My aunt and uncle raised horses on a ranch on the outskirts of town. In short, I have always been acutely aware of Modesto’s intimate connection with agriculture, even though I grew up in a solidly suburban neighborhood and couldn’t tell you the difference between a walnut tree and an almond tree.

My second theory has to do with contrast – with what Modesto most assuredly is not. Despite the hardy (crazy?) souls who commute to San Francisco every day, Modesto is quite distinct from California’s major urban centers both in terms of population and culture. More to the point, though, my experience has been that the Central Valley as a whole is perceived as very different from the most urban parts of the state. If the Bay Area is full of technophiles and hippies, and Los Angeles is overrun with surfers and movie stars, then the Valley is the land of cow towns and limited electricity. Beyond my innate sense of the place, then, the stereotypes I have encountered about Modesto have only reinforced its rural features in my mind. Compared to a place like San Francisco, Modesto is not perceived as merely a different kind of urban, but as not urban to begin with.

My point is not that Modesto is objectively rural despite its obvious urban features. Rather, I simply believe that rural can be a state of mind – a feeling or understanding that a place is not part of the culture emanating from urban centers. This can have positive effects, as in feeling free from the “rat race.” Alternatively, it can lead to a sense of being cut off from resources and opportunities. In any case, my personal experience is that rural psychology can find its way into communities that don’t meet many or even most of the traditional criteria that define rural.

1 comment:

Caitlin said...

I have similar connotations with Salinas, where I moved after my parents divorced at the age of 15. While the city is rather large (150,000 or so people counted, with many more undocumented people who are not), I can't help but feel that things work differently there. The economy is largely based in agriculture and the culture itself reminds me much more of the "Old West" than of San Francisco, which is so quintessentially urban. Perhaps there should be a new vernacular or label for places like Modesto or Salinas, which aren't rural but certainly aren't urban or even suburban. What is a word to describe so many of these Central Valley "cities"?