I’ve often been confronted with this question. I mean, I often ask myself this question. What is the city of Davis? Can we correctly classify Davis as rural or urban? More precisely, is Davis suburban or is it simply a rural town?
Obviously, for this post, I take up the task of answering this question. Before I answer it, I have to make clear that my thoughts on the matter will probably be colored by the modes of thinking intrinsic to my urban upbringing. Of course, I hope to keep this ostensible bias from creeping into this post.
To start, I will say that I consider Davis to be rural, at least relative to my place of origin, Los Angeles. However, I believe that Davis is less rural than, say, a town of 5,000 in Idaho. In this regard, Davis is rural lite, to use a humorous phrase.
Towards the beginning of this semester, we explored potential definitions of rurality proffered by various scholars. Yet, we were unable to agree upon the criteria that aptly define rurality. As I see it, rurality can be properly defined by taking into account cultural (including political), economic, and demographic factors.
With that in mind, I believe that a conservative cultural normativity, an extractive economy, and a homogenous population are the most significant characteristics rendering a place rural.
By saying that rural areas possess a conservative cultural normativity, I mean that these areas are typified by a certain social inertia, i.e. increasingly archaic forms of social relations. The phrase “extractive economy” means an economy characterized entirely by the extricating of raw materials from the earth (e.g. coal mining, farming, fishing, forestry, etc.). On the other hand, urban areas possess economies based entirely upon the conversion of these raw materials into manufactured commodities. By stating that rural areas are demographically homogenous, I mean that they are largely white.
Davis seems to fit these criteria. However, there is certainly more to say in that regard. Davis is unique in that it contains a major university, namely UC Davis. With that come certain cultural and economic traits foreign to rurality.
UC Davis maintains a constant influx of thousands of students from all over the country and, for that matter, all over the world. It is important to note, however, that the school largely supplies skilled labor and research for the agricultural industry, which seems to indicate the school is integrated within northern California’s rural (extractive) economy as opposed to simply being a foreign entity superimposed on the city.
I believe that UC Davis’s presence has also produced a degree of anomalous—anomalous within rural America, that is—cultural and political liberalism. Indeed, Davis seems to be famous for its cultural and political eccentricities.
These eccentricities make me wonder if Davis is really just a gentrified island within Central Valley rurality. Davis, a largely middle class community, certainly has its share of luxury, and it seems to share many traits with a typical southern California suburb. Indeed, Davis could be classified as a suburb of Sacramento. However, it is arguable that even Sacramento is a semi-urban island surrounded by agricultural terrain.