Monday, October 20, 2014

What is Davis, California?

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.

In the final analysis, I would categorize Davis as a semi-gentrified rural suburb. Many of its inhabitants enjoy the comfort of middle-class conveniences. However, this avant-garde mode of living is sandwiched amidst a landmass of seemingly endless farmland. As a result, from an urban outsiders perspective, Davis is lite on the amenities of gentrification and lite on the rurality. It really is an odd mixture of both, which makes for an endlessly entertaining spectacle. At times, the juxtaposition of immensely disparate personalities borders on the absurd.

6 comments:

Desi Fairly said...

You skimmed over this fact in the beginning of the post, but I think it certainly colors the content of your conclusion: you are originally from the mega-sprawl of Los Angles. So am I. It's interesting to consider how hometown effects one's paradigm of what constitutes "rural." For example, I'd love to see this same blog topic duplicated by someone from a strictly agricultural town with less than 5,000 people.

Kate said...

I love Davis. Being from the area, my bias toward Davis is this: Davis is a cultural oasis surrounded by rural and urban alike. There common adage in the Sacramento area is "2 hours from San Francisco, 2 hours from Tahoe." Like your post mentions, Davis has wonderful culture and qualities that many rural and urban areas alike could envy. It is worth mentioning that Davis has evolved largely into what it is because of the University and the Professors that reside within the town. The progress of Davis into the town that we know today is also a somewhat new transition. My parents both attended Davis in the late 1980s and the school and the town have greatly expanded since then. Good post.

Enrique Fernandez said...

Having grown up in this area, this is an issue that I have always struggled with. Is Davis rural or urban?

I definitely appreciate the thought and consideration you put into the label you've developed. Though, I'm not sure if Davis is a "semi-gentrified rural suburb."

I would call Ames, IA or Iowa City, IA more of a "semi-gentrified rural suburb." As those communities, both with universities, are more closely tied to the rural environment they are present. Looking at Davis, as it is (an upper middle class community with various urban amenities nestled closely to the metropolis of Sacramento that just happens to be surrounded by agricultural land), I would say that Davis is an urban community that nostalgically holds to this romantic idea of rurality.

Damon Alimouri said...

@ Enrique: Good comment... my issue, however, is that I do not think that Sacramento can be correctly considered a metropolis.

That's a stretch. New York City, Mexico City, Tokyo, Chicago, those are metropolises.

I am a big fan of people watching. I make assessments of milieus I happen to come across based on those observations.

Go to the Arden Fair Mall, and sit there for an hour. The amalgam of people is amazing. As I see it, Its a cross-section of rurality and urbanity.

Charlie said...

Davis is a unique place, and I think that’s largely because of the university. Davis isn’t some garden-variety small Central Valley town. It’s located in the Central Valley, but a lot of people who live in Davis are from the Bay Area and Southern California. Davis has a large population of young people. Davis has a lot of people with post-secondary education. Thus, the people of Davis might be more similar to those of urban areas, but I think the place is rural. I like the word “island” when you use it to describe Davis, because I think that’s what Davis is—it’s secluded, but highly accessible from the “mainland” (the more populated areas of Sacramento and the Bay Area).

Moona said...

I have actually been asking myself the same question since the first day of class when someone brought up the fact that they had thought of Davis as a rural area when they had initially moved here. I think the fact that we are even asking this question proves that rural versus urban is not something so black and white or that can be categorized so easily. Perhaps, rurality and urbanity are more of a continuum or spectrum rather than complete opposites. I thought you also brought up a good point that one’s perception of an area as rural or urban might depend on where one grew up. I think this further serves to show that it’s all relative and that rural and urban are more likely part of one continuum.