Thursday, March 23, 2017

Observations from a hometown coffeeshop

Is Chico, California rural? A morning spent at a local coffeeshop reveals that it feels like it to some people.

With a population of almost 90,000, the urban epicenter of northern California hardly teeters on the edge of being "rural" by ecological measures. The strong farming communityhigh poverty rate (almost twice the national average), low sense of anonymity between two high schools, and lack of neighboring communities all  suggest, however, that it may be.

Stu stands to look out the window 
It is 6am, but they were probably here when the coffeeshop opened at 5am. This group of white-haired farmers has been coming to Mondo's Cafe since I was in high school down the street. A few members have switched out, moved closer to their grandkids, or passed on, but the aura remains intact. Talking over each other while ping-ponging through subjects, sizing up other early morning guests to the coffeeshop, and clustering multiple tables worth of chairs towards each other are no surprises to the early shift employees.

Water in Northern California 
Stu looks out the window. "We were irrigating by this time last year." Someone responds, "shit, I started in December last year." Water is the theme of the moment. This spins off onto conversations speckled with talk of proper irrigation techniques, water costs per acre-foot, and finally, what should and should not be done with Oroville Dam.

"They're dumping water now," someone chimes in. This verb choice may not be coincidental as many northern Californian farmers were angry with water contracts in the drought years that sent Sacramento River water to southern municipalities. To keep the scarce resource, some northerners revived the call for the State of Jefferson. When the dam filled to capacity last month, the emergency spillways were opened to release water from the reservoir and prevent uncontrolled release. A handful of angry commenters participated in a live stream of the event, frustrated that the water was being released. While some comments may be attributed to a misunderstanding of why it was being released onto an eroding spillway, others were genuine.

Attorneys and Federal Regulation 
Talking of water contracts, lawyers naturally come up next. "You know the Conquistadors had some faults, but they didn't allow any lawyers to come and I like that." This comment is followed by a group chant, "Hear, hear!" A single voice adds, "I heard that lawyers chartered a bus on the way to a convention, blew a tire and went over a cliff. A bystander walks up and says 'it's a tragedy...that the bus wasn't full.'" Needless to say, everyone laughs. No mention of the lack of access to justice, especially in Northern California, is made.

To them, it seems, attorneys signify regulation. Each member has something to say on the ins and outs of running a business. Disdain for ADA accommodations and establishing handicapped parking spaces are discussed ad nauseam. "It's no surprise why it's so expensive to run a business these days." Interestingly, each volunteers that they have a friend or family member that needs an accommodation. This may be due to the lack of anonymity in the community. Had they not revealed their experience with dependence on the accommodations, someone in the group would have been able to reveal their hypocrisy.  In true red-county fashion, they seem to be suggesting that business owners should accommodate those with needs, but they do not need the government to tell them to do it in a specific way.

Localness for Explanation
Familiarity with the area and community members is used to orient the conversation a number of times. To give directions, "you know that shop, down there on the midway, is the place Tom Chambers bought." To describe the recently deceased, "Bob Bailey... he had the place across from Bonderson's there... Bob Bailey did." To position a story, "Jack Lucas' place, where the water pools, I was driving out there."

This sort of familiarity and lack of anonymity is nothing new to rural scholars. Indeed, this characteristic of small towns is both for better and for worse to the people that live there.

On the other hand, lack of localness is mentioned to describe a new neighbor. "We bought a bunch of walnut trees from some guy that used to come up from Sacramento, he worked on the hill, in the assembly, or something. He didn't let us into his shop right away... it took about 6months you know" Everyone nods in understanding. Not letting the speaker into the shop suggests that people from big cities like Sacramento are understood to be untrusting and unwelcoming.

Attitudes towards women and the need for them in their lives are twofold. On one side, there is an air of coddling and care for them. "I did everything my wife asked before this rain came, but then I said no more housing projects for a while." There were a round of nods to this.

On the other side, there is loving reverence and mysticism. Joking about experiences from a younger age, "I learned to appreciate good living with middle aged women...that was back in the day when I could take my shirt off without scaring everybody." Talking about a young grandson's inability to mature, "he just needs to be looking for a cute girl."

This daydreaming is interrupted by Stu standing up to leave at 7:30am. Someone exclaims "where are you going?!" Suggesting that it is his habit and within his schedule to stay longer. He leaves without explanation, likely to be questioned at tomorrow's coffee meeting.

Trucks line the Mondo's Cafe parking lot
Mondo's Cafe
Mondo's Cafe is a community stalwart. When it first opened as Cafe Mondo, it was a more visible venue to the University students. When a Starbucks opened three doors down, the pressure was too much for the ownership to cope with. It changed hands and reopened as Mondo's Cafe. The Starbuck's eventually closed, for whatever conglomerate reason. In a cruel twist of fate for Starbucks, Mondo's Cafe inhabits that space now.

Mondo's is a work training cafe. This means that they employ individuals with developmental disabilities and provide them a competitive wage. This also means that it takes a minute or two longer to get your coffee order. It is not an ideal place for a swift morning caffeine-aholic.

What Mondo's is is hometown. Mondo's moved twice, and this pack of white-topped farmers followed. They carry Chico Chai, the local spicy chai blend that is only available in a handful of places outside the local Saturday farmer's market. They make their own muffins each morning. Conversations on diesel trucks, family farms, and livestock prices overshadow any mention of international events, technology, or travel. Sitting in Mondo's Cafe, Chico feels like a rural town.

I stand up to conclude my spectating and leave my father, the local rehabilitation physician in town, at the table. Indeed, as a final thought, he mentions that he knows a few of the guys, emphasizing the lack of anonymity in town.


Wynter K Miller said...
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Wynter K Miller said...


There were a number of things that you picked up on that I found especially interesting. I think perhaps the most striking element of the Mondo’s atmosphere, which you mention as a potential defining feature of rurality, is the lack of anonymity. All of these “regulars”—Stu and his colleagues—seem to know each other. But this suggests a common and established meeting place, rather than rurality. I could imagine the same thing happening in an urban area (e.g., a popular example from pop culture is Central Perk in Friends’ New York City setting). I think a more salient point of distinction might be whether Stu and his friends know everyone else that comes into Mondo’s (and based on your dad’s comment, it sounds like they might). If Chico is indeed rural (I’ve never been to Chico, so I’ll have to take your word for it), it’s also heartening to observe the availability of vocational rehabilitation services, which can be hard to come by in small towns lacking commercial infrastructure (see K. Harrington’s wonderful post:

I really enjoyed this candid and casual glimpse into your hometown. Thank you for sharing!

RGL said...

I am going to push Wynter’s comment a little farther. Like her, I have not travelled through Chico, so I have to base my opinion solely on your observations and comments, but I’m not sure I’m convinced this is evidence of rurality. I think your strongest point is that it is a strong farming community, but as we discussed in class, this seems to be a correlation with many rural areas rather than causation. In almost the same breath you describe Chico as the “urban epicenter of northern California” and assert that it is rural. Like Wynter, I agree that a similar type of conversation, a similar familiarity among old friends could happen in almost any coffee shop across the country, even a Starbucks. When I worked as a barista in downtown Oakland, I started to know our regular customers and even to see the same group come in and sit down together on a regular basis. We even had a farmworker come through now and then.

We talked about the different factors that may make an area rural towards the beginning of the semester, including many of the things you touch on: large agriculture influence in the economy (common, but not necessary), lack of anonymity (comes along with low population density), poverty (also not a necessary characteristic). I think population density is the key here though. According to Wikipedia, Chico’s population density is 2600/mi2. For comparison, Redding’s is 1500/mi2. I see the argument, but I’m not fully convinced.

Willie Stein said...

Responding to RGL above: I tend to agree that Chico is not exactly a "rural place", but rurality for me is a continuum, and having spent some time in Chico I think the rural experience definitely does play a role there. Many larger towns not truly rural themselves are gathering places for rural people who don't often get to see each other. The coffee shop seems like a magnet for people who identify themselves with rural values and outlooks. Chico is something like an intersection between rural and urban. If rurality is defined by geography, Chico's probably not rural. If rurality is a characteristic of people or a culture, Chico is probably rural enough to count.

I actually grew up in a town that feels culturally pretty analogous to Chico-- a mostly left-leaning college town large enough not to be rural itself, surrounded by farmland and truly rural communities. Towns like this often draw rural people who come to work or recreate, and some businesses certainly cater to rural tastes more than others. There are also people who live in town who would self-identify as "country" or "rural" (maybe not in those terms). I wouldn't be shocked to learn that the old-timers in the cafe live within city limits, but consider themselves country people.

I agree that Chico, as a geographical unit, is not really rural-- but it's the type of place with a pretty porous boundary to rurality, so I can definitely see characterizing a place like this coffee shop as a rural place. If we get too hung up on geographical labelling, we might miss some of the harder-to-define ways ruralness can "be in the city".

Kaly said...

I really loved this article, especially as reading first person perspectives of lives very foreign to my own is totally my thing (this read to me like the beginning of a This American Life episode).

It also reminded me of a parallel experience I had over spring break in Ukiah(a town discussed by Mollie here: I'm going to be working there next year, so I traveled to have lunch with my future coworkers and then went to a local coffee shop to get some procrastinated homework finished. What really struck me when reading your article was how different the experiences we had were, but how it is likely partially due to where I chose to go.

Black Oak Coffee Roasters( describes themselves as a coffee shop that creates "premium single-origin, espresso and delicious artisan coffee blends with reverence." Unsurprisingly, then, going there felt more like stepping into a coffee shop in San Francisco than rural California. On a Friday afternoon the place was filled with hipsters, well-dressed Moms, and people displaying some very expensive tattoos. Growing up in a tourist town I'm generally pretty good at spotting out of towners, but these people all seemed like locals to me. But if I had instead gone to somewhere else, maybe Bayleys Coffee which doesn't even have a website, or much earlier in the day, I might have had a very different experience closer to the one you had.

We've discussed in class the different definitions of what "rural" is, but maybe the most accurate/helpful is a Justice Stewart "I know if when I see it" litmus test.