Thursday, April 20, 2017

California rurality: what the Central Valley has to offer

Just this week in our seminar course on Rural Livelihoods, we had Camille Pannu (profiled here) in to speak about things like environmental justice and access to water, specifically in the Central Valley. In the context of the discussion, Fresno and its surrounding farm communities (where I was born and raised and attended college) necessarily received some of our attention.

Especially timely because of this recent expos√© in the NY Times, this discussion of California's central region reinvigorated my interest in thinking about rurality in a state full of big cities, home to the largest population bases in the United States. I know first hand that when traveling out of the state, saying you are from "California" invokes images of beaches, the Golden Gate, and progressive politics. Say you are from Fresno, however, and people will scratch their heads and say "where's that again?" or will say "oh, farming, huh?" While farming is absolutely an integral and everyday part of life in Fresno (see discussion in these previous posts), the NY Times article sums up Fresno's appeal thus:

Fresnans talk about their city’s lively arts scene, fine state university and easygoing vibe. The city is situated in the middle of the state, allowing residents to get into the Sierra Nevada in under two hours and to the Pacific in under three.

And then there is affordability.

The survey, by the financial website GoBankingRates, found that you could live comfortably in Fresno on income of roughly $44,500 a year, putting the city on par with Albuquerque and Detroit.  

Arts and university are not two things that, at least in my personal experience, spring to mind immediately for the people who are vaguely unfamiliar with Fresno and its surrounding communities. While I would certainly agree that the politics in Fresno diverge greatly from those of much of the rest of California, I also think that can be one of the hallmarks of rurality. Texas is an example perhaps of the logical inverse: its large cities are decidedly urbanized and liberal, despite the vast majority of the state being made up of smaller ruralities who vote overwhelmingly conservative.  This dichotomy, especially present in an area like the Central Valley, is to me a fascinating exploration in our preconceived notions of rurality. Is Fresno rural? According to these definitions collected by USDA, the answer is largely no. Does that, and should that, change the fact that many who live in Fresno and surrounding areas consider themselves denizens of the rural lifestyle? Is self-identification a valid tool for identifying rural status?

In addition, one of the things I always found interesting about living in Fresno is the refrain that it is so "centrally located." As addressed by the NY Times article, this really means residents of the Central Valley can drive a few hours either direction and be in a main city or a national park. One of the things we've discussed often this semester is rurality meaning less access to services and measurements of distance between the community in question and the "next closest" place of note. Living in Fresno embodies this notion; your proximity to other places is one of the biggest benefits of  living there.

The idea of affordability also reflects an identity of rurality to me. One of the largest differences raised when considering a place like Fresno compared to a place like San Francisco is the cost of living. Many people cite cost of living as a reason for moving rural, and that certainly seems to be the case for Fresno as well. This raises an interesting inherent contradiction--the more people that move to a place like Fresno because of its touted affordability, the further it gets from a pure "rural" definition based on population size. It seems to be a crux of the issue of Fresno's rurality to ask whether we should take into account the sentiments of those that reside there. Philosophically and politically, Fresno can at times be more reminiscent of the conservative midwest than of a bustling, progressive California city. Its prominence as an agricultural superpower tends to reinforce the self-identification of many that live there; it is a self-identification of looking out for yourself and your neighbors, resisting government intrusion, and driving several hours to get to "the big city." The fact that Fresno itself is the fifth biggest city in California does not appear to matter much to those that call it home.

1 comment:

ofilbrandt said...

Thank you for documenting your struggle to determine if your hometown is rural or not. I'm sure you didn't miss my post (on a similar struggle I had talking about my hometown of Chico ( This really goes back to our struggle to define what is rural. The scales change; is it to be determined by social/characteristic markers, home prices, population, or something else?

One area that could be unpacked more by you, me, or the discussion thread is, when the scale is social rather than quantitative, the ability of a town to label itself rural. Can a town determine it's own status? Why would it do so? With the "back to the earth" type movement and the consistently idealized rural, it seems like a town calling itself "rural" paints itself as a quint place with "traditional" values of some sort. Essentially, to label themselves rural they would be capitalizing on such this imagery. But can a place label itself rural? Similar to a person labeling themselves a "nerd" or "athlete," the title seems to lose legitimacy if one gives it to oneself.