Especially timely because of this recent exposé 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.