'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Highway 99 

A California state highway that traverses one of the epicenters of the current economic crisis in the US, as recently profiled by Gifford Hartman in Turbulence 5:

Running south of Sacramento, through the heart of the Central Valley, is Highway 99. For decades the towns and cities of the Central Valley have been amongst the fastest growing in the US, and as you drive along the highway you pass through all these places that until recently had all the garish optimism of boom towns. The first big city you reach after Sacramento is Stockton, home to a deep-water sea port that connects major rivers with the San Joaquin Delta, the Bay and trans-Pacific trade. In the earlier years of the decade, Stockton was at the centre of the speculative housing bubble. In 2008 it had the highest rate of foreclosures in the country. It also has one of the highest unemployment rates and Forbes magazine recently rated it the ‘most miserable city in the US’. Further south there is more of the same American consumer culture: shopping malls surrounded by massive parking lots and a huge Christian high school in the town of Ripon. In places railroad tracks and changing yards run alongside 99, but many of the tall grain silos and food processing facilities have been abandoned. The next big city is Modesto – the number one city in the US for car thefts and number five on Forbes’ ‘most miserable’ list. Here the fertile farmland has been concreted over to build ‘affordable’ housing for commuters, some of whom endure a two-hour each-way drive to the Bay Area. Continuing south through Merced – with the second highest ‘official’ unemployment rate of any US city – there’s yet more malls and chain stores, but also reminders of the agricultural industry: a few orchards and livestock pens along the highway, as well as dealers in tractors and other farm machinery. You can also see the plentiful irrigation canals that move water from the wet north to the Valley’s dry southern end. What is striking is how much of the industrial and agricultural infrastructure appears to be rusting away. Many plants display huge ‘For Sale’ signs.

Two hundred and seventy kilometres south of Sacramento, you reach Fresno, California’s fifth largest city, with a population of half a million. Fresno is the hub of the San Joaquin portion of the valley and it always seems to be in a haze of brown smog, especially during the stiflingly hot summer months. It is the ‘asthma capital of California’, a result not only of vehicle and industrial pollution, but also the airborne pesticides and other toxic chemicals used in agriculture. Fresno County is the most productive and profitable agricultural county in the US. Until recently it was also home to three large downtown tent cities, as well as other smaller encampments scattered throughout the city and along the highways.

The first tent city, on Union Pacific railroad property, was evicted in July 2009. It was literally toxic: sludge was discovered oozing out of holes in the ground in the summer of 2008, possibly due to the site’s previous use for vehicle repair. ‘New Jack City’ – after the 1991 film about violent crack-dealing urban gangs – earned its name because two murders have already occurred there. The third tent city is more like a shantytown because many of the living spaces are built with scavenged wood. It is called ‘Taco Flats’ or ‘Little Tijuana’ because of its many Latino residents. These are mostly migrant agricultural labourers, unemployed because of the economic crisis and because a three-year drought has severely reduced the number of crops being planted.

Of course, there is more, much more that warrants reading Hartman's article in its entirety. Not surprisingly, the Governor, both parties in the legislature and agribusiness have concluded that the solution is to provide more subsidized water for agriculture.

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