Fresno: Number 277

Fresnans have rallied to their city since a geographer ranked it as the least desirable place in America to live

IN THE OLD DAYS, according to legend, when people from Fresno traveled to San Francisco they would change their clothes before they arrived in the big city. The Fresnans, as they have always rather awkwardly been called, were not simply adapting to the shift in climate when they left the central valley of California and headed for the temperate coast; they were trying to shed the look, the feel, the smell—the stigma—of their unglamorous home town. “When you went to San Francisco,” recalls one Fresno native who made the trip several times in his childhood, “you got dressed up. You wore a topcoat.”

Fresno is one of those places in America that acquired an especially bad reputation somewhere along the line. Nobody seems to know exactly why. “I think it’s the name,” Beth Marney, a local television personality, says. “It’s very ugly. And let’s face it: it’s hotter than hell here in the summertime.” The official record, achieved in August of 1981, is 111 degrees, but the thermometer often comes close to that mark, and even if the humidity is low and the nights are relatively cool, triple-digit temperatures tend to stick in people’s memories. So never mind that Fresno is the raisin capital of the world, or that it produces figs and olives and acid-free Armenian-style cucumbers said to grow three inches in a single night, or that it has its own philharmonic orchestra and was the home of the famous novelist and playwright William Saroyan. Fresno is doomed to be the butt of jokes. If cities can have inferiority complexes, Fresno is a classiccase.

Now along comes Associate Professor Robert M. Pierce, chairman of the geography department at the State University of New York at Cortland, to confer scholarly respectability on a nasty old prejudice. Out of 277 “standard metropolitan statistical areas” defined by the United States government for census and other statistical purposes, Pierce declared, Fresno is the least desirable place to live—number 277. By his calculations it slid into last place just behind two smallish Massachusetts metropolitan areas, Lawrence and Fitchburg, and Lawton, Oklahoma. At the top of Pierce’s list were Greensboro, North Carolina, and Knoxville, Tennessee.

Whether Pierce’s study, presented last April at the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers, in Washington, D.C., truly sparked the imagination of some well-placed editors or simply hit the wires at a good time on a slow news day is hard to know. Regardless, it obtained widespread publicity throughout the country. In Fresno, of course, the news was received with shock and dismay. “To tell you the truth,” says Daniel Whitehurst, the thirty-five-year-old mayor, “it really caught us off guard. . . . We think we’ve got a great place to live. My first reaction was to wonder whether they’d printed the list upside down.”

Actually, Fresno had already come in at number 272, three years earlier, in one of the country’s underground best sellers, Rand McNally’s Places Rated Almanac, “Your Guide to Finding the Best Places to Live in America.” Aiming at an audience of mobile people wondering where to settle, and using census data and other statistics readily available from the federal government and private sources, the authors of that book ranked the 277 metropolitan areas according to nine criteria: the arts, climate, crime, economics, education, health care, housing, recreation, and transportation. By straightforward reckoning Atlanta and Washington, D.C., came in at the top, followed by Greensboro, Pittsburgh, and Seattle; at the very bottom of the Places Rated list were Lawrence and Fitchburg, preceded by Pine Bluff, Arkansas; Lowell, Massachusetts; and Panama City, Florida.

But Pierce, who approaches the matter from an academic perspective, thought that the authors of the almanac had erred by giving equal statistical weight to all nine categories of comparison. He found “a disparity between the perceived image of certain cities and their social reality.” In Places Rated, for example, Cleveland emerged as the equal of San Francisco and had a higher cumulative score than Denver, San Diego, or Honolulu. Pierce devised a disarmingly simple way of correcting what he felt was a serious methodological flaw. He asked a sample population to rank the importance of the nine criteria as issues in deciding where to live. It turned out that economics, climate, crime, and housing were regarded as much more important than, for example, transportation and the arts. So Pierce multiplied each metropolitan area’s original score in each category by the rank of that category and came up with new and, he says, more subtle ratings.

Thus did Fresno fall still further. It had a relatively high rating of seventy-fifth in the arts category—owing to its orchestra, opera association, and new art museum—but in Pierce’s scheme the arts are far less significant than crime, a category in which Fresno, alas, finds itself to be number 266. Because most people seem to place a premium on mild temperatures with few extremes, Fresno suffered badly there, too: it came in number 251 in the important area of “climate and terrain.” And so it went, downhill all the way.

Whereas Fresno’s poor standing in the Places Rated Almanac had attracted little attention locally, its consignment to rock bottom by Pierce brought the citizenry to the ramparts in their own defense and stirred community pride to a height previously reached only when the Fresno State basketball team won the National Invitation Tournament in Madison Square Garden, in the spring of 1983. (Some 1,500 proud Fresnans flew to New York in eleven chartered planes for that event.) Almost overnight the city was consumed by what one editor of The Fresno Bee calls “Two-seventy-seven mania.” Buttons and bumper stickers declared: FEELIN’ GOOD ABOUT FRESNO. T-shirts said: I LOVE FRESNO— #277. A local television station, KFSN, brought Pierce to Fresno to explain himself and to be the subject of quasi-goodnatured abuse; then it sent a crew to North Carolina to discover what Greensboro had that Fresno did not. (“The only thing we really noticed” about Greensboro, says John Wallace, a KFSN reporter, “was that it was so damned green.”)

The Bee has always been in the forefront of Fresno’s boosters. Its late owner, Eleanor McClatchy, had a dictum that her newspapers in Fresno and Sacramento were never to say that it was “hot" in the central valley, regardless of the temperature, because that might be interpreted as a negative comment. In reaction to this latest blow to the civic ego, the Bee planned a special supplement to cheer up the community, and the advertising came in at such a rate that the supplement soon grew to 108 pages. In it the governor of California, George Deukmejian, declared that Pierce “doesn’t know what he is talking about"; dentists offered to help people smile more effectively about Fresno; and men, women, and children on the street vied to offer the most effusive end to the sentence “I’m feelin’ good about Fresno because ...” “I found it all in Fresno,” said Jewel M. Derringer in her entry. “Wonderful job, greatest husband, best education for my kids, home with a yard that grows green like a park, a host of friends, and everything I ever needed. Even strawberries in April.”

FOR DAN WHITEHLRST, the cherubfaced funeral director’s son who was elected mayor in 1976, at the age of twenty-eight, the controversy has breathed new life into a political career that had begun to lag. Whitehurst was treated harshly by the big-city press when he mounted an unsuccessful challenge to Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown, Jr., then the governor, for the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate in 1982, but now he is back on California television screens, nobly defending his city’s honor. During my visit to City Hall, on a rare cool and rainy summer afternoon— Fresno has only forty-four “precipitation days” and six “storm days” a year, according to official statistics—Whitehurst professed an unwillingness “to step onto a soapbox,” but he eagerly listed the advantages of his “comfortable city with room to breathe.” Fresno, he pointed out, has a low population density, plenty of parks and playgrounds, and a “casual life-style.” Besides, Whitehurst insisted, “a city is more than just a place with buildings and facilities and an average housing cost. A city has a character, spirit, history, and attitude.” And those things once made Fresno an official “allAmerican city.”

Fresno has come a long way from “the strange, weed-infested, junky, wonderful, senseless yet beautiful world” of Ulysses Macauley in Saroyan’s The Human Comedy. It is no longer the “funny and lonely world” that drew Saroyan himself back from San Francisco, New York, and Paris to spend the last years of his life in Fresno. (He bought two identical houses next door to each other in an undistinguished development, to ensure privacy.) On the contrary, Fresno is a booming center of agribusiness. In Fresno County thousand-acre farms are common, and some run as big as 50,000 acres. They produce 200 commercial crops worth $2 billion a year, which makes the county one of the richest agricultural areas in the world. With a population that has mushroomed to about 265,000 people, Fresno is California’s eighth largest (and the country’s sixtyfifth largest) city, and even Whitehurst is incredulous of the latest estimate of its continuing real economic growth rate— ten percent a year.

That growth is a mixed blessing, of course. In boom times the construction industry provides almost uncountable jobs; but when interest rates go up, so does unemployment in construction and a number of related fields. At the peak of the recent national recession, in the summer and fall of 1982, Fresno had a jobless rate of 15 percent, almost as high as Detroit’s. Such rapid growth also puts an enormous strain on local resources and services. And although a reluctance to build skyscrapers has preserved Fresno’s low, flat look and uncongested feeling, much of its newest sprawl is anything but beautiful. As in many other American cities of similar size, the traditional downtown in Fresno has been neglected in favor of the predictable shopping centers at the edge.

Tall palm trees keep a lonely vigil along some of the main streets of Fresno’s central business district, and there are plush, well-tended patches of green around the courthouse and other municipal buildings. But for the most part Fresno is uninterruptedly brown, the agricultural brown characteristic of a region of California where every spare drop of water is diverted to the production of food. The fifteen-story gray-brown brick Security Pacific Bank Building, constructed in 1923, was, at 221 feet, the tallest building between Los Angeles and Oakland for nearly four decades. (A modern structure put up in 1962, now the Golden State Plaza, exceeds it by only twenty-seven feet.) The monumental-looking bank building is still in use, but some of the other handsome downtown structures dating to pioneer days in the central valley, such as the Hotel Fresno, are vacant and boarded up, waiting for a developer with the right kind of tax break to rehabilitate them. Fresno is populated by a vast number of cars, but seemingly suffers no traffic jams; it grows not upward (which would make it more crowded) but outward, primarily by annexing and gobbling up bits of the surrounding countryside.

THE RA TINGS OF Robert Pierce and Rand McNally notwithstanding, people continue to flock to Fresno. Flights to and from San Francisco (still the main connecting point to and symbol of the outside world) are generally packed, and new waves of immigrants are enhancing the city’s old reputation as a microcosm of the American ethnic mélange. Armenians once found their way to Fresno because it replicated the climate of their homeland (which was divided between Turkey and the Soviet Union after the First World War); Hmong tribesmen from the mountains of Laos have now begun to do the same. Attracted by familiar jobs in agriculture, since the late 1970s approximately 12,000 Hmongs—as well as about 3,000 Vietnamese, Cambodians, and other Laotians—have moved into the older areas of Fresno that once housed the Armenians. Previously the object of severe prejudice, the Armenian community is now one of the most prosperous groups in Fresno; it numbers 20,000, and Armenian growers wield considerable economic power in the area. Hispanics make up almost a quarter of the city’s official population, and most of its poor, today. Many illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America also are thought to be living in the Fresno area.

Provoked by the negative—and yet somehow positive—publicity growing out of Fresno’s designation as “number 277,” a group of well-established Fresnans gathered at the home of friends during my visit to tell me how they really felt about their city. Their candid, almost surreptitious, criticisms had little to do with the geographers’ and censustakers’ criteria. Jack Emerian, a printing executive, said he saw signs of selfishness in the community in, for example, a relatively low average contribution to the United Way campaign. Martin Temple, an architect, acknowledged “a cliquish ness at the top” of Fresno society. And others worried that the city, intoxicated by development, was putting valuable municipal resources at risk by investing money in Far West Airlines, a new commuter carrier that will have its headquarters at the Fresno Air Terminal. (Whitehurst’s brother-in-law is a major shareholder in Far West.)

But for the most part these people expressed satisfaction with Fresno’s ability to grow bigger without losing its smalltowm neighborliness and community spirit. “People look elsewhere,” said Dorothy Petesch, a librarian who started out in Montana and landed in Fresno by way of the more sophisticated Palo Alto, “but they soon discover that they could never live so well so cheaply" as they can in Fresno. “Besides,” she added, “Fresno is becoming more like the Bay Area . . . more outlandish.”

As for Robert Pierce—the man Martin Temple calls “some pipsqueak from back East”—he has had difficulty retaining his scholarly composure amid the avalanche of publicity over his study, which he does not even consider his best work. He has been on the CBS Morning News and has received more than 500 letters and at least 1,800 phone calls in connection with his ratings of America’s cities. The Washington Hilton, where he first delivered his findings to the assembled geographers, reported more incoming phone calls on that day than during any other day of an association meeting in the hotel’s history; that same day the switchboard was swamped at the small university branch in Cortland where Pierce teaches.

Fresno took the results much more calmly than did some of the nine cities in New England that came in among Pierce’s twenty-five lowest ratings. The presence of four Connecticut cities near the bottom of the list provoked bipartisan outrage in the Nutmeg State. Republican Congresswoman Nancy Johnson wrote to Pierce, accusing him of bias against Connecticut, and the Democratic governor, William O’Neill, sent a letter telling the geographer he had an “obvious lack of knowledge” and saying that such rankings of metropolitan areas “serve no useful purpose.”

Ten other cities have offered Pierce all-expenses-paid trips to visit them, and the thirty-six-year-old professor has become concerned about “being used.” Invited by an ecstatic number 24, Utica (which Pierce privately describes as “the Fresno of New York State”), he agreed to give a speech but refused to accept a plaque from the mayor. He is, in a word, “flabbergasted.”

Pierce concedes that although Fresno does not do well on paper, he is now “impressed” with it. He had in fact visited the city many times before, while growing up in California. He believes that he has had a “critical dialogue” with Fresnans, some of whom have now launched a sincere effort to improve the community’s score. A hospital administrator from Fresno called him, for example, to ask about the data on local health-care delivery and what to do about it.

But would Pierce want to live in Fresno? “Oh, no. I certainly wouldn’t want to live there. It’s too hot, too out of the way. I prefer cities like San Francisco.”

—Sanford J. Ungar