'What Is Special About My Town': Bend, Walla Walla, Watsonville

A "collision between coastal liberal[s] and heartland conservatives," an "award-winning Main Street," and "the center of the American berry culture."

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Continuing the series, reader suggestions on three more places to visit in our American Futures project. Above shows blue for previously discussed cities, green for the ones discussed today. The map shown here is a screen shot; for "live" version go to the project site.

Today we look at the West Coast with two testimonials each for Bend, OR and Walla Walla, WA, plus a new resident's view of Watsonville, CA.

Over to the readers:

Bend, OR (2011 population: 77,905)

Two notable entries here. First:

Bend lies in Deschutes county, which was one of the counties most affected by the implosion in real estate values during the recession. (In May 2010 the Federal Housing and Finance Agency released a report in which Bend had the largest price drop in the country, 23 percent, from first quarter of 2009 to the first quarter of 2010--Wikipedia) In the county, you will encounter several different narratives within a small distance of each other:
Bend, a former mill city transformed into an economy highly dependent on the numerous resorts scattered around the region, is filled with a population bifurcated between older, retired folks and young individuals with associates degrees/high school diplomas, who mainly work in retail/service jobs or low-level health care. The "middle class" consisting of bachelor's degree or higher is quite tiny compared to other metro areas. The city is a major collision between coastal liberal cultures and heartland conservatives, based on the citizens' backgrounds as farmers or more specialized workers. If any sort of moderate Republicanism is to be found (i.e. one that treats same-sex relations and environmental protection with respect, has a strong pride in small business and a wariness of massive centralized power, and generally dislikes authoritarian policies) it will be here. The largest corporation it is home to, Les Schwab Tires, is a company with a good reputation. (Although its distribution center is in nearby Prineville.)


Most people think of Oregon as "green," but the eastern two thirds is high desert and mountains and Bend is the jewel of that region. A description of Bend would include snow-capped mountains just to the West, extremely outdoor-oriented culture, great food and multiple breweries, local and nationally-known art and music, and a laid-back friendly lifestyle. Weather is spectacular, with 300 days per year of sunshine, a real winter, but summer with highs in the 80s and lows in the 40s. In addition, there is a history of aviation manufacturing (Epic Air), and I'm sure you would be welcomed.

A third reader also touted Bend's reputation for fine micro-brews, calling it "an epicenter for craft brewing."

Walla Walla, WA (2011 population: 32,148)

Two notable entries here, also. First:

A crossroads of old wheat families, new high-end winemakers, three colleges, and a state penitentiary, Walla Walla is a geographical oasis in southeastern Washington in constant tension with itself. There's the picturesque, from undulating hills to an award-winning Main Street (that beat the outlier mall) and an award for the "friendliest small town in America" (per Rand McNally and USA Today). There are also showdowns that pit senior citizens against schoolchildren and have the city barring free library access for county residents a mile away. The name may be famous -- it's the city so nice they named it twice -- but it's not so easy to figure out what this small town is all about.


It is a contrast to the dominant themes one mostly reads about -- i.e., all smart, capable people are fleeing to metropolitan areas leaving the rest of the country fallow.
Although the wine industry was founded in Walla Walla (W2) in the early 70s, the industry has really taken off in the last 10 years with individuals from around the US and world flocking to this former bucolic farming town to seek their fortunes in wine or in related industries that support the wine industry. The result: WA wine rising to be recognized as world class.
Although W2 is not threatening to abscond large swaths of those who desire to live in a metropolis, its recent success shows that smaller US towns and cities can thrive if they find their own niche and create an environment where outsiders are welcomed and can use their talents to benefit the community.
Americans are generally characterized as problem solvers that like a challenge. I take comfort in the idea of a certain segment of our population forgoing metropolitan life in favor of keeping our small cities and towns vibrant. W2 seems like a shining example for others seeking such a journey.

Watsonville, CA (2011 population: 51,586)

Watsonville is a town of about 50,000 that is nestled between Santa Cruz and Monterey. It's an easy-to-miss farm town, but to those who know, it's the center of the American berry culture. Generations of families have worked the fertile land. The quiet town has steadily grown, and now Watsonville is what I would call a New American Farm Town -- a predominantly ethnic Latino community of culturally American citizens. As a newer resident of Watsonville, I'm continually struck by the dedication and commitment that the people of this community have for their town; the people of Watsonville take pride in and love Watsonville. It's the underdog story: people want Watsonville to succeed and thrive.