How Growth Happens and Why

Residents of the Northern San Joaquin Valley who worry about sprawl, loss of farmland, loss of wildlife and open spaces, water quantity and quality and all the other issues associated with population growth have been fighting a rear guard action for years now. After decades of concern, they’re still looking at steady losses in farmland acreage, severe problems with water quality and supply, declines in social services and steadily crumbling infrastructure.

The explosive growth of Stanislaus and Merced Counties over the last decades has slowed as we undergo yet another growth binge hangover, but the recent decision by the Modesto City Council to lower developers’ fees shows we’re ready yet again for another round of residential development and the consequent burdens on services and infrastructure to which we’ve grown increasingly inured.

It’s old and out of print, but Phillip Trounstine’s and Terry Christensen’s, Movers and Shakers: The Study of Community Power, is still an essential guide to how small towns grow big. It’s especially relevant to cities and counties in the northern San Joaquin Valley because the subject is power and politics in San Jose. San Jose, of course, was once a small town in a rural environment that went through a period of explosive growth, not unlike cities here. Trounstine and Christensen chronicle San Jose’s growth over the decades, but especially from the 1940’s through the 1970s.

While Valley residents have grown inured to the refrain, “growth is inevitable,” Trounstine and Christensen argue no such thing was the case with San Jose:

While some of San Jose’s growth was inevitable, much of it was consciously brought about by the
very interests that benefitted most from it. These interests were in charge of the city virtually without challenge from 1944 to 1969. Their policy was growth. Their tool was city government.

City government is still the primary instrument for promoting growth, and that’s why it’s always instructive to make city council and mayor’s races a close study, as did the late John Michael Flint.

Another major factor in San Jose’s growth was the Mercury News, San Jose’s dominant newspaper. The newspaper tended to reflect the views of its publisher and managing editor, and was a major player in the city’s political culture. During the years of San Jose’s explosive growth, the Mercury News was a cheerleader for growth and vocal supporter of City Hall.

“The lid was on all the time,” one long-time Mercury News staff member recalled. Said another: “We were the boosters. Anything attached to scandal or wrongdoing in government that would embarrass the city manager was almost impossible to get in.”

With pro-growth business interests controlling city government and a pro-growth newspaper, San Jose began experiencing all the ills San Joaquin Valley residents have become accustomed to: declines in social services, deterioration of infrastructure, sprawl, and loss of farmland and open space.

But a newspaper, like any institution, is not a monolith. The Mercury News policy changed when long-time publisher Joe Ridder was replaced by his nephew, Tony Ridder:

The first indicator that [Tony] Ridder would actively go against the old game plan occurred in September 1977, in an editorial headlined, “More Orderly Growth,”  which came out in favor of ending continued urbanization of the of the agricultural areas of the south county. It wasn’t long before editorials were knocking the Chamber of Commerce, various pro-growth plans, and other former sacred cows……Articles discussed minority dissatisfaction with United Way, gave both sides on land-use issues, detailed troubles at City Hall, examined growth-induced transportation and housing problems, and investigated politicians and businessmen.

As is apparent from Trounstine’s and Christensen’s study, despite protestations to the contrary, newspapers are neither impartial nor apolitical. They have, as the Bee’s James McClatchy acknowledged in 2002, motives including political influence and commercial success.

Among the lessons to be drawn from the history of San Jose’s burgeoning growth and development, two are especially pertinent to Valley citizens who wish to pursue smarter growth. First, the most significant impacts on growth are achieved through city government. It’s no accident that developers are actively involved in local politics. Second, citizens need to realize that media, especially local newspapers, are major political players in all local issues, but especially those involving growth.

The power of a newspaper to select and frame issues is an enormous force in any community’s political culture. Citizens interested in quality of life issues need to recognize the political force of media as well as the more apparent powers of City Hall. And they need to scrutinize “the news” with the understanding that “impartial” rarely means, “without motives.”
















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