“They all ran on the premise that government is the problem, and every one of them has managed to help prove it.”
Whenever Modesto appears on those, “Worst Places to Live,” lists—which is often—city leaders object vociferously. “Modesto is a great place to live,” they say, “the people are great people, they’re wonderful.”
Visitors get a different impression, especially those who enter the city via I Street and the famed arch on 9th Street. In recent years, more and more of the region’s homeless people have congregated near the, “Water, Wealth, Contentment and Health,” archway, posing a daily irony for those who insist on the city’s “wonderful” attractions.
The spectacle of homeless people in wheelchairs, perched on low cement barriers, sleeping on sidewalks, and rummaging through trash receptacles has become as much a part of the city’s ambience as Betty Saletta’s sculptures of Chief Estanislao and the Modesto Newsboy.
Things are no better in Modesto neighborhoods. Parks and other open spaces are crowded with homeless people even in the coveted La Loma and College districts. Residents, accustomed to the lack of response from police when robbed or vandalized, form neighborhood groups and share email lists featuring daily reports of stolen bicycles, porch pirates, vandalism, and suspicious persons knocking on doors and peering into backyards.
The county sheriff has told people to arm themselves because law enforcement can’t handle all the crime. Neighborhoods hire private security firms to patrol the streets, but nothing seems to discourage the outbreaks of petty crime and random vandalism.
People walking through public parks are almost as likely to encounter a crazed and loudly profane cyclist as a neighbor walking a dog. Downtown merchants find their doorways and alleys soiled by human urine and excrement, and visitors to the public library are no longer surprised to see it used more often for access to restrooms than for access to books.
City officials have no answers. When newly-elected Councilmember Kristi Ah You suggested allowing homeless people to camp in designated areas, she was met with too many objections to count. Homeless camps are said to be too hard to manage because of the crime, trash, and liability factors.
But crime in Modesto is often highest in the densest and most visited parts of town. One of the highest crime areas is along McHenry Ave, a major commercial thoroughfare. Piles of trash are everywhere in the city’s and county’s poor neighborhoods, and refuse accumulates near downtown almost faster than it can be collected.
While city leaders seem helpless, Modesto residents and merchants cower behind closed doors, rail at “crackheads, addicts, and vagrants,” and complain endlessly. No one seems capable of analyzing the breakdown in terms of a dysfunctional government, but that’s what we have.
Decades of anti-government propaganda have made government an evil abstraction that many people can imagine only in terms of distant politicians wasting tax dollars on frivolous projects and needless regulations. Government’s most basic functions—public safety, waste removal and disposal, park and street maintenance—have always been taken for granted, at least until recently. Nowadays, Modesto residents and their county neighbors seem unable to fathom the real consequences of demonizing and downsizing government.
When Grover Norquist said, in 2001, that, “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub,” his words were immensely popular. The anti-government sentiment became a meme that provided an ongoing rationale for tax cuts, political gamesmanship, and grandstanding politicians.
Republicans capitalized on the anti-government hysteria, ran for office, and succeeded, especially in conservative enclaves like the San Joaquin Valley. Thus, we have the paradox of anti-government zealots entering government and establishing strongholds.
Especially in Modesto and Stanislaus County, far-right Republicans dominate every significant political office. Every one of the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors is a staunch Trump Republican, and Modesto Mayor Ted Brandvold, though unwilling to admit it publicly, is also a conservative Republican.
Brandvold was yet another candidate who promised a more fiscally responsible and efficient government. Few now recall his grandiose 100 day review of city finances, which was his way of fulfilling campaign promises that implied he would correct wasteful spending. What Brandvold doubtless learned is that that Modesto may not be formally bankrupt, but it is in fact too financially strapped to provide even minimum standards of public safety.
Under Brandvold’s leadership, Modesto is a city under siege, not just by surges in crime and an exploding population of people with nowhere to go, but also by a plague of unauthorized spending amounting to millions of dollars. Some of the latter problem is likely due to an overworked staff, the result of a failure to replace people who have retired or moved on.
Like most conservatives who occupy positions of political leadership, Brandvold has been proven prophetic about the inefficiencies of government, though it’s unlikely he or any of his friends at the county level appreciate the irony. They all ran on the premise that government is the problem, and every one of them has managed to help prove it.
Meanwhile, city and county residents are left to ponder the wisdom of choosing leaders committed to drowning government. The continuing deterioration in property values, quality of life, and public safety isn’t going to be remedied until people understand that when we cut the social safety net, defund government, and elect leaders who believe memes like, “government can’t help,” we’re all liable for the consequences.
Leilani hagberg says
The county wasted God knows how much money on the Frank Carson vendetta prosecution.
Irma J. Roberts says
Leilani, I totally agree with you. Certain elected officials seeking revenge.
Mike Tozzi says
It’s symptomatic of crisis management. That morphs into the blame game. It’s a never ending turn table.
No future planning, no solution mentality because so many monied folks still have the Norquist Mentality.
Sandi Schoeppe says
Great article, Eric!
Eric Caine says
Thank you Sandi. More to come.
G. E. Paglione Modesto PD ( Retired) says
Unfortunately, Modesto is a product of the laws of liberal California and sad to say, but until CA govt changes, Modesto remains doomed. If Modesto leaders strengthen their police department, giving the chief the assets he needs to strong arm clean up the city, Modesto has hope. The mayor must dig in and tell liberal politicians who try and interfere, “NO”. The DA must prosecute and find ways to support incarcerating criminals. Once Modesto sports a reputation of absolutely tough on crime, it will have a chance of returning to the nice friendly and beautiful drug free town it once was. The alternative is to watch the good tax payers take their money and move to a community that offers them this; even if outside of CA. I grew up in Detroit, but served in Modesto. You wanna see Modesto’s future if nothing changes, just look at Detroit…
Eric Caine says
The laws of “liberal California” apply throughout the state, but Modesto leads or is near the top in things like auto theft, and the murder rate has increased. Crime statistics elsewhere in the state are much lower; therefore, the “liberal California” theory is clearly erroneous.
David Allan says
This is not a conservative vs liberal issue. Take a look at San Francisco, a horrible public saftety problem just like here but worse. Choosing a team left or right and letting your political mental weakness run your thoughts makes both sides useless. Stop hating on people who think different than you politically and realize they live in this mess with you and want to fix it. This article makes the author sound like an hysterical dullard.
Eric Caine says
Even a dullard understands that when people rate cities by quality of life, they don’t isolate one quality (e.g. crime) The point here is that Modesto routinely ranks at or near THE BOTTOM of desirable places to live. But don’t get hysterical; take your time and look at city rankings by any number of authoritative sources. Here’s a link to get you started. In this survey, Modesto ranked number 99 out of 100, ahead only of San Juan, Puerto Rico. San Francisco ranked number nine. US News and World Report crime, best places to live: https://realestate.usnews.com/real-estate/articles/10-places-with-the-highest-rates-of-car-theft-in-the-us.
Robert Pressler says
Modesto has to improve it’s money management. It absolutely baffles me every time I see the money that has been put into bike lanes in this town. Seriously, hundreds of concrete parking bumpers used to make a bike lane on 9th street? I’ve seen money being wasted by city, county, state and federal construction projects when working for different companies throughout state but, I have never seen a city actually remove a traffic lane and replace it with a bike lane. And to do so using concrete parking bumpers is not only a big waste of money but a safety nightmare. More cops, less bike lanes. Do the police ever issue tickets for littering?
LOL. The City received their tearly government funding and were forced to come up with a use for it. Remember, the “bike lane” was originally for all the college students. It ended up that all of College was reduced to one lane for the bikes I am yet to see going to or from the college! Students have cars. It was a waste of money, and the City added insult when they made 9th Street one lane to add a bike lane. It was so pathetic to watch and makes going to the post office from downtown a very dangerous place to drive! It’s embarassing to say the least.
Irma J. Roberts says
Great article – I enjoyed reading it. Modesto has lost all of its charm because of politicians. When you look at cities like Turlock and even Riverbank, there is no comparison. It seems like the more mistakes that are made the easier it is for those making them to continue.
Demetria Marrow says
Eric, spot on! Been here 6 years & Modesto is not what it seems at first blush! I’ve resorted to saying pretty bad things about this town. And, yes, I will be moving on shortly. Low Property values is a definite negative. New leadership with vision is desparately needed. I see lots of 4 sale signs now. People know to get out now while the getting is good! Old regime is failing this town & any potential it may have/had.
Get a Life!
I heard the Modesto convention center is 30 yrs old and cost the city 600,000.00 to run it a year.i have also heard that The city took out mortgages on every city park it owns 20 years ago because it didn’t want to raise taxes.Completly incompetent city government.
maybe their should be a special counsel of the 5 ruling class families that overrule the city council or mayors staff of found out to be corrupt or incompleteness.On issues on public safety law and order.
Prescott Taylor says
I’ve lived here a long time and seen the town completely deteriorate and downward spiral beyond hope into a dismal abysmal s*******. I will be moving soon. The far right majority politics shaped the city into what it is today. Outlaw cruising. Check. Allow overzealous white nationalist church groups to overtake the city and kill the high quality night life. Check. Extreme community policing and abuse of the system by racists from all walks of life; surveillance cameras on every corner and profiling/electronic harassment by the towns very own AI Command Center. Hotlisted by Predpol for being colored. Check. No more concerts. Check. Businesses abusing the system to wipe their butts of any legal liability. Check! Don’t come here, you will completely regret it!