“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.
About The Author
Eric Caine formerly taught in the Humanities Department at Merced College. He was an original Community Columnist at the Modesto Bee, and wrote for The Bee for over twelve years.