North America

Geographical Patterns in the Alabama Primary Election

The recent Republican presidential primary in Alabama reveals some interesting geographical patterns. As the first two maps indicate, the so-called Establishment candidate, Mitt Romney, did well in the wealthier and more urban parts of the state. The one major exception here was Madison County in the far north, home of the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center, located near Huntsville. Surprisingly, relatively cosmopolitan Madison Country voted for Rick Santorum, the most socially conservative candidate.

The less urban and affluent countries of the state gave the majority of their votes either to Santorum or to Newt Gingrich. Here the best correlation is with race; countries with high percentages of African-Americans tended to vote for Gingrich. The actual voters in these counties were almost all White, as very few Black residents belong to the Republican Party. It has been suggested that White voters in such areas responded particularly well to Gingrich’s fierce denunciations of food stamps and other governmental welfare programs.

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Anti-Urbanization and Economic Irrationality in Silicon Valley

The previous post noted that opposition to urban intensification has negative economic as well as environmental repercussions. Such consequences, are experienced in and around all of the thriving cities of the United States, but nowhere more than in the San Francisco Bay Area. Here, the economic and technological marvel of Silicon Valley is fettered by outrageous housing costs that are driven by a combination of thriving companies and suffocating development restrictions. Such local restraints have much broader consequences. The California economy, like that of the U.S. at large, is anemic at best, in good part because the housing sector lags. Yet it could be surging, at least in Silicon Valley. Although housing demand collapsed in 2008 on the exurban fringe, it has remained strong in the core Bay Area. Green developments of the type imagined by such visionaries as James S. Russell would sell very well in this ecologically aware area, compounding economic gains with ecological benefits. The anti-urbanization movement is thus both hindering economic recovery and thwarting the transition to a low-carbon future.

In the heart of Silicon Valley, the real estate market remained healthy throughout the recent recession. Palo Alto experienced nothing but a lull in the ever-upward progression of prices. The figures are again surging. A back-cover map on the March 9th Palo Alto Weekly shows the change in value of housing sales between 2010 and 2011 in several local neighborhoods, and all are sharply up. Prices, notably, have increased not just for single-family homes, but also for the few high-density units that actually exist. A 1,117 square-foot (105 square meters) condo in a non-descript building in Palo Alto’s subsidiary business district is now on the market for $825,000.

Silicon Valley presents many opportunities for educated and entrepreneurial people, and it continues to generate high-quality jobs. Job seekers are attracted by the entrepreneurial culture as well as the natural and cultural amenities of the area. But even those who land well-paying tech jobs usually face a housing nightmare. Shortages often force long commutes over clogged freeways, reducing the appeal of the region. Teachers and other workers of modest salary face greater obstacles. Many tire of their daily ordeals and eventually move to places where purchasing a home is possible. Palo Alto’s anti-urbanists are well aware of this dilemma, but their characteristic response is ineffectual: reserving a set numbers of units in the token high-density complexes that are allowed for below-market sales to those with moderate incomes. Such a policy may be symbolically potent and guilt assuaging, but it does almost nothing to solve the underlying problem of inadequate housing.

Silicon Valley housing costs place a major burden on local employers. Stanford University would hardly be ably to recruit faculty but for the fact that it is so richly endowed that it can provide huge subsidies, including sizable zero-percent loans. Private firms have to pay significantly higher salaries than competitors located elsewhere to attract talent. And even with pay bumps, those recruited to firms like Google must often settle for small quarters and long commutes. Many come nonetheless, but others decline, shocked by the staggeringly high cost of living. As a result, the nation’s premier innovation center finds itself hampered, its own potential pulled down by its artificially mandated housing dearth.

In the mystique of Silicon Valley, the tiny start-up that turns into a huge company looms large. One of the most prominent historical landmarks in Palo Alto is the modest garage where William Hewlett and Dave Packard started their company, Hewlett-Packard, in the 1930s. Many current Stanford students would like nothing more than to follow in their footsteps—and many have the ability. That path, however, is closing down. A few of the best can secure the backing of venture capitalists and begin with adequate funds, but most either have to abandon their dreams or move elsewhere. Certainly the idea of starting a company in a garage in Palo Alto today is laughable, as the city would never allow it. Palo Alto watches over its residents’ use of their property assiduously. Zoning violations are policed with vigor, and the infamous “Palo Alto process” means that even minor changes to an existing building require months, sometimes years, of wading through intense bureaucratic thickets.

The obvious solution to this bind is urban intensification, focused on high-density housing in existing downtowns and along public transit routes. An adequate response would entail large-scale construction. At present, a new apartment complex with fourteen units in central Palo Alto is considered inordinately ambitious, but what is actually needed are projects of 140 or even 1400 units. If convenience-oriented, pseudo-environmental objections and demands could be eliminated, such developments could go up quickly and at reasonable costs, relieving rents, freeing workers from horrific commutes, and allowing ambitious and highly skilled young people to remain in the area. The gains would be manifold.

Critics will no doubt contend that few Americans really want to live in high-density housing. The American ideal, they would remind us, is based on owning a detached, single-family house with a yard. Many residents of this country do prefer such a lifestyle, but it has simply become unaffordable for most in the Bay Area and similar economic hubs. Many people foreclosed from the exurban fringe have soured on the whole idea, and are rethinking the distant-commuter existence. Others were never enthralled with suburbia in the first place, but were forced into it by the inordinate expense of safe, pedestrian-focused urban cores. It is not coincidental that both New York and San Francisco have imposed rent control for years, as demand has long outstripped supply in their livable neighborhoods. Permitting existing city cores to expand and allowing the urbanization of suburban downtowns would help balance the equation, letting more people live where they want and where economic opportunities beckon.

An urban intensification program in Silicon Valley would unleash hidden benefits as well, due to inherent economies of agglomeration. Close physical connections facilitate the exchange of both objects and ideas, giving an economic edge to tightly packed areas. Transportation in such circumstances obviously is much less expensive than in dispersed areas. Direct, person-to-person communication is also invaluable for the generation and development of ideas, the ultimate foundation of the information economy. Although Silicon Valley has pioneered the creation of distant connections and far-flung on-line communities, it relies itself on face-time—which is one of the reasons why competitors in less expensive high-tech centers lag behind. The agglomeration effects of Silicon Valley, in other words, are profound, but are also profoundly constrained.

Ironies abound. While Silicon Valley is awash with cash—Apple is currently sitting on $100 billion, wondering what to do with it—California is an economic wreck, retreating on education, shuttering its beloved state parks, and letting its infrastructure collapse. The state needs sustained economic growth—which it could easily realize, but for the concerted opposition of its new gentry class, concerned above all with its own convenience and sense of exclusivity. That class, of course, was itself created by the gushing trough of local high-tech capitalism. Ultimately, the same group that built Silicon Valley is now strangling it due to its desire to maintain its own privilege.

I am reminded of the Polish-Lithuanian aristocracy in the 18th century, so proud of its freedom and so ready to use its veto power that it prevented the modernization of the state, thus dooming the entire country to partition by Russia, Prussia, and Austria.







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Exclusivity and Anti-Environmentalism in Palo Alto and Vicinity

The previous GeoCurrents post argued that opponents of urban intensification in wealthy suburban communities such as Palo Alto, California are motivated in part by their desire to protect their property values.  Commentator Nick Baldo took issue with that assessment, arguing that increased density actually has the opposite effect. In retrospect, I think that Baldo is correct. Environmentally responsible “smart growth” in suburban communities such as Palo Alto would likely result in enhanced property valuation in the long term, although certain projects might cause short-term price declines in specific areas.

I stressed concerns about property value because the topic is ubiquitous in Palo Alto conversations. Long-term homeowners have seen the value of their equity explode, and many are obsessed with the issue, and fearful that their gains could somehow evaporate. Potential threats are carefully scrutinized.

Concerns about property values in the Palo Alto Area can quickly trump all environmental considerations, even in the most self-consciously green communities. I write from personal experience here, based on my dealings with the homeowners association in my own community. I live on the Stanford University campus in a 140-unit condominium complex. This neighborhood, composed entirely of faculty and high-level staff members and their families, leans strongly to the left, and its environmentalist proclivities are immediately evident in election returns, casual conversations, and bumper-sticker slogans. But property value considerations loom large, even though residents own only their own structures, and not the underlying land. (Actually, much of the equity in the buildings themselves belongs to Stanford University, which maintains a variety of complex housing subsidies for faculty members.)

One might think that such a community would pursue environmentally responsible policies, but it does not. I first encountered local anti-environmentalism here when addressing an irrigation issue. The condominiums in question are arranged in a circle around a small, manicured park area. Although the Stanford campus has a semi-arid Mediterranean climate, with rainless summers and only about 18 inches (460 mm) of precipitation during the rest of the year, the plantings in the common area are adapted to a much more humid climate, and thus require constant irrigation in the summer. Unfortunately, they are habitually over-watered. In late summer and early autumn, when longer nights and cooler temperatures reduce evapotranspiration, the lawns ooze water for weeks, with so much excess run-off that the gutters turn green with algae. Yet when I mentioned this needless waste of resources to the homeowners’ board, I received only withering stares and a terse comment: “we tried reducing irrigation once and several brown spots appeared in the lawn, threatening our property values.” Several years later, California experienced a three-year drought, which resulted in pressure on the community to reduce its water consumption. At that point I suggested replanting some of the lawn area with drought-adapted Mediterranean vegetation; from the reactions of the board members, one might have thought that I was proposing to put in tiger-pits and rolls of barbed wire. (The drought in question was followed by two wet winters, during which time pressure for water conservation vanished; California, however, is now experiencing another dry winter.

Management of the area outside of the circle of condominiums has also been environmentally hostile. This lightly tended zone is covered with annual grasses and supports a few native oak trees. It is little used, except by dog-walkers and stargazers, and it forms a small zone of relatively natural habitat in an otherwise suburban landscape. A few years ago, this area was colonized by a small contingent of ground squirrels. Ground squirrels are ubiquitous in the rural areas of the Stanford Campus, and most people consider them to be harmless and rather endearing little creatures. Ecologically, ground squirrels are significant in providing abundant food for hawks, kites, foxes, and other small predators. And sure enough, as the number of ground squirrels around the complex expanded, the number of hawks in the neighborhood visibly increased.  The homeowners association, however, became worried that the presence of so many rodents could threaten property values, and therefore ordered the extermination of the entire colony by way of poisoned bait. The local human community, despite its strong environmentalist credentials, voiced few objections.

Considering such reactions, it seems to me that the fear of reduced property valuation encourages anti-environmental positions among ostensibly green and prosperous suburbanites of Palo Alto and neighboring communities. But other factors are no doubt more significant. One is the desire for exclusivity. The larger the number of people who are able to live in Palo Alto, the less exclusive the precious community becomes, threatening the self-regard, if not the property values, of its elite residents.

At first glance, Palo Alto does not seem like a highly exclusive place. The very idea of a “gated community” is considered anathema here, the sort of thing that one finds in Republican-voting areas of the country. By the same token, local public schools are adored and generously supported. Unlike most high-income areas, Palo Alto sends relatively few of its children to private schools.

If one digs slightly below the surface, however, different attitudes are revealed. To substantiate this claim, I can offer only a single anecdote, related to me several years ago by an acquaintance. Perhaps the story is exaggerated, and I have no way to verify its claims. All that I can say is that the tale “rang true” at the time, and that the person who related it seems entirely trustworthy.

The person in question was at the time a stay-at-home mother with three school-aged children. Her husband was a teacher in the Palo Alto Unified School District, but on a single teacher’s salary they could not even dream of living in the community. The school district, however, allows the offspring of its teachers to attend Palo Alto schools regardless of where they live. As a result, the woman enrolled her children in an elementary school in one of the city’s most exclusive neighborhoods. Everything was working out well until some of the other parents discovered that this new family did not reside locally and thus, in their eyes, had no rights to the local school. Not only was the woman shunned, but her children were harassed on the playground with taunts such as, “my mommy told me that I can’t play with you because you don’t belong here.” Several months later, she pulled her children out of the school. She dubbed those who had driven her out the “Shallow Altos.”

Palo Alto schools, it is important to note, have acquitted such an exclusive ambiance by virtue of an accident of political geography. Adjacent to the community but separated from it by an eight-lane freeway is the city of East Palo Alto. East Palo Alto is a relatively poor place; until recently its population was mostly African-American, and now it is heavily Hispanic. Crime rates in East Palo Alto are high, gangs are a problem, and test scores are low. If East Palo Alto had been placed within the Palo Alto School District, many if not most Palo Alto parents would have enrolled their children in private schools. But East Palo Alto lies in San Mateo Country, whereas Palo Alto is in Santa Clara County, and it was thus integrated into a different public school district.

Feelings of exclusivity, I am convinced, inform the debates over urban intensification in Palo Alto. More important, however, are matters of mere convenience. Many established residents simply do not want increased competition for parking spaces, additional cars clogging the roads, or longer waits at their favorite restaurants. For the sake of such convenience, they are willing to sacrifice not only sound environmental policy, but also economic sanity, as we shall see in the next post.

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Labrador Community Demands Drone Squadron

Happy Valley-Goose Bay (population 7,500) is pressing Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to fulfill a campaign promise of several years ago and establish a drone squadron at the Canadian Forces Base (CFB) located in the remote community.  During the Cold War, CFB Goose Bay had been a major military facility, used heavily by NATO. In more recent years, the base has been employed by the British, German, and Italian militaries as a training facility. Currently, however, the Goose Bay’s extensive facilities are little-used, even though the Canadian government has recently spent some $20 million in upgrading the airfield and as much as $300 million in environmental clean-up. As the Wikipedia explains, “the base continues in its role as a low-level tactical training facility and as a forward deployment location for Canadian Forces Air Command, although the total complement of Canadian Forces personnel numbers less than 100.” As result of the military drawdown, the economy of Happy Valley-Goose Bay has suffered. If a drone facility is established at Goose Bay, it will be used mainly for the surveillance of Canada’s sparsely populated Arctic region.

Happy Valley-Goose Bay is situated next to an unusual geographical feature, Lake Melville. Although located well inland, sizable Lake Melville is connected to the ocean through the narrow Hamilton Inlet. Information on this water-body is difficult to find and often contradictory. The Wikipedia article on the lake describes it as a “saltwater tidal extension of Hamilton Inlet,” yet another Wikipedia article describes it as “freshwater lake Melville.” I imagine that the eastern part of the “lake” is brackish and that the western part is essentially fresh, but I have not been able to find confirmation.

Although the economy of Happy Valley-Goose Bay is depressed, that of the province in which it is located, Newfoundland and Labrador, is doing relatively well.  For many years, it was a deeply depressed province, owing largely to the collapse of the cod fishery. Offshore oil, however, has resulted in a minor boom. As summarized by the Wikipedia, “Unemployment rates decreased, the population stabilized, and saw moderate growth, and the province recorded record surpluses which rid it of its ‘have not’ status.” Recent discoveries indicate that Newfoundland may have massive shale oil deposits as well. Exploiting such resources, however, would demand fracking, and hence would be environmentally controversial.

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Anti-Environmental Environmentalism in California’s Bay Area, Part II

Trulia Palo Alto Real Estate Prices Map

As the previous post noted, the new environmental consensus calls for urban intensification to reduce of greenhouse gas emissions and preserve rural landscapes. In the San Francisco Bay Area, such an ideal has been widely embraced in principle by both leading environmental groups and regional associations. The 2007 housing report by ABAG, the Association of Bay Area Governments, opens by summarizing the new perspective:

After decades of development of auto-oriented communities, support is growing for more traditional styles of development. In particular, there is increased support for more compact communities near public transit that are not focused around the demands of the automobile. There is a growing demand for homes in areas that include jobs, shops, and services close to transit so that people can walk, bike or take public transit, in addition to using their car.

 Propelled by market forces and influenced by the new paradigm, in-fill developments have sprouted over many parts of the Bay Area in the past decade. But the pace of redevelopment has been frustratingly slow.  Most communities are resistant, especially to large projects, and even those plans that are approved often have to fight through years of environmental litigation.

A prime case is the proposed transformation of the shuttered Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in southeastern San Francisco. For over a decade, city agencies have been working with a private firm to remove environmental contaminants and begin building a new community that is supposed to eventually hold over 10,000 homes. Resistance from environmental and neighborhood groups, however, has brought repeated delays. In 2008, a solid majority of San Franciscans voted to proceed with the development, but lawsuits prevented groundbreaking. In July 2011, a Superior Court gave a tentative go-ahead, but a month later, an Earthjustice legal maneuver once again brought everything to a standstill. At that time, a California Superior Court ruled than that project could not proceed until the remediation of toxic substances had been completed. As the complete removal of all hazardous chemicals is all but impossible, it seems likely that the Hunter’s Point project, like most other local brownfield redevelopment schemes, will continue to be deferred for years if not decades.

In the Silicon Valley community of Palo Alto, adjacent to Stanford University, resistance to urban intensification reaches an extreme. Even the smallest developments encounter strident opposition. A recent case is the proposed Lytton Gateway project. A February 24, 2012 article in the Palo Alto Weekly made it seem as if proponents of the “new urbanism” had scored a major victory in pushing through the project, noting that:

An ambitious proposal to build a five-story building featuring … offices, apartments, and a coffee shop at one of downtown Palo Alto’s most prominent corners took a major stride toward winning the city’s approval … when the Planning and Transportation Committee agreed to rezone the site to make the project possible.

 Trulia Palo Alto Real Estate Prices MapAmbitious? The Lytton Gateway plans call for all of fourteen apartments. But even that miniscule number was too large for many local activists, who argued that the new residents would take up too much parking. The developers addressed the problem head on, promising to provide ample additional parking and even to “buy Caltrain Go Passes for all of the buildings tenants … and to provide two electric-vehicle charging stations.” (A Caltrain station is in easy walking distance from the project.) Such inducements, however, were not enough for several members of the committee, who voted against the proposal.

In Palo Alto, parking scarcity is one of the main weapons used against urban intensification. By forcing developers to provide ample parking, often underground, anti-urbanists push up building costs, discouraging development. Ironically, they also guarantee that new developments remains focused on the personal automobile, undermining a keystone of the new urbanism. But I wonder whether parking is really the overriding issue; the developers of Lytton Gateway, after all, promised to provide many new car-slots, yet they still encountered heated opposition. In the end, it seems that many Palo Alto residents simply do not want newcomers in the community. More than a few seem to be especially suspicious of those who cannot afford Palo Alto real estate. Half of the Lytton Gateways residential units are to be designated as “affordable housing,” accessible, in other words, to teachers, police officers, nurses, firefighters and other community servants.

Although high-density residences are extremely difficult to build in Palo Alto, another kind of housing development is commonplace. Single-family houses are continually being torn down and replaced by much larger buildings. But as the new structures are almost invariable single-family houses themselves, no net gain is realized in urban intensity. A March 2 full-page advertisement in the Palo Alto Weekly encapsulates the story. It trumpets an “outstanding opportunity to build in the Downtown/Professorville neighborhood on this 12,000 sf [square foot] lot…” As a seeming afterthought, the ad also mentions that, “The property is being sold as land value, but it does contain a 1,687 sf 4 bedroom, 2 bath home.” In downtown Palo Alto, in easy walking distance to a thriving commercial district as well as a commuter rail line, a house so modestly proportioned is often nothing but a “teardown,” a nuisance structure that adds no value to the underlying land. In this instance, the 12,000 square-foot lot is being offered at $2,395,000. Needless to say, few professors reside in Professorville these days.

In the end, the opposition to urban intensification in Palo Alto and neighboring cities is driven not so much by genuine environmental concerns as by property-value considerations, which are themselves coupled with the desire to maintain pleasant, low-density, carbon-intensive suburban neighborhoods as they are. Local environmental activism thus serves as a cover for a status-quo-maintaining, exclusionary, upper-class-based politics. In several respects, Palo Alto’s firmly Democratic-Party voting record belies a local political sensibility that could only be described as deeply conservative.

(to be continued….)

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Anti-Environmental Environmentalism in California’s Bay Area

The previous GeoCurrents post ended on a controversial note, contending that although the wealthy suburban communities of the San Francisco Bay Area seem decidedly liberal, they actually embrace highly conservative policies at the local level. Before I attempt to validate this claim, a word of warning is in order. The entire issue is muddied by terminological imprecision, and even more so by the simplistic nature of the conventional political spectrum, which in the United States runs from a liberal left to a conservative right. The flaws inherent in such a model are not difficult to locate. Libertarian beliefs are not the only ones that find no space on this political gradient, while “neoliberalism” is in many ways highly conservative, just as “neoconservativism” is some respects more radical than conservative. “Liberalism” itself means different things in different contexts and different places, as does “conservatism.” It is thus no surprise that students in the U.S. are often confused by academic discussions of political positions across the world, having difficulty, for example, understanding how the Australian Liberal Party could form the country’s conservative contingent (the Wikipedia helpfully describes the party’s ideology as one of “conservative liberalism” and “liberal conservatism”).

That said, it is generally agreed that certain positions fit comfortably on the left/right gradient. Although environmentalism has certain conservative aspects (as etymologically reflected in an older term, “conservationism”), the movement today is firmly identified with the left. By the same token, concern about global climate change is highly characteristic of the left. In the U.S., the political right tends to be suspicious of the entire phenomenon of global warming. Until recently, such views were largely confined to the far right, as mainstream Republicans tended to support market-oriented approaches to reducing carbon emissions (such as “cap and trade”). Over the past few years, however, almost all self-identified conservative politicians in the United States have come either to view global warming as greatly exaggerated if not an actual hoax, or have simply gone quiet on the issue. As a result, concern about global climate change in the U.S. is now a hallmark of the left (or liberal) side of the political spectrum.

Among American liberals, on the other hand, climate change looms large. Often viewed as an existential threat, global warming has come to overshadow all other environmental concerns, at least at the rhetorical level. Unless something is done, and done quickly, to address the problem, we are warned, the consequences will be disastrous. Exactly how rapidly change will occur, and how devastating global warming will be, remains debated, but few on the left doubt that urgent action is required.

One of the keys to reducing carbon emissions, environmental scientists have concluded, is urban intensification. Although the American environmental  movement initially evinced a strongly anti-urban bias, such attitudes have largely disappeared in the scholarly community. Whether in regard to transportation, heating, or the basic provisioning of goods and services, dense urban environments are vastly more efficient than scattered settlements, and therefore have a much lower carbon footprint on a per person basis. Recent publications that persuasively outline this position include James S. Russell’s The Agile City and a special edition of Scientific American.

Population growth bolsters the environmental case for urban intensification. California’s population continues to expand, due largely to immigration, both legal and undocumented. A generation ago, many local environmentalists argued for immigration restrictions, contending that additional human numbers would put too many strains on the state’s—and the nation’s— natural resources and ecosystemic balance. Today, however, such voices have all but disappeared; opposition to immigration has come to be seen as a nativistic, right-wing stance, not one that proper left-leaning environmentalists would embrace. Environmental organizations these days tend to be quiet on the immigration issue.

Given that the population of California will continue to expand, the compelling question becomes where to accommodate the state’s new residents. Until the crash of 2008, the chief dynamic was extensive growth, pushing ever outward by way of what James S. Russell calls the “suburban growth machine.” In the Bay Area, that process was reaching its limits; by 2000, the local lowlands had essentially been filled in, while the hills were largely off-limits; as a result, new growth spilled eastward into the Central Valley. Cities and towns in the valley began to mushroom, with instant suburban communities such as Mountain House sprouting in the fertile farmlands of San Joaquin County. Commuting from these growth zones along clogged freeways across the rugged Diablo Range into the Bay Area was a lengthy ordeal, and when gasoline prices spiked in 2008, a bad situation became much worse. According to some reports, Mountain House now has the highest level of negative housing equity in the country, and the nearby city of Stockton is verging on bankruptcy.

Beyond the far suburban fringe of the Bay Area, the population of the San Joaquin Valley more generally surged in the period leading up to 2008. Most growth here was suburban as well, occurring at the fringes of Merced, Fresno, Visalia, Bakersfield, and other valley towns. Unlike the Bay Area, housing prices here remained within the reach of most families, attracting increasing numbers of newcomers.

From an environmentalist perspective, suburban expansion in the valley has taken a significant ecological and economic toll. Some of the most agriculturally productive lands in the country have been paved over, replaced by inherently carbon-intensive, car-dependent sprawl. The population surge in the topographically enclosed Central Valley, moreover, has generated some of the country’s most severe air pollution, threatening the forests of the adjacent Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Serious environmental analysts concur in rejecting the suburban “extensification” model that has hitherto characterized California’s demographic expansion. The only real alternative, most would agree, is urban intensification, which entails increasing the population density of existing cities, whether by building condos in empty suburban lots (“infill”) or by constructing high-rise apartments in urban cores and around public transit stations. From the environmentalist perspective, the goal is to reduce the carbon footprint by building housing dense enough so that residents are not dependent on the personal automobile, but can instead get by on rail, bicycle, and foot, with “zip cars” for periodic excursions further afield.

The urban intensification model presents an unusual environmentalist formula in that it is not countered by economic logic. On the contrary, in the San Francisco Bay Area, market forces would instantly begin intensifying cities if they were not restrained to a massive extent by local governments and citizen-advocacy groups. Ironically, such organizations fight development in the name of environmental protection, focusing on the preservation of existing neighborhoods and ignoring other scales of analysis. In so doing, they thwart the emergence of less carbon-intensive urban options, and are thus, from a climate-change point of view, inherently anti-environmental.

The anti-environmental implications of local property owners’ opposition to urban development is often noted yet seldom taken seriously. The environmental community essentially gives NIMBY (“Not In My Backyard”) activists a pass, largely because they are able to portray their anti-intensification efforts as entailing environmental protection of a different kind. At its very start, the modern eco-movement embraced the credo  “Think Globally/Act Locally,” and that is precisely what opponents of enhanced urbanization do. Nowhere are such tendencies more apparent than in Palo Alto, arguably the heart of Silicon Valley, as we shall see in the next post.


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Rethinking California’s Political Divide

California Liberal and Conservative Precincts Map by David Latterman

California Liberal and Conservative Precincts Map by David LattermanRecent GeoCurrents posts on Northern California have emphasized the political divide between the left-leaning coast and the right-leaning interior. Such an analysis is reinforced by an incisive new report, David Latterman’s “The California Political Precinct Index,” published by the Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good at the University of San Francisco. Based on returns from a number of California state ballot initiatives, Latterman has constructed a precinct-level map of political orientation, arrayed along an axis from the “most liberal” (in blue) to the “most conservative” (in red) areas. The map I have posted here overlays county-level data on Latterman’s precinct-based map, showing California’s ten most conservative and ten most liberal counties (as identified in the same report).

As can be seen, the gap between the northern coast and interior is profound; the northern half of California encompasses nine of the state’s ten most liberal counties and nine of its ten most conservative counties. From Big Sur on the central coast to southern Humboldt County in the far north, it is difficult to find conservative precincts within fifty miles of the ocean. Significantly, the wealthiest districts in the San Francisco Bay Area are depicted in blue. In southern California this pattern is not as pronounced. Although many rich areas of the southland—Malibu, Beverly Hills—are mapped as voting with the left, the tony Palos Verdes Peninsula is decidedly red.

The few liberal precincts in the conservative interior are instructive. In the San Joaquin Valley, the larger cities—Stockton, Modesto, and Fresno especially—are clearly marked blue. Other liberal San Joaquin precincts are linked to heavily Hispanic populations. In the more conservative Sacramento Valley, the college towns of Chico and Davis, along with the state capital of Sacramento, appear as liberal enclaves. Other left-leaning precincts in the interior are characterized by low population density and abundant natural amenities, which have attracted left-leaning outdoors enthusiasts. Examples include the Lake Tahoe area, Alpine County, eastern Mariposa County, and parts of Inyo County.

The most conservative portions of the state are also intriguing. In southern California, southwestern Riverside County is marked as quite far to the right; this area witnessed a major suburban housing boom just before the crash of 2008. Further north, a strip of western Kern County—the eleventh most conservative county in the state—is mapped in deep red. This area encompasses Midway-Sunset, the largest oilfield in California and the third largest in the United States. Some of the ranching areas in far northeastern California, especially in Lassen County, are shown as equally conservative.

Latterman’s geographical dissection of California’s left/right divide at the precinct level goes about as far as it can. More locally specific data is not available, and further analysis will eventually be frustrated by the limitations imposed by a simple, one-dimensional, left/right spectrum. Many political views do cluster along such an axis, but by no means all. Different regions are “liberal,” “conservative,” or “moderate” in very different ways. Mendocino and San Mateo counties may look the same on Latterman’s map, but they are not. Mendocino has proportionally many more radical leftists and left-libertarians—and many more people on the far right as well—than San Mateo County, a staid, well-off, pro-business, technologically oriented suburban expanse.

In some respects, moreover, the wealthy suburbs of the San Francisco Bay Area are not as liberal as they seem from Latterman’s map or from the underlying data. This should perhaps come as no surprise; these same areas were reliably Republican voting as recently as the 1970s, and they contain many members of “the one percent.” Rich places historically incline to the right, as they still do in many parts of the United States. But because the general cultural tenor of the Bay Area is so strongly liberal, conservative viewpoints often remain hidden. Frequently they are not even recognized as such, in something of a mass case of political blindness. The people of Palo Alto and environs, the heart of Silicon Valley, view themselves as strongly environmentalist, deeply concerned about inequalities of wealth, and committed to the national triumph of the Democratic Party; in actuality, the policies pursued by their local governments are deeply anti-environmental, serve to exacerbate the gap between the rich and the poor, and help push the United States as a whole in a more conservative direction.

Substantiating these controversial if not outrageous claims will take up the next few posts, the final ones in the current series on northern California.


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The Hippie Migration to Mendocino and the Establishment of a Cannabis-Based Economy

Although the hippie movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s may seem like a historical curiosity, its consequences were profound. It continues, moreover, to be a contentious topic, often used to score points in political debates. The New Republic, for example, is currently running a slideshow entitledThe Weekly Standard’s Obsession with Hippies Continues,” which pillories the conservative magazine for conflating hippies with Democrats. But as one savvy commentator pointed out, the images used do not necessarily reflected hippiedom: “Whoa, whoa there — hipsters and hippies are totally, completely different! You guys need to get your categories straight!” Hipsters, unlike hippies, are closely identified with contemporary urban culture.

As the previous GeoCurrents post mentioned, a “hippie migration” of the early 1970s resulted in a partial relocation of the subculture from San Francisco and environs to California’s north coast. The larger movement took members of the 1960s counter-culture to a number of rural areas, both in northern California and elsewhere. One of its most famous outposts was “The Farm,” near Summertown, Tennessee, founded in 1971, according to the Wikipedia, “by Stephen Gaskin and 320 San Francisco hippies.” The Farm is still a going concern, although its population has dwindled from some 1,600 at its height to around 175 today. Most hippie communes and intentional communities from the counter-cultural heyday vanished altogether, as eco-romantic dreams were seldom matched by rural realities.

In California’s north coast, however, hippie culture was able to put down roots. Key to its survival was the creation a viable economic niche: the cultivation of premium marijuana. In the early 1970s, the low end of the California cannabis market was dominated by goods from northern Mexico, especially Sinaloa, while more potent products came from southern Mexico (Michoacán especially, which became “Meshmican” in stoner lingo), Panama, Colombia, and Thailand. By the mid-1970s, north-coast hippies learned how to produce something much stronger still, which was first known as “sinsemilla,” from the Spanish “without seeds.” Key to the process was eliminating all male plants and allowing the female buds to become engorged and highly resinous. Before that could be done, however, geographically correct strains had to be obtained. One could not simply plant seeds from market varieties, as they were adapted to tropical conditions. As Jared Diamond emphasizes in Guns, Germs, and Steel, latitude is crucial for day-length adapted crops, which move much more easily in an east/west direction than along a north/south axis. Crucial to the northern California industry were temperate cannabis cultivars, brought back from Central Asia by adventurers straying off the “Hippie trail” (northernmost Afghanistan has the same latitude as Mendocino County).

The hippie migrants to Mendocino faced rough conditions in the early years. Local residents were often unwelcoming or even hostile, as were law enforcement officers. Aging hippies today tell stories of their handmade, un-permitted houses being torn down by county officials, as well as of stints in the county jail for cultivation. Acquiring land was a major hurdle; many pooled resources with friends in the Bay Area to buy plots of cutover forestland, resulting in complex land-partnership agreements, and more than a few fallings-out. As roads were often unimproved, many had to walk to their homesteads for several miles over mucky tracks during the long rainy season. Land parcels were usually off the electricity grid, requiring a Spartan life-style, elaborate adaptations, or dirty diesel generators. Some used water to generate power by way of Pelton wheels, seldom an easy arrangement. As one pioneer described the drawbacks: “In a January rainstorm your power would go out and next thing you know you’d be waste-deep in a frigid, raging torrent, sparks flying everywhere, desperately trying to get your system back on line.”

As the years went on, the living got easier. All-weather gravel roads were pushed deeper into the woods, power-lines went up, and solar cells became available. Intriguingly, not all hippies took to the solar revolution; as one once told me, “never get a photovoltaic array unless you are already connected to the grid and can sell power back to PG&E [Pacific Gas and Electric]; otherwise you generate a useless surplus when the sun shines and then you have to store it for nights and rainy days with evil batteries.”

Most importantly, Mendocino County came to accommodate the newcomers, just as the migrants discovered that they had a lot to learn from the established residents. Accommodation was facilitated over time by the generational shift. As the children of the hippies grew up with those of the previously established families, cultures merged in a seemingly oxymoronic “hippie-redneck” synthesis. The offspring of local ranching and logging families now often grow marijuana, while plenty of hippies and their adult children have no problems with guns, bulldozers, and off-road vehicles. The merger is by no means complete and tensions persist, but overall the mood is relaxed and relatively harmonious. The local Hispanic population generally fits easily into the mix; Mexican immigrants came initially to labor in the vineyards and wineries, but many also work for aging growers and quite a few cultivate their own small plots as well.

Marijuana cultivation, especially in the early years, was not as easy as it might seem. Plantings had to be widely scattered in partial shade to avoid detection. Pests and diseases, especially spider mites and downy mildew, still take their toll, and an early autumn rainstorm can spell disaster (such problems are amusingly recounted at length in T. C. Boyles’ Budding Prospects). Labor demands during harvest season, moreover, restrict crop size. But prices were high in the early years, and if few growers became rich, many made a comfortable living.  More than a few maintained a migratory existence, sojourning in Mexico or Costa Rica during the rainy season and returning to Mendocino in the spring. Many others, however, merely grew a few plants to supplement incomes earned in the formal sector. I have taught several students from backwoods Mendocino backgrounds at Stanford University, and when asked what their parents do for a living, the response is generally on the lines of, “my mother is a teacher/nurse/county employee, and my father, well, he, um, well, he …”

In this milieu of artisanal production, large-scale growers are not appreciated. I once attended a road-association meeting in which one member informed the assembly that he had been contracted by an Oakland medical marijuana co-op to grow over 1,000 plants; the news was most unwelcome, and his neighbors were relieved when his operation was taken down several months later. By early 2000s, many growers had actually come to appreciate CAMP, the “Campaign Against Marijuana Planting,” a multi-agency law enforcement task force, as it had come to focus on large-scale growers. Such cultivators, often connected with Mexican organized crime syndicates, operate mostly in public lands in the eastern half of the county. Their operations are often violent and environmentally destructive, and they threaten the reputation of the business. Whether they drive down prices is an open question, as they typically produce for a lower market-segment, growing the wrong strains, harvesting too early, and curing their buds improperly. Wine snobs have nothing over pot snobs these days, and extraordinary care is taken by serious growers in both pre- and post-harvest procedures.

Regardless of the activities of the big operations, prices have come down. Growers complain that they make less per unit than they did in 1980. Most attribute the relative price drop to the expanded number of small-scale cultivators, and especially to the spread of indoor cultivation in suburban and urban parts of the state. In response, they have taken to growing much larger plants, cultivating them in the full sun, and providing full-spectrum fertilizers. Organic cultivation exists, but the practice is rare, as authentication is impossible and the price premium is small. The real money in the business, I am convinced, is in fully licit growers’ supply stores.

After the passage of the California Medical Marijuana Act of 1996, the business gradually gained a quasi-legal status as far as the county and the state were concerned, as long as the scale of operation remained small, generally below 25 plants. When the county government decided to license the cultivation of up to 99 plants in early 2011, some saw an opportunity for serious money. Dreams were hatched of developing tourist-oriented “tasting rooms,” following the local wine industry. The U.S. federal raids of October 2011, however, demolished such plans, throwing everything into doubt. It is unclear what will happen, but it is all but certain that Mendocino County will continue to produce high-quality cannabis, and most of its residents will continue to be rather proud of that fact.


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The 1970s Transformation of California’s North Coast

The previous GeoCurrents post noted that Mendocino County remained in the Democratic-voting camp after California’s geopolitical transformation largely because it experienced a demographic transformation of its own during the same period. The first glimmerings of this sea change can be dated to 1957, when artist Bill Zacha settled in the coastal village of Mendocino and established an art center. According to a 1962 Look magazine article, the town was moribund, its dwindling population dependent on a dying lumber industry. But the village—as it is often called to distinguish it from the county of the same name—was blessed with a scenic location, as well as a stock of fine Victorian houses that had escaped the fires that had periodically devastated most other coastal California communities.

Northern California in the 1950s and early ‘60s had a booming economy and a thriving art market. The established artist colony of Carmel (officially, Carmel-by-the-Sea) had become too pricey for many aspiring artists. Enough demand had built up that where Zacha settled, other followed. By 1962, Look described Mendocino as “the most talked about art center in northern California.” The village’s population, the article claims, jumped from 500 in 1958 to 1,165 in four years later. It is now less than 1,000; Mendocino’s residents have adopted rigid historical preservation rules, making it all but impossible to build within the village. As the local arts community has expanded, it has been forced to spread geographically as well, helping change other parts of the county in the process.

The real transition, however, came in the early 1970s with the migration of hippies from San Francisco and environs. (I used the term “hippie” advisedly, as it is widely used for self-identification; a local 2008 blog post, for example, was devoted to “Celebrating Mendocino County’s Counter Culture Hippie Past [Which is Not Past in Mendoland].”) The hippie movement was originally urban, but its followers were soon gripped by a “back to the land” imperative, and Mendocino beckoned. A several-hour drive from San Francisco, Mendo boasted a mild climate, a stunning coastline, extensive redwood forests, and a thriving arts colony. In those days, it also had relatively inexpensive land, logged-over timberland newly subdivided into ten to forty acre plots (four to sixteen hectares). By 1970, a significant migration was underway.

From a scholarly perspective, the hippie movement, both in Mendocino and more generally, is an understudied phenomenon. It is not the sort of topic that graduate students would be encouraged to select for their dissertations. Some good works of journalism, however, have been produced, along with some excellent fiction. T. C. Boyles’ novel Budding Prospects, set near Willits in north-central Mendocino, is something of a classic. Also recommended is Nicholas Wilson’s limited-edition photo-essay, Mendocino in the 1970s: Peoples, Places, and Events of California’s Mendocino Coast. But overall, as academics are wont to say, more research is needed.

As I find Mendocino County and the hippie movement that transformed it significant, interesting, and understudied, I have long given it some attention. My connection to the county dates back to my earliest memories. In 1962, when I was five, my parents bought a minuscule share of a 29,000-acre ranch in northeastern Mendocino County. The land was slated to become prime recreational property along a new reservoir that would arise with the damming of the Eel River, a project that would have flooded out Round Valley. The highpoint of every year of my childhood was a camping excursion to “Mendocino,” where we had the run of the vast ranch. The thought of reservoir inundating the property helped turn me into a radical environmentalist, a position that I later repudiated in full. Interestingly, plans for the massive dam were killed in the late 1960s by then-governor Ronald Reagan; according to some, Reagan was motivated by his sympathies for the Native Americans of the Round Valley Reservation.

My early visits to Mendocino were in the pre-hippie 1960s. I subsequently got to know that subculture fairly well, although I did so in a different part of the state. Hippies did not move just to Mendo and Humboldt, but rather streamed out to almost all rural, wooded parts of northern California. (Only in the so-called Emerald Triangle of the north coast, however, did they move in such numbers as to fundamentally transform local cultures.) I encountered the movement in the early 1970s, after my family moved from the Bay Area to rural Calaveras County (population 12,000 at the time) on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. Hippies in Calaveras were not scarce, “wannabe” hippies were numerous, and the attitudes of the movement deeply influenced certain subcultures of the local high school. After graduating from Calaveras High in 1975, I went to the University of California at Santa Cruz; UCSC’s mascot, the Banana Slug, tells you all you need to know about its proclivities. I have, in other words, gained a certain understanding of the movement through close observation.

I was reacquainted with Mendocino in 2002, when I moved back to California from North Carolina, and my best friend from high school moved to the Anderson Valley. In visiting him, I met a number of his neighbors and friends. I have also gone to many local community events: county fairs, concerts, variety shows at the local (all-solar) grange hall, and even road-association meetings. I have talked to local residents at length, many of whom have been more than happy to tell their stories, and several of whom are both deeply knowledgeable and as intellectually sophisticated as any university professor. Actually, a few of them are, or were, professors themselves. This list included for many years Kary Mullis, Nobel laureate in chemistry. I never met Mullis or attended any of his legendary parties, but I have certainly heard stories. From his Wikipedia article:

Mullis writes of having once spoken to a glowing green raccoon. Mullis arrived at his cabin in the woods of northern California around midnight one night in 1985, and, having turned on the lights and left sacks of groceries on the floor, set off for the outhouse with a flashlight. “On the way, he saw something glowing under a fir tree. Shining the flashlight on this glow, it seemed to be a raccoon with little black eyes. The raccoon spoke, saying, ‘Good evening, doctor,’ and he replied with a hello.” Mullis later speculated that the raccoon ‘was some sort of holographic projection and … that multidimensional physics on a macroscopic scale may be responsible’. Mullis denies LSD having anything at all to do with this.

My forays into Mendocino County over the past ten years have been conducted in the spirit of cultural-geographic fieldwork. I trained in a geographical school that emphasized—some would say fetishized—fieldwork, especially as done in the tradition of Carl O. Sauer, founder of the (old) Berkeley School of Cultural Geography. Fieldwork to Sauer meant getting to know the land as closely as possible, which essentially meant getting to know the local people and learning from them. My first book, Wagering the Land, based in Northern Luzon in the Philippines, was wholly within the Sauerian tradition. But in the mid-1990s, I abandoned my local specialization and instead focused on the global scale. But I never lost interest in old-school fieldwork, and I have been re-engaged in it, albeit in an unfocused and desultory manner, for a number of years.

In the next post, I will draw on these experiences to describe the hippie migration to Mendocino County and its consequences in more detail.

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The 1980s Geopolitical Transformation of California

California Presidential Election 1960 map from Dave Leip's Atlas

California Presidential Election 1960 map from Dave Leip's AtlasRecent GeoCurrents posts have examined the political allegiances of various parts of California, focusing on Mendocino County. Mendocino today votes strongly for Democratic Party candidates, although not overwhelmingly so, like San Francisco. Voting history places Mendocino squarely in the Democratic camp for many decades, as the county has turned to Republican candidates only in landslide years, such 1972, 1980, and 1984. But although Mendocino voted for Democratic presidential candidates in both the 1960s and today, it has done so for different reasons. In the 1980s, the political geography of California experienced a wholesale transformation, one in which most rural counties switched from Democratic to Republican voting behavior. Rural Mendocino and neighboring Humboldt and Lake counties, however, stayed in the Democratic camp. They did so largely because they had experienced their own demographic transformation in the same period. That change will be the subject of a later post; today’s examines the larger geographical transformation of California voting patterns during the 1980s.

To examine California’s electoral shift, let us begin in the hotly contested election of 1960, when Democrat John F. Kennedy edged out Republican Richard M. Nixon to become President of the United States. As the election map here shows—in Dave Leip’s* reverse color scheme—Kennedy’s support was concentrated in traditional Democratic strongholds: urban, industrial counties (San Francisco, Alameda, and Los Angeles); agricultural counties of the San Joaquin Valley; and rural counties in the north dominated by mining and forestry. Nixon took many of the state’s farming counties as well—the Sacramento Valley in particular tended to support Republican candidates—but his real strength was in prosperous suburban counties, such as Orange in the south and Marin and San Mateo in the San Francisco Bay Area. In this election, Mendocino’s returns indicate its rural, working-class nature, as its economy was then dominated by logging, fishing, and small-scale farming.

After the Kennedy-Nixon contest, the U.S. experienced several aberrant elections: in particular, the Democratic landslide of 1964 and the Republican tidal wave of 1972. Both contests reveal hitherto hidden patterns. In the Johnson-Goldwater election of 1964, the only Republican-voting counties in the northern half of the state were Sutter in the agricultural Sacramento Valley and sparsely populated Inyo and Mono on the east side of the Sierra Nevada. In the Republican triumph of 1972, when the Democrats leaned further left than they ever had, only San Francisco, Alameda (which includes Oakland and Berkeley), Yolo (which includes the University of California at Davis), and three mostly rural counties in the north voted for George McGovern rather than Richard Nixon.

California Presidential Election 1976 Map from Dave Leip's AtlasIn 1976, voting patterns in California returned to roughly the same position that they had occupied in 1960. Democrat James Carter, an evangelical Christian from Georgia, was able to reestablish the aging New-Deal alliance, triumphing in urban cores, in roughly half of the agricultural counties, and in most of the mining, logging, and ranching areas of the north. Such a return to the older pattern, however, was temporary. In the next two elections, 1980 and 1984, Ronald Reagan almost swept the state. Reagan lost only three counties in 1980, and in 1984 he lost only five. One of the counties straying from the Republican camp in 1984, however, was significant: affluent Marin, just north of San Francisco. Marin had long been a Republican stronghold, but in 1984 it turned to the Democrats and has never looked back. In 1988, when Republican George H. W. Bush defeated Democrat Michael Dukakis, other suburban counties in northern California followed Marin, as a new political geography of California appeared. Almost all the rural counties have stayed Republican ever since, with the prominent exceptions of Mendocino, Humboldt, and Lake.

California Presidential Election 1988 Map from Dave Leip's AtlasCalifornia’s geopolitical transformation was linked to local cultural evolution and the changes in the social orientations of the two parties, both related to the upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s. As the Democratic Party increasingly turned to environmentalism and feminism, its support in the interior portion of the state withered. As the Republican Party embraced religiously infused social conservatism, it lost the affluent and relatively secular suburban counties of the Bay Area.

The county-level political reversal of California is strikingly evident in a comparison of California’s wealthiest county, Marin, with relatively poor, mostly rural Plumas County in the northern Sierra Nevada Mountains. In 1960, Marin gave Democrat John Kennedy only 42 percent of its vote, whereas Plumas delivered 62 percent. In 1972, when Nixon overwhelmed George McGovern, Marin gave Nixon a seven percent edge, while Plumas favored McGovern by two percent. Yet by 2008, when Barack Obama enjoyed a whopping 57 percent margin over John McCain in Marin, Plumas went for McCain by a twelve percent margin. In neighboring Lassen County, once a Democratic stronghold, McCain’s margin of victory was thirty-four percent.

Mendocino county’s exception to the general rules of California’s recent political transformation will be the topic of a forthcoming GeoCurrents post.

*The colors are reversed because Leip began his remarkable atlas before the New York Times published its famous “Red America/Blue America” map, in which Republican-voting states and counties are depicted in red, and Democratic-voting ones in blue.


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Political Complexities and Contradictions in California’s Mendocino County

California 2008 Election Map from Dave Leip's Atlas

California 2008 Election Map from Dave Leip's AtlasA GeoCurrents post last week highlighted the left-wing orientation of Anderson Valley in California’s Mendocino County, while noting that not all residents lean to the left. The same observation holds for Mendocino County as a whole. Recent election returns show roughly one-third of Mendocino voters selecting Republican candidates, including John McCain in the 2008 U.S. presidential election. As the election map posted here shows—in Dave Leip’s reverse color scheme*—Barack Obama’s 69 percent of the local vote was lower than what he received in counties to the south. Marin County gave 78 percent of its votes to Obama, and San Francisco 84 percent.

But as recent posts in the GeoNotes section of this blog have emphasized, maps that depict only most important patterns can miss significant secondary configurations. Unnoted in the first map is the fact that the county’s Democratic-voting block skews farther leftward than those elsewhere in the state. This tendency can be seen in the returns of the 2000 presidential election, although again it is not evident in the map. The second image posted here makes it seem as if Democratic candidate Al Gore barely won the county. Hidden are the votes gathered by far-left challenger Ralph Nader—which I have therefore added for Mendocino and several nearby counties. As can be seen, Nader’s fifteen percent take in Mendocino was double what he gathered in Marin and San Francisco, and five-times what he received in the Silicon Valley counties of Santa Clara and San Mateo.

The strongly left-leaning orientation of the Mendocino electorate has been evident in other recent elections. The county was the first in the United States to ban genetically modified crops, which it did by a popular vote of 57 percent in 2004. Subsequently, three other California counties, Marin, Santa Cruz, and Trinity, followed suit. But in both Sonoma County to the south of Mendocino and Humboldt County to the north, similar ballot measures failed. Note also that a number of counties in California’s Central Valley have passed resolutions expressly endorsing genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

But as is often the case, local political coloration turns out to be more complex the more carefully it is examined. Mendocino’s anti-GMO resolution received strong backing from the wine industry, which wanted to maintain its environmentally responsible reputation, especially in export markets. Environmental proposals that would harm or inconvenience local vintners often have a different outcome. On one issue in particular, Mendocino County maintains a starkly anti-environmental stance: it is the only county in the state without a grading ordinance. In Mendocino, landowners can do almost anything they want with bulldozers, leveling their properties as they see fit. Grading has long been a hot topic, as environmentalists, concerned about erosion and endangered salmon-runs, push for regulation, while wine producers, ranchers, and others tend to lobby against it.

The lack of a grading ordinance shows that Mendocino’s leftist proclivities bend in a libertarian direction. Not surprisingly, marijuana-growers tend to advocate a “government hands-off” approach to issues that affect their own operations. But there has also been a broader libertarian left-right convergence on several local issues. Outsiders are often astounded at how rural property owners in Mendocino flout building-permit requirement. The county government largely ignores such violations in rural areas. To compensate for the resulting revenue loss, it has come to assess property taxes by aerial surveys, which reveal unregistered recent construction.

Beyond grading issues, Mendocino County’s environmental record leaves much to be desired. Both wine and marijuana have a sizable water demand, and although total precipitation is heavy, summers are bone-dry. As a result of expanding cultivation, the summer flow of the Navarro River and other local streams is diminishing. The biggest environmental failing, however, is the electricity consumption of the marijuana industry. Although most growing in the county occurs outdoors, indoor cultivation is increasingly common, as prices are higher, seclusion is easier, and harvests occur year-round.  The carbon-footprint of the practice, however, is extraordinarily large, as the necessary high-intensity lighting, ventilation, and de-humidification all have a major power draw. According to the New York Times, for California as a whole, “indoor [cannabis] cultivation is responsible for a whopping 8 percent of household electricity usage, costing about $3 billion yearly and producing the annual carbon emission of a million average cars.”

*The colors are reversed because Leip began his superb atlas before the New York Times published its famous “Red America/Blue America” map in which Republican-voting states and counties are depicted in red, and Democratic-voting ones in blue.


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Alaskan Sovereignty Issues: Wrangles Over Wrangel

Sovereignty issues have recently been appearing in Alaskan newspapers. On February 22, the Alaska Dispatch noted that former U.S. senate candidate Joe Miller was lambasting Barak Obama for relinquishing control of several sizable “oil-rich” Alaskan islands, ostensibly because of the Obama administration’s hostility to the petroleum industry. The accusation immediately began to ricochet around the right-wing blogosphere. Gateway Pundit’s headline ran, “Report: Obama Administration Is Giving Away 7 Strategic Islands to Russia.” On many blogs, hyperbole ran wild. One claimed that “the presidents and our elite have given away part of the US,” which it adduced as proof that the United States is “now a dictatorship”; another argued that this maneuver represented nothing less than “the destruction of a nation.”

On some of the larger conservative sites, however, cooler heads urged caution.  Although the comments on Free Republic included such opinion as “TREASON,” and “Is it to appease the Russians or to spite Sarah Palin?,” commentator JSDude 1 provided much needed context, informing readers that the islands in question have never been claimed by the United States and in fact have long been occupied by Russia. Another voice of moderation weighed in with the observation that the islands “don’t exactly look strategic to me unless strategic means cold.”

The lands in question are Wrangel Islands and parts of the DeLong Archipelago, located to the north of Siberia. Every few years someone proclaims that these islands rightfully belong to the United States, but such claims rest on a thin foundation, to say the least. Admittedly, in 1881 an American naval commander planted a U.S. flag, but that is about it. The Russian government officially extended sovereignty over the island in 1911, although it was challenged by a Canadian expedition in 1921. Since 1926, however, Wrangel has been under Soviet and then Russian rule. The United States recognizes Russian control, although a formal treaty specifying as much has never been ratified.  The extreme nationalist group State Department Watch thus claims that the US has a legitimate claim to Wrangel and their other islands, and should thus challenge Russian sovereignty.

Wrangel Island is well known in paleontological circles as the last redoubt of the wooly mammoth. Whereas mammoths went extinct elsewhere at the end of the Pleistocene roughly 10,000 years ago, they survived on Wrangel until about 1,700 BCE. The fact that wooly mammoths held out until the bleak island was first reached by humans is considered by some to be prime evidence that Pleistocene megafauna died out because of human hunting rather than climatic change (more on this when GeoCurrents turns to Siberia next month).

Alaska’s other recent sovereignty issue is domestic, pitting the state against the federal government over the jurisdiction of waterways in Yukon-Charlie National Preserve (a national preserve is administered by the National Park Service, but has a lesser degree protection than an actual national park). The dispute was brought to a head when federal authorities ordered a man to quit hunting moose in the park from the seat of his hovercraft. Although hunting is allowed in the preserve, hovercrafts are not. Alaska has challenged the prohibition, and the case is now going to court.


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NY Times The Geography of Government Benefits Map

GeoCurrents reader Brett Lucas recently brought to my attention a fascinating interactive New York Times map of “The Geography of Government Benefits,” which shows the share of income in each county that derives from government benefits (social security, medicare, medicaid, etc.). Brett also makes some interesting observations about the map. As he notes, “In the Pacific Northwest, the counties with some of the lowest percentages of government payments as defined on the map are counties with universities (i.e. Benton, County, OR; Whitman, County, WA; Latah County, ID; etc).  Kind of interesting, as these are all major land grant research universities.  How much other federal funding are these counties receiving?” (I have outlined these three counties in my reproduction of the map in blue.)

In general, poor counties receive the largest relative benefits, as would be expected. But there are some interesting exceptions, which are visible by comparing these two maps. The northern part of Michigan’s lower peninsula is not a wealthy area, but its intake seems out of line with its overall standing.

Bret also wonders, “how this data will play into the presidential election cycle.” I do as well.

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Religious Diversity in Northern California

Most detailed maps of religion in the United States depict the leading denomination of each country, as in the first map here. Here one can see a Baptist belt in the southeast, a Mormon region in the central part of the west, a Lutheran Zone in the center-north, and a vast area of Roman Catholicism spread over most of the rest of the country. California here appears solidly Catholic, with only its two most sparsely populated counties, Alpine and Sierra, having a different “leading church body.”

If Roman Catholics are removed from the picture and only Protestants are considered, a very different map emerges. Note that the Mormon region as well as the Catholic zone disappears from this map, as Mormons generally do not consider themselves to be Protestants. Although I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the map, the patterns that it shows are intriguing. Note that most of Southern California, along with most of the Southwest, joins the Southern Baptist region. Clear Methodist and United Church of Christ zones appear as well. But what is most striking is the area of pronounced county-level diversity, which stretches from Northern California through the Pacific Northwest, including Colorado as well. I find it striking that in this relatively secular area, the leading denomination of many counties is the Assemblies of God, a conservative Pentecostal sect noted for its practice of “speaking in tongues.” California’s Central Valley in particular shows a distinct concentration of Assemblies of God adherents.


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Rural Cosmopolitanism in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley

An earlier GeoCurrents post described the food culture of a certain segment of the San Francisco Bay Area as exhibiting “cosmopolitan localism.” Such attitudes are not unique to urban areas in Northern California. In Mendocino County, cosmopolitanism takes on distinctly rural cast. In some of the most seemingly isolated areas, one can find pronounced cultural sophistication and global engagement.

Consider, for example, Covelo (population 1,255) in remote Round Valley in northeastern Mendocino County. When I first visited Covelo as a child in the early 1960s, it was a dusty cow town, a seeming throwback to an earlier era. Today, readers might note the name “Covelo” in the front-matter of books from Island Press, probably the foremost environmental publisher in the world. Although the main offices of Island Press have been in Washington D.C. since 1984, the firm was founded in secluded Covelo, and publication information in its books has long read, “Washington D.C, London, Covelo.” Gardening enthusiast may have encountered the town’s name when searching for rare heirloom vegetable and flower seeds, as Covelo is also home to the Sustainable Seed Company, a leader in an expanding economic niche.

Nowhere is such “cosmopolitan ruralism” more evident than in Anderson Valley, a narrow and scenic fault-drop valley that cuts through the steep Coastal Range in southwestern Mendocino County. Anderson Valley’s historical isolation is evident in its development of a fairly well known “dialect” called Boontling, named after the valley’s main town, Boonville (population 1,035). Actually, as explained elsewhere by Asya Pereltsvaig, Boontling is not a dialect at all but rather a “jargon,” a purposefully developed form of speech meant “to ease in-group identification and prevent outsiders from understanding insiders.” Unlike true dialects, Boontling has no grammatical peculiarities. It does, however, have a sizable and colorful vocabulary that reflects the history of the region, with borrowings from Scottish Gaelic, Irish Gaelic, Spanish, and the region’s indigenous Pomoan language. The insider nature of Boontling is particularly clear from its extensive use of the so-called anthroponyms: common nouns and even verbs derived from proper names of its (former) inhabitants or visitors. For example, Bill Nunn is Boontling for “syrup,” after a man who put syrup on nearly everything he ate, and Jenny Beck is the local word for “a tattletale,” after some Jenny Beck who was a local gossiper. Favorite local drinks are known as Frati “wine,” after a Mr. Frati, local vineyardist, and zeesee “coffee,” after the initials of one Zachariah Clifton “Z.C.,” a local  character who liked his coffee strong. Competing words for “telephone” (or the corresponding verb) include Joe, Levi and Walter, as two contrasting legends give the name of the first man in Boonville to use a telephone as either “Joe” or “Walter Levi.” Boontling verbs that derive from proper names include to Charlie meaning “to embarrass,” after a Native American named Charlie Ball who was noted for his bashfulness, and to Otto meaning “to work hard,” after an industrious German settler whose given name was Otto. Although Boontling is no longer used extensively, it does retain a following and it remains a source of local pride.

Outsiders may occasionally encounter Boontling on the labels of beer produced by the Anderson Valley Brewing Company, a premier microbrewery located in Boonville. The firm’s labels intriguingly depict an imaginary deer-bear hybrid known as—what else?— a “beer.” The presence of such a brewery in the valley is significant. According to a number of writers (most recently, Charles Murray), beer consumption is a major class-marker in the United States; mass-market brews are favored by members of the working-class and more generally by those without cosmopolitan aspirations (or pretensions, as some might say), whereas micro-brews are supposedly embraced by the “cultural elite.” Such a distinction might be both simplistic and exaggerated, but it does capture something real. And throughout Mendocino County, local microbrews are big. Whether those produced by the Anderson Valley Brewing Company occupy top position, however, is an open question. Some experts prefer the North Coast Brewery in nearby Fort Bragg, whose Russian imperial stouts and Belgium-style ales in particular have gained a following among connoisseurs.

Premium beer may be a marker of Anderson Valley, but wine is much more important. Mendocino County is broadly noted for its wine production, and Anderson Valley is the premier locale. Pronounced micro-climatic differentiation in the valley allows wine diversification. As one travels northwestward toward the ocean during the summer, the temperature steadily drops. On any given July day, it could easily be 92°F (33 °C), in Boonville in the southern part of the valley and 76°F (24°C) in Navarro at the north end (on the cost, 12 miles down the road, it would probably be 64°F [17°C], windy and overcast). The cooler northern part of the Anderson Valley favors Pinot Noir and Alsatian wines, such as Riesling and Gewürztraminer. Sparkling wines are also produced in the area. Overall, Anderson Valley is noted for its warm summer days and cool nights, its “Indian summers” in October, and its long growing season, conditions ideal for many premium wines. Foreign firms, such as Louis Roederer of France, have invested heavily in local wineries.

Although Anderson Valley is noted in the San Francisco Bay Area for its beer and wine, its broader economy is based much more on marijuana. This artisanal industry is hardly hidden. The “Anderson Valley Home Page,” for example, informs its readers that, “The modern industry here is art, apples, beer, wine and of course we grow our own smoke.” Links on the same page give readers additional information on such topics as “retreats,” “camping,” “churches,” “marijuana,” and so on. The police blotter in the local newspaper once included an entry that read (if memory serves me correctly): “caller reports seeing marijuana being grown on Philo-Greenwood Road; dispatcher says to call back when he doesn’t see marijuana being grown on Philo-Greenwood Road.” In Anderson Valley, ripped-off cannabis growers will sometimes call local law enforcement officers to report the theft of their harvests. In one case reported in the valley’s newspaper,* local authorities coordinated with the Sonoma County sheriff’s office after such a call, set up a road-block at the intersection of U.S. Route 101 and California State Highway 128 in Cloverdale, and nabbed the thieves when they drove down (there are still few ways out of the Anderson Valley). The victims of the theft reportedly asked for the return of their stolen merchandise, but that request was denied.

The local newspaper in question is the Anderson Valley Advertiser (AVA), a phenomenon unto itself, its scope much belied by the “advertiser” label. As the Wikipedia notes, the paper has a “small national following,” which it has gained from its quirky left-wing editorializing, its detailed reporting, and its entertaining style. As the paper’s website shows, “marijuana defense” and other cannabis related themes figure prominently in its current advertising. The AVA gained a certain national renown in the 1980s after it published the erudite “letters of Wanda Tinasky,” which many believed had been penned by the novelist Thomas Pynchon, but which were actually written by beat-poet Tom Hawkins.

Anderson Valley and environs are also well noted for musical performances, which again have a cosmopolitan cast. Every June the valley plays host to the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival, even though it is far from the Sierra Nevada (some would also object to the term “world,” as most of the music performed at the festival is of Caribbean origin). In July, the Mendocino Music Festival in the nearby coastal village of Mendocino (population 924) features musicians from the San Francisco Symphony, and San Francisco Opera Orchestra, and the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra. A few miles to the north, in the town of Fort Bragg (population 7,026), the Gloriana Musical Theatre regularly puts on Broadway shows, operas, and other forms of musical theater.

Anderson Valley Scene

The eclectic musical tastes of the Anderson Valley, as well as its political predilections, are evident in the radio programming of KZYX, a listener-supported community radio station based in the village of Philo (population 349). KZYX is “hybrid” operation, broadcasting professionally produced public radio shows but also relying on the efforts of over 100 local volunteer programmers. It is also one of the few radio stations in the U.S. to regularly run the Al Jazeera English news service.

The political inclinations of the “Anderson Valley cosmopolitan culture” sketched above run from the center-left to the far left, and the struggles between moderates and radicals can be intense; at KZYX, the more extreme members of the community have been known to disparage programming from NPR (National Public Radio) as actually reflecting the views of “National Petroleum Radio.”  But of course not everyone in the valley leans to the left, or partakes of the cultural offerings discussed here. The broader community is quite diverse, including many families rooted in the older ranching and logging industries, as well as a sizable Hispanic sector. The demographic characteristics of the valley, as well as its historical development, will be considered in a later post.

*I am again relying on memory here, as I cannot locate the article in question.

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