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About those ‘walled off’ Lego-style neighborhoods

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POSTED January 26, 2018 1:20 a.m.

Back during the boom that greeted the Northern San Joaquin Valley at the dawn of the 21st century, the San Francisco Chronicle dispatched a reporter to Tracy carrying the prerequisite baggage of superiority one needs to make sure you can sneer at others.
The story contained all the usual snarky put downs of small towns, valley cities and suburban growth that only a superior cultured being at the worldly age of 25 can muster.
But between the not-too-subtle put downs of the San Joaquin Valley lifestyle and the backwards people that he believed lived here, the reporter made a reference that resonated. He referred to Tracy as “a walled off city” where neighborhoods were being built behind block walls closing them off from the rest of the world. He obviously didn’t have a high opinion of sound walls serving as a buffer between busy thoroughfares and homes and apparently preferred the charm of living in an efficiency apartment along a street such as Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco where nothing impedes being serenaded around-the-clock by traffic noise, exhaust, and screeching brakes of Muni buses.
The “walled off city” struck a chord, but not for the reason the reporter intended.
There was a time when valley towns were much more democratic than places like San Francisco. It has nothing to do with politics but where people end up living side-by-side. Long before the much maligned McMansions formed cookie cutter neighborhoods the reporter obviously despised, San Francisco was busy transforming The City into “walled off” neighborhoods based on economic status. You won’t see any middle class let alone working class folks in Pacific Heights. The gentrification of The City has indeed changed the face of the Mission District, the Avenues, and other neighborhoods not just be ethnicity but by economic status as well.
I grew up in Lincoln in Placer County where a 20th century style subdivision did not pop up until the mid-1970s. As a result the town had a strong social-economic mixture.
On one block of L Street, as an example, lived the wealthiest family in town worth about $2 million or so from grain and feed operations. Next door was a teacher and an electrician. On the other side was a civilian employee that worked at McClellan Air Force Base. Across the street was a family on welfare, a worker at the clay products plant in town that produces sewer pipes, and a Southern Pacific worker. Across the alley was a police officer while just down the street was the owner of a hardware store.
The block I lived on included neighbors who moved here from Portugal, a young couple living in what today would be called a granny flat in the alley behind the owners of a Shell Oil distribution firm, two other granny flats, two families that immigrated from Mexico that secured work at the clay products plant, a Caltrans inspector, a family that relied on government assistance to supplement the husband’s income from working odd jobs that lived in an extremely rundown house with five sons, and next door a family that proudly reminded folks they were Okies that moved to California during the Depression and were working for the railroad.
There was a lot less disconnect, less crime, and more groundswell efforts to tend to neighborhood issues.
What really divides us today are social-economics and not skin tone, religion, sexual orientation, or even politics as much as we associate with people of like perceptions due to the homogenous nature of tract home subdivisions.
People that can afford homes ranging from 2,200 to 3,400 square feet in the $400,000 to $600,000 price range tend to have a lot in common.
It is why Manteca mayoral candidate Ben Cantu’s suggestion to require new neighborhoods to have 20 percent of the homes built be 1,200 square feet or less on smaller lots while maintaining the same quality as large homes being built has a lot of merit.
Not only will it inject somewhat more affordability into Manteca’s housing mix but it will mean new neighborhoods won’t develop as “walled off” enclaves. They may have public streets and the only walls of visible consequence are those serving as sound walls behind homes backing up to major thoroughfares and arterials, but they create a fairly narrow social-economic segregation.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the proverbial birds of a feather flocking together. A more diverse mixture, even if ever so slightly, can help more cohesiveness take flight.
It sounds like gobbledygook but it really isn’t.
Call it the Mayberry syndrome. Tag it as a throwback.
But keep in mind the reason that many people who move eastward over the Altamont Pass to places a 25-year-old reporter urban newspaper reporter or even blogger full of himself might deride as “hell holes” isn’t simply due to housing being more affordable.
Most come to places like Tracy, Manteca, Lathrop, and Ripon because they are attracted to what is here. You wouldn’t make what is most people’s largest investment — a home to live in — if you didn’t like what you were moving into. And that “what” more often than not is a sense of community and wide array of attendant vibes you get from a city not pieced together as if neighborhoods are machine-cut Lego blocks that could be interchanged with 10,001 other cities.
Cantu’s housing solution is as much about making sure Manteca stays livable as it is about affordability.

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