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Edict from lofty Atherton: Fresno looks like Detroit
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“Fresno looks like Detroit. It’s awful.” - Republican governor hopeful Meg Whitman’s remarks to the San Jose Mercury News

It’s understandable that somebody who has the sensibilities of an Atherton resident - where the median income is $112,000 a year - might be a bit taken aback at seeing Fresno. However, comparing it to Detroit is a bit over the top.

State Sen. Dean Florez, who happens to be a Democrat representing Fresno, issued a statement saying, “I don’t think Ms. Whitman recognizes how her comments stigmatize Fresno and the folks who live here.”

Politics aside, that is the gist of the remark in a nutshell.

Whitman isn’t the first - nor will she be the last - of elites heralding from the wealthy and more urbane coast looking down on the Central Valley.

During the 1997 floods, reporters from the San Francisco Chronicle went to great lengths to paint a picture of abject hopelessness while covering the evacuation of people and livestock from the rural area south of Manteca as levees failed in 11 spots. Typical was a lead that described the people and caravan of vehicles leaving the areas as reminiscent of the exodus from Oklahoma triggered by the Dust Bowl and Great Depression in the Grapes of Wrath, even going as far as  describing the rural Manteca residents as modern-day Ma and Pa Joads. Somehow I don’t think that’s quite an accurate description of families like the Machados and the Quaresmas.

The Chronicle for years carried a comic strip that had numerous characters from various communities around the Bay Area but only one was painted to create a negative image of a specific community. That was Velma Melmac from Manteca. She was a chain smoking, overweight, RV- driving woman in tight pedal pushers with excessive lipstick who lived in a mobile home park and was anything but in synch with nature. Melmac, of course, is the ugly indestructible dishware from the 1950s that could survive an atomic bomb attack.

Also every year some publication such as the Los Angeles Times can’t resist sending  a reporter to drive the length of Highway 99 through the San Joaquin Valley to tell readers how ugly it is with its billboards, agricultural dust, and dilapidated housing and other deteriorating structures  visible from the freeway. One can only wonder what such reporters think of Watts in Los Angeles or Hunters Point in San Francisco.

Damage control for Whitman’s remarks just made things worse.

Spokesman Jones Rivers was quoted by the Associated Press as saying, “It was clear in the interview that Meg was talking about the economic duress in Fresno and the awful pain that results from high unemployment. Meg knows that Fresno can’t be left behind as it has been in the past when the economic situation around the state gets better but Fresno doesn’t respond as quickly.”

Metro Detroit has an unemployment rate of 15.2 percent in August and Fresno 15.4 percent. At first glance that looks like both cities are in the same boat. But guess again. Many houses in Detroit are selling for $1 each - a token fee that allows banks to unload homes in a city that no one seems to be moving into these days. It is so bad there is serious talk of converting large segments of Detroit back to farmland. The median selling price of existing homes in Fresno in August was $150,004. Bet there aren’t blocks of homes going for a buck apiece in Fresno.

There is a huge difference between Detroit and Fresno in terms of economic reality and potential.

It would be nice if Whitman - as well as Jerry Brown - got down to specifics. How would either one pump up the Fresno economy that has unique sets of problems due to air pollution control issues, abject poverty for many farm workers and a host of low-tech issues that e-Bay professionals and policy zens of bygone days have never really dealt with?

Perhaps we’ll find out Oct. 2 when Whitman and Brown debate at California State University, Fresno.

The first question put to the candidates should be: “Besides snappy little remarks what specifically are you going to do to elevate Fresno’s becoming and much of the rest of California that doesn’t rely on the fortunes of sexy industries like high tech?”

California voters deserve real answers.