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Suburbia's tide threatens identity of rural America

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 28, 2003


According to the odometer, San Francisco has always been 60 miles away from the intersection of Central and 11th Streets here. Yet for most of the past century, it has somehow seemed farther away.

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This was a place where tractors churned almond groves into clouds of summer dust. Where the city's curious and well-connected met at the Tracy Inn every morning for flapjacks and coffee. Where residents knew which bottles of Heinz ketchup were made with local tomatoes by the code on the label.

All the rest were whispers from "over the hill" - tales of causes and cafes, traffic and high-tech millions that never made it past the rim of the Altamont Pass, rising like a great wall west of town.

Today, however, that wall has been breached, as the suburban hordes pour through the pass every weekday evening on their way to new housing developments that stretch to the horizon's blur. From here to the Virginia Piedmont, the ever-expanding suburban surge is reaching a new threshold as it ripples into once-distant towns that have long had their own distinct identity.

Nationwide, the trend is producing cultural clashes as these "ripple cities" struggle to maintain their sense of history while suburbia expands. Yet it is particularly significant here in California, where the growth of the traditionally agricultural Central Valley has the potential to recast the state's political and social calculus.

"We're seeing the massive growth of these cities beyond the big cities," says William Clark, a demographer at the University of California in Los Angeles. "That's going to change the image of California so that it's not just going to be the coast anymore."

The changing axis of California

That, in itself, is a revolutionary concept. Almost since its founding, the heart of California has been its coast. Even in the last gubernatorial election, Gov. Gray Davis (D) won while carrying only three of 38 inland counties.

Twenty years from now, that may be impossible. The growth that has turned California into the largest state and the sixth-largest economy in the world is now spilling into this agricultural heartland.

Nine of the 10 fastest-growing counties in California are within 75 miles of Tracy, and none of them touch the Pacific or the San Francisco Bay. It is the beginning, demographers say, of Northern California's Inland Empire. As Los Angeles spread into Riverside and San Bernardino 40 years ago, creating a suburban landscape with more people than St. Louis, now the Bay Area is repeating the process.

And while the same forces are at work around metropolitan areas such as Washington and Atlanta, California is perhaps ahead of the curve.

"No other developed region of the world has sustained the kind of population growth that California has decade after decade," says Hans Johnson, a demographer at the Public Policy Institute in San Francisco.

Mark Connelly has trouble simply coming to grips with what he sees on Corral Hollow Road west of town.

As he drives toward the distant burnt-umber humps of the Coast Range, the lifelong resident can still remember the smell of cauliflower along the roadside. Farther down, he recalls the Portuguese immigrant family that tended to fields of alfalfa.