polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town

by Alex Schafran

Growing up in a small-town cum suburb, the edges came in two forms. There was the amorphous and imperceptible line drawn on the map, that line between the town on the east and the town on the west. It was seemingly arbitrary - this was nothing like crossing the border between Oakland and San Leandro, Detroit and Grosse Point, New Orleans and St. Bernard's Parish. It might mean a different school, a different "downtown", some minor cultural or political difference, but it was all one valley.

The other line wasn't political as much as urban. Like much of the Bay Area, my town had edges that bled into foothills, protected open space and vestigal grazing land which gave you a sense of both the real and imagined past. Life and homes and land out here was different, but since we were only talking a distance of a few miles, and a handful of people, it was more quaint than anything - the outskirts of town would never be confused for the other side of the tracks.

I now inhabit another edge, not one one side of town, but on the outer banks of the grand archipelago that is the San Francisco Bay Area. Brentwood, CA, 94513, population 52,000 and change, a postmillenial hybrid of central valley farm town, bucolic suburb and struggling node of middle and working class diversity in the face of foreclosure. It is oddly beautiful, especially at dusk, when the central valley light bounces off the foothills of Mount Diablo and almost makes you forget that most of the people and families in the ubiquitous subdivisions are underwater (although this was once an inland sea, I mean they owe more on their mortgage than their home is worth).

This region is still technically part of the Bay Area, but there are moments when I forget where I am - tea party tablers are the major political force at the weekly farmers market; the suburban landscape quickly, and sometime haphazardly, gives way to orchards, grazing land and fields - not the preserved agriculture of my native Marin but the patchwork remnants of the most productive agricultural region in contemporary human history. The trucks are massive, and the car culture is unreal - more than once I have had to guess when to nod and laugh as people talked car with me, much as one does when trying to learn a new language in a foreign land. It is diverse, middle class, struggling, proud, beautiful and ugly at the same time, and undoubtedly a little swath of red state America on the edge of the bluest region of them all.

Or so it seems. On June 8th, Brentwood voters went to the polls to vote on Measure F, a classic example of California ballot box planning where citizens were being asked whether or not to expand the urban limit line to accommodate a 1,300 new homes. The "Yes on F" campaign had been intense - the measure was backed by four of the five city council members, the major local newspaper, a who's who of local politicians, and the developers and landowners who managed to outspend the opposition $279,972 to $5,992.

The rhetoric was brutal - letters to the editor attacked old friends and allies, lines in the sand were drawn, outside politicians, newspapers, interest groups and organizations weighed in. My doorbell rang with eager teenagers primed to get out the vote for F, and the literature around town, on my car and in my doorway was so overwhelmingly pro-F that it seemed impossible for it to lose.

But it did. By 17 points, more than 1,000 votes out of only 8,000 cast. In a town that had grown more than twelvefold in three decades, whose political economy and actual economy rested on turning farmland into subdivisions, residents changed their their tune. It was a poorly-conceived proposition at a terrible time, as the limits to rapid growth as political economic urbanization strategy are evident everywhere. But it caught me by surprise - a newcomer from the core, caught unaware, as times may be changing on the outskirts of the metropolis.