There is a real fight going on in Ceres.
The fight is to change the image of Ceres and admittedly it's not going to be an easy fight.
Those living in Ceres may not know it but Ceres does not exactly bring about warm fuzzy feelings to those outside of it. I've seen it time and time again when I mention Ceres to those living in Modesto, Turlock or Oakdale and the reaction is less than enthusiastic. I've even heard someone - a teacher - describe Ceres as "scary." Another cited the gang crimes that occur, even though every Valley town seems to have it.
In the same vein of Rodney Dangerfield's famous line, Ceres "don't get no respect."
Ceres, for many, has been that place that one tolerates as one makes the way down 99 or Mitchell Road between a home in Turlock and a job in Modesto; or those in Modesto who make a mad dash to try out the trendy restaurants found in downtown Turlock.
Some of it is unfair. Give me the most average neighborhood in Ceres over the rundown older areas of Oakdale any day. But some of it - sorry to say - is deserved.
City Manager Toby Wells recently asked me to think about giving my perspective of Ceres and how to turn things around. It gave me pause to think, where has Ceres missed the mark? It's a much harder task to define why.
Consider geography. Ceres cannot change the fact that it is butted up right next to Modesto with only a river and small county island separating most of it. It's also butted up right next to the poorest area of south Modesto. Guilt by association, I suppose. Ceres cannot get away from the bad elements that creep over the Hatch Road overpass like a Bay fog stealing over the hills of Danville.
Ceres has an exceptional police department and has done what it can to press against crime. But perception is everything.
For decades, Ceres was that sleepy little burg that acquiesced to the demands of a bullying big brother. It lived the part. Ceres cowered like victims tend to do. It developed an inferiority complex and believed that it could never achieve what big brother did. I might interject here that former Planning Director Charlie Woods and former City Manager Gary Napper called Modesto the "500-pound gorilla to the north.") Ceres leadership was really asleep at the wheel and failed to create shovel-ready sites when Turlock was doing so. Like the movie "Field of Dreams," Turlock built it and they came. Today you can catch a number of Cereans eating at places like Cool Hand Luke's in Turlock or shopping at Monte Vista Crossings. Of course it goes without saying that Ceres shops in Modesto because where are you going to buy real fashion statements in Ceres?
Ceres also did not consider the cumulative impact of allowing construction of low- to middle-income housing without regard to upper income. Lack of vision allowed things like cheap duplexes to be constructed along Whitmore Avenue.
Development standards had slipped in Ceres until the 1980s when things like the Mitchell Road Corridor Specific Plan demanded a better look to commercial properties.
In my opinion, Ceres suffers from a glut of lower income housing and not enough of the higher. Past councils have been too eager to approve zero-lot lines and single family homes so close together you can hardly floss between them. Don't' get me wrong - affordable housing is needed and in fact required by the state. And yes, Eastgate is better housing stock than most of Ceres but if you want move-up housing like that found in east Turlock, forget it. Thirteen custom homes on Golf Links Drive doesn't get it. You'd have to leave Ceres and city fathers know it. Ceres must address this lack of move-up housing.
As is the case with communities as they get older, houses fall into disrepair and those call for lower rents and lower prices, which attract the lower income and less ambitious. It becomes a vicious cycle of dead lawns, weeds in flower beds, blistering paint that get ignored and then there's the guy who keeps his cars on jacks in the driveway waiting for the day he will have enough money to fix it up. While someday never comes, the neighbors have to endure the blight. Then comes the trash thrown in the streets and the culture of "don't care" settles in. Unfortunately, you see it all over the place.
The "don't care" attitude has been reflected in commercial landlords. Some areas of Hatch Road have had the same façade as in the 1970s.
Because of the housing and lack of good-paying jobs, an estimated 21.1 percent of all Ceres households live at or below the poverty level. The median annual household income in Ceres is $48,550 which is $13,081 less than California as a whole. Cereans tend to be less educated than residents living elsewhere in California. For example, 66.8 percent of those aged 25 and older in Ceres have earned high school diplomas when the state figure is 80.8 percent. Only 9.4 percent in Ceres have earned a bachelor's degree or higher when countywide that number is 16.1 percent and statewide it's 30.9 percent.
Ceres also suffers from a language barrier that helps keep classes of people from advancing. An estimated 54.1 percent of Ceres citizens live in a household where English is not spoken. And 44.9 percent of Ceres households speak Spanish, of which 20.2 percent speak English "less than well."
Ceres has seen improvements over the last five years. Turlock Irrigation District put in a $1 million office in downtown years back. In Shape City built a nice gym on Mitchell Road. The Whitmore Overpass is being landscaped. It is encouraging that Bill Leer plans to build a 8,250-square-foot office and retail building at the southern flank of downtown.
The renewed push of the city and Chamber of Commerce to attract more is needed, for sure. But private investment is the key.
I watched last week as a City Council made the tough decision to invest large chunks of $15.3 million into infrastructure when the desire would have been to come up with something flashy. But imagine how much fruit would never be around to be eaten if somebody hadn't planted the tree that didn't result in instant gratification.
Ceres will never be a Monterey or a Santa Barbara. We all get that. But change starts with a mindset. The collective mind of Ceres needs to be that things can be better and each one has a part to play. We need to remind ourselves of the biblical admonition that "where there is no vision, the people perish." Thankfully Ceres has more vision now than it had a decade or two ago. I have to believe that good things will come as a result.
How do you feel? Let Jeff know at firstname.lastname@example.org.