Standing in line at a Save Mart store in Modesto, I overheard a conversation between the clerk, a customer two ahead of me and the bag boy. My ears perked as I heard the customer complaining about her new job at the Ceres Walmart and how tired she was. The bag boy remarked, "Ceres and Walmart? That's a combination that ..." He trailed off shaking his head in disapproval. He caught himself from saying something that might not go well with others within earshot.
When it was my turn in line I turned to the bag boy and asked, "So what's wrong with Ceres?" I wanted his take on why Ceres had a bad image to outsiders.
He seemed embarrassed, not knowing if I would be offended or not. He was unable or unwilling to put up or shut up.
"I don't want to say," he replied with a sly smile.
As long as we were making perceptions be known, I told the clerk, "Modesto has it's bad, doesn't it? Didn't Modesto just have two homicides this weekend?"
She nodded. The day before an off-duty officer had shot and killed a man robbing the Cruisers convenience store at Briggsmore Avenue and Claus Road. A man was stabbed to death that morning outside of a Yosemite Boulevard car wash. Modesto also has had two mass murders this year alone.
In case you haven't been out of town in a while, Ceres doesn't have an especially good public perception to outsiders. Neither does Keyes for that matter.
Apparently some Ceres folks have the same feeling about their town. The following day I was on the "Ceres, CA - Memories and Current Events" Facebook page and read a post by a member. She wrote: "Still live in the area. Ceres is not the place it used to be. It went from "Mayberry" to Mayhem. Use to love it here. Felt like home. Everybody knew most everyone. People were friendly and familiar. Hardly recognize anyone these days."
Her post caused a cataclysm of comments. Another woman said she grew up in Ceres but that it "has become very gray." Another woman suggested that she can't stand Ceres and its "rude, disrespectful snotty a-- faced people." Another suggested Ceres looks trashy and that some "civic minded folk might want to start an anti-litter campaign." (I think she meant a push to educate people against littering rather than the "Love Ceres" event and other volunteer clean-up efforts to battle the slobs who drop trash everywhere.)
Many rose to Ceres' defense, including Brenda Scudder Herbert who said: "Ceres has a lot to offer; people just choose not to participate." She noted good things in Ceres like the police force, fire department, Concerts in the Park, the Christmas Festival, Christmas Tree Lane, the Halloween Festival and the Street Faire. She noted that "If you want to make a difference in your city you need to be involved" and that Ceres or any other town "is what you make it."
Brenda said she chooses to "see the good in it because there is bad everywhere." True.
Even the recent City Council campaign touched on the issue of Ceres' image. Gene Yeakley said: "The city is in shambles. You've got citizens who just don't obey the law. They throw their trash out in the street. They park their cars on the lawn, the noise issue, they just don't have no concern for the city at all."
Folks who live in Ceres aren't really much different from people who live in Oakdale or Lodi or Newman for that matter. This is the Valley of the poor. Most Valley towns and cities are in the same boat. An outsider would have trouble picking out which city or town looks the worst: Oakdale or Riverbank, Merced or Ceres, Hughson or Keyes, Manteca or Turlock. There are nice areas of Modesto (Village One, Del Rio and the Graceada Park area) while south Modesto is replete with a lack of infrastructure, rundown older houses and trashed up yards. Oakdale has its nice areas off of Gregor Street and less desirable neighborhoods like South First Street. Keyes has its newer area and there's rundown properties on Eighth Street in Keyes.
There are serious realities that hinder Ceres and the entire Valley. Because there are no high-paying jobs here as in the Bay Area, most homes are affordable 3/2 tract homes. Lower priced housing attracts lower incomed folks. Most lower incomed folks lack higher education. A community with a lower level of education means there's more desperate people who commit crimes to make a living, like stealing and selling drugs. And yes there are some who have nothing to aspire to in their go-nowhere culture, and have a mindset different than most normal people and they engage in activities that give them a sense of purpose, such as stabbing and shooting at rivals and spraying apartment house with bullets. The rest of us are asking, what the hell?
If outsiders have a bad perception of Ceres, maybe it's more about Ceres geographically speaking.
Bear with me on this. Let's view Stanislaus County cities as a "family." Modesto, with its mall and ample stores and shopping and restaurants, is the oldest brother, the pride of his family, the letterman and shining football star. He is the big man on campus and dates all the hot girls. Ceres is hidden in his shadows. Turlock, with its active downtown and microbreweries that are now a social mecca for the 20-something crowd, is the second oldest brother everybody looks up to. It also has a university. Ceres, on the other hand, takes on the role of the snot-nosed 95-pound pimply runt of the family. Nobody gets in their car in Modesto and says, "Hey, let's have a night on the town in Ceres at that steak house and catch a movie." Exactly ... what steakhouse and what theater? Downtown Ceres remains in rough shape and has zero glamour despite decades of talk and money and money and talk and offers little. Ceres has no special restaurants like the Canal Street Grille or Ripon Roadhouse in Ripon. No wonder Ceres has an inferiority complex for it doesn't even have an Applebee's (which every other city in America seems to have). Oakdale, on the other hand, is the arrogant distant sibling who lives in a world of its own, a snob who thinks it belongs to another family with its own small town hospital (which Ceres was stripped of in 1993) chic apparel and furniture shops, those rodeo grounds that attract big-name rodeo stars and housing that commands higher prices just because it's Oakdale.
While there is a pecking order to even cities like there is in a family, let's be brutally honest. Does Ceres really look all that different from other local cities? Understand that Ceres is a part of the Valley and properties here don't look like they do in Seaside or Carmel or Hillsborough or Beverly Hills. But does Ceres look any different than Denair? Patterson? Livingston? Lodi? Why then does Ceres get the bad rap?
Ceres can do something about its condition. I'd argue that it is with the Chamber's and city's push for improvement. Money has been approved for downtown infrastructure. That 95-pound weakling can work out in the gym. He can gain some confidence. He can start planning for a better future. He can adopt a different mindset that he is just as good as his siblings. He can set himself apart from his brothers by developing other characteristics.
But a makeover does not happen overnight. It takes time. In the meantime, do your part to make Ceres the great place that it truly is and the better place it truly will be.
How do you feel? Let Jeff know by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org