Rey Leon works on sustainability in Huron. Sustainability is a common enough word on the California coast, where hybrid cars, organic food, and solar power are status symbols as green as the money that buys them. But what does sustainability mean in Huron, population 6,733?
Situated 50 miles west of Fresno in the tomato fields, Huron has the dubious distinction of having one of the lowest median household incomes in California — $22,969 compared to California's median of $61,632. And even though it's in the middle of farmland, Huron is anything but rural: The census department defines an urban area as having 1,000 residents per square mile. Huron has 4,200 per square mile, which makes it essentially a miniature city — smaller than most Los Angeles neighborhoods — squeezed in between the valuable farmland and roads that supply the tomato paste factories in Huron and surrounding towns.
I met Leon, director of Valley LEAP (Latino Environmental Advancement Policy Project), at the town hall, which has some of the biggest trees and the nicest lawn in this dusty place.
Dirt blows into Huron from the fields and a creek, and is kicked up again by the fully loaded semis barreling through on state Route 269.
How can a place this brown be green? Leon thinks Huron doesn't need solar panels or big spending or revolutionary ideas so much as it needs to harness the strengths of the community: "Ideas about sustainability usually come from the outside, but I had an idea about them coming from within."
For example, many residents of the town, which is more than 96% Latino according to the 2010 census, are practitioners of molcajete, the stone mortar used in Mexican cooking that you've likely seen if you've ever ordered guacamole prepared tableside.
Leon throws up his hands: "It's green manufacturing, slow food, live food, and there's a cultural practice that uses human power instead of an electric blender." If you count molcajetes instead of Priuses, Huron's homes are greener than Berkeley's.
When Leon stops by his dad's house, he greets, sometimes with a whistle, various young men who pass by. Greetings, he explains later, are "cultural glue" that tie the generations together. This glue, he says, is harder to find in the neighborhood where he lives in Fresno. There, friends' attempts to create a neighborhood watch were hampered because neighbors didn't know one another, and they didn't want to go to meetings. Eventually, the neighborhood resorted to staying in touch on Facebook.
One problem Leon sees in Huron is that at night it's "dead." Leon would like Huron to be more like Avenal, where families regularly walk around at night. Avenal, Leon says, used to be dead, but its culture was reinvigorated by more recent immigrants from Michoacan, who brought their culture of strolling after dinner. In Huron, no one is out walking. Part of the reason, Leon says, is Route 269 and its trucks, which have hit people.
In 2011, Caltrans gave an environmental justice grant to the city of Huron and Valley LEAP to "identify low-cost, easy-to-implement solutions and long-term strategies to improve safety, access, and mobility for all users." What that really meant was that they needed to find a way to coexist with Route 269 and its trucks.
After community discussions, Huron asked Caltrans to put in traffic circles at both ends of town to slow the trucks down and improve crosswalks. But what excites Leon the most is the idea of building what he calls a "pocket plazita." This tiny plaza will occupy a strip of land created by fixing a dangerous intersection between two city streets and 269.
"Youth can go there, and maybe they learn to play the guitar," he says. "Eventually there could be a mariachi group there. Families can get together. There should be a space for a few food vendors so the old people will feel at home."
So far, Caltrans has said the plan is feasible, and the city has approved it. The search is on for funding. If the plazita is built, Huron will have a place to meet and greet in the midst of poverty, dust and industrial tomatoes. And that would be green.
Lisa Margonelli is associate editor of Zocalo Public Square, for which she wrote this, and is author of "Oil On the Brain: Petroleum's Long, Strange Trip to Your Tank."