From his boyhood home on Casa Street, 60-year-old Vance McKinney could see the cotton field where he worked as a 10-year-old, and it makes him nostalgic. Brutal child labor is somehow a wistful memory for this son of African American sharecroppers.
To McKinney, the past is all about love, not the history of hard times and neglect in Matheny Tract. After he grew up and moved away, he found he couldn’t live without his childhood neighborhood. He returned and bought the Casa Street house where he again lived for more than 15 years.
Moving away from Matheny Tract a second time – as he did last year – was unthinkable until it, too, became an act of love. Torn between the neighborhood and his family’s financial future, he chose to sell his house and move a couple of miles away to Tulare.
“We didn’t want to go,” he says. “But I want to take care of my wife Elsa. The new house is a better investment for us now. So now I’m back in Matheny Tract on my days off, helping any way I can. People in control of the government have ignored this place for too long.”
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He walks through his old neighborhood to make his point. He passes the shambles of the old Strong’s Market where the Exxon sign is rotting away against a fence. Dust devils swirl around some boarded-up homes. The one street light is maybe 100 yards from McKinney’s house, near an empty lot where fire destroyed a house years ago.
Welcome to a paradise lost. Matheny Tract is where dreams took root decades ago and people of color could own property. Now it is filled with ghosts.
This was the best place to grow up.
Vance McKinney on Matheny Tract
McKinney, a truck driver given to quoting Scripture, says the 1,200 residents at Matheny Tract had to wrangle for years just to get this unincorporated area hooked up to Tulare’s water system in June 2016, solving a serious arsenic problem.
He speaks out to the media, which swarmed the San Joaquin Valley from all over the world to talk about a devastating five-year drought and the pain for the people left with dry wells and higher concentrations of dirty drinking water. His quotes have appeared in many publications as the grim details are told.
But the media rarely addressed the question almost every stranger asks about Matheny Tract and other places like it in the Valley: Why don’t residents just move away and get away from the problems? For many people such as McKinney, the answer is passion.
McKinney sees past the government hassle and drought – beyond the poverty, the dust, the smells from cheese processing plants and Tulare’s nearby sewage treatment plant, which has never been connected to the tract.
He also looks beyond the beatings he took in his childhood at the hands of his father. He says that was part of another era when children were disciplined with a belt or a switch from a tree. That’s not what McKinney thinks about now.
“This was the best place to grow up,” McKinney says. “The whole community was one big family. Everybody watched out for everybody else. Everybody cared. Everybody still cares.”
There are other reasons people stay here. Many people would move, but they simply can’t afford anything else. For others, the tract is conveniently closer to farm work.
Still others just prefer to live where they can keep goats in the yard and chickens on the front porch. Life is more tuned to sunrise, sunset and seasons here than in a city. They find a subtle charm in the rhythm of the central San Joaquin Valley’s nature.
McKinney loves the people.
“I’ll never forget people like Miss Della Mae, Mr. Franks, Mr. Hall, Miss Anna and a whole lot of others who made me who I am,” he says.
Sizable, often ignored population
Matheny Tract might well be the face of a vast number of down-trodden and often ignored communities in the center of the state.
The Central Valley has 310,000 people living in similar communities, according to a study done by the national nonprofit PolicyLink in partnership with the California Rural Legal Assistance Inc. and the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation.
That’s a population three times the size of Flint, Michigan, which was in a national spotlight in the last few years because of lead in the drinking water. Many Valley residents suffer from water contamination problems – such as nitrates and arsenic.
The poverty-level conditions and problems in the Valley persist even though California’s bullish economy is pegged at $2.58 trillion annually, sixth largest on the globe. Most wealthy Californians have healthy drinking water.
Nearly two-thirds of the residents in the PolicyLink study are people of color. Many decision-makers and county officials did not even know of their existence, researchers say.
Such problems are not unusual around the country, experts say. Such communities are not generally on the radar screen, said law professor Lisa Pruitt of the University of California, Davis. “Particularly not in California, which is incredibly metrocentric. It’s very hard to attract policymakers’ attention to a relatively small number of people.”
Tear it down?
Why doesn’t the government just move the residents to larger cities and tear down the smaller towns? Why not just get them to a healthier place to live?
More than 40 years ago, Tulare County’s General Plan outlined a way of doing just that. It referred to the prospect of allowing many small communities with “little or no authentic future” to fade away – there simply would not be improvements in these places. The reasoning was that residents would move out as basic services, such as drinking water systems, fell into disrepair.
The strategy backfired. People stayed, and the communities began to deteriorate.
Similar examples of such disadvantaged communities can be found throughout the San Joaquin Valley, not just Tulare County. The other counties include Fresno, Kings, Kern, Madera, Merced, Stanislaus and San Joaquin.
Some have caught the media spotlight, such as Lanare in Fresno County and Parklawn in Stanislaus County. Nobody has talked seriously about condemning entire towns and forcing people out, yet the idea still floats in hallways outside board rooms and chatter in coffee shops.
Why not move people out of Matheny Tract? It covers less than half a square mile. There are about 350 dwellings, some of which are dilapidated. It has all the ambiance of an industrial park at the edge of a farming landscape.
Homes are surrounded with cotton and orchard crops, along with recycling, auto, trucking and agriculture businesses. A rail corridor is just east, and busy Highway 99 is a little farther east.
The idea behind bulldozing such communities is less about eyesores and more about money.
Many of these places were created because people of color were not allowed to live within the city limits.
Ashley Werner of the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability
Thanks to the drought and persistent activists, California is helping these communities access millions of public dollars. Matheny Tract already got $4.9 million for a water system. So moving people and tearing down the community would save millions.
But that idea is repugnant, says John Capitman, executive director of the Central Valley Health Policy Institute at California State University, Fresno.
Capitman, who has spent time researching in Africa, compares it to apartheid, which resulted in the removal of 3.5 million non-white South Africans. He has seen the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa.
“There are heart-breaking photographs of neighbors crying over the departure of friends who had lived side-by-side for 30 years,” he says. “It was a nightmare. It’s hard to believe anyone would suggest forcing this on people.”
In the United States, a blighted area could conceivably be taken through eminent domain, says professor Daniel Mandelker of Washington University School of Law in St. Louis. Mandelker is an authority on land-use law.
“If there was a public purpose, such as relocating people to a better community, it’s not out of the question,” he says. “But if the people don’t want to move, it could be very impractical. There would be objections and demonstrations.”
Moving people en masse from the San Joaquin Valley’s disadvantaged communities into larger cities just doesn’t make sense, says lawyer Ashley Werner of the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, an advocacy group in Fresno that has represented Matheny Tract and other communities.
“Move to where?” asks Werner. “Everywhere you look in the cities, well over 50 percent of residents are paying more than half of their income on housing. There is no affordable housing. There is nowhere to move.”
Further, she says the question of moving people is rooted in an attitude that created communities such as Matheny Tract.
“Many of these places were created because people of color were not allowed to live within the city limits,” Werner says. “So the same attitude follows over time to deny people of color access to the resources we all expect to have.”
A rich past
Vance McKinney knew nothing of the struggle for equality a half century ago. He talks about basketball games that lasted until 9 p.m. under that one street light near his home. Football games in the street came with scraped and bloodied toes as well as heroic feats of athleticism.
Baseball was in a vacant lot, played with the grace and fervor of Ray Charles singing “America the Beautiful.”
And don’t get him started about bonfires and camp outs at the irrigation pond – he calls it Reed Pond – next to the cotton field where he worked as a child. It was a slower, sweeter time.
McKinney says: “You didn’t cuss out here. If you got into trouble, you’d get a whipping right there from someone else’s mom. Then they’d call your mom, and you’d getting a whipping at home, too.”
Neighbors worked with each other on their homes, he says. Matheny Tract was an emotional investment as much as a financial one.
Back in the 1940s and 1950s, this was an almost unbelievable opportunity for African American families. For the first time in their lives, they were able to own their homes and property.
Matheny Tract is inspiring because it was where they were buying a piece of the American dream.
Stanford University researcher Michelle Anderson
McKinney’s parents were among the “black Okies” who left the South and Jim Crow segregation. In the San Joaquin Valley, they met segregation again. They were denied loans to buy land for homes in the city of Tulare.
Entrepreneurial savvy found a way around the color barrier. A 1940s salesman and part-time developer named Edwin Matheny had no problem making deals with African Americans. The tract slowly appeared outside city limits about three miles from the center of Tulare.
The community named after Matheny would become a stunning crossroads of ethnic diversity, says Stanford Law School professor Michelle Anderson, who was attracted to the Matheny Tract because of its historic significance.
“It was a confluence of migrants – whites, African Americans and Latinos,” she says. “The Matheny Tract is inspiring because it was where they were buying a piece of the American dream.”
But Matheny Tract has been deeply neglected over decades, she says, dropping property values. The land declined to a point that redevelopment would make sense to government officials. So businesses – many related to surrounding agriculture – grew up around the neighborhood.
“People here were invisible,” Anderson says, “and passed over for investments. It’s a tragedy the way we have treated it so badly. We – the public – are responsible.”
Six decades later
Matheny Tract today is no longer a mostly African American community. Latinos are the dominant demographic with 73.4 percent of the population. Only 4 percent of the community, which covers about a half-mile squared in Tulare County, is African American, the U.S. Census shows.
Agriculture still drives Tulare County, as it did decades ago, but the industry has changed dramatically as well.
In 1955, about the time McKinney’s family left Arkansas for Tulare County, the farming industry was worth about $233 million, including cotton, grapes, stone fruit and citrus. Adjusted for inflation, it would amount to a hefty $2 billion these days.
Now Tulare County is a modern agricultural behemoth, known throughout the nation and the world. Tulare County’s ag economy in many years leads all other U.S. counties in crop values worth more than $8 billion. The county’s production ranks ahead of 28 other states.
Poverty is rampant. For many, it’s a day-to-day struggle.
The real story here is the dairy industry, worth $2.5 billion. There are as many dairy cows as there are people in Tulare County – more than 440,000.
The ag advances and prosperity have not gone unnoticed. Last year, Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump spent a little more than an hour in Tulare County and came away with more than $1 million in campaign contributions.
Yet poverty is rampant here. For many, it’s a day-to-day struggle.
Tulare County’s poverty rate is 28.1 percent, nearly twice the rate in California, according to U.S. Census data. The poverty line for a family of four is less than $24,000 a year. Many families spend more than $1,200 a year for bottled water because drinking from the faucet is considered too risky.
With little clout among local government leaders and policymakers, these residents have often been isolated. But the small communities have one big advantage: California’s Latino population is sizable, and it has become highly visible to state lawmakers in Sacramento.
Poor Latinos in the Central Valley have gotten funding and even changes in state law that help them, unlike California counties with mostly white populations, says researcher Pruitt of UC Davis.
“The Valley has an optical trigger in California,” she says. “Counties like Modoc, Plumas and Lassen – with white and native American populations – do not.”
That political trigger and California’s often progressive policies have helped advocacy groups gain a political foothold. Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers began pushing the agenda in the 1960s.
Other progressive and advocacy groups have sprung up along the way. California Rural Legal Assistance, a nonprofit established a half century ago, has long recognized the need among poverty-stricken communities in the valley. So has the nonprofit California Institute for Rural Studies, which was founded in 1977.
More recently, there have been groups such as the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment in Delano and San Francisco, the Community Water Center in Visalia and the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability in Fresno.
The Leadership Counsel has been pushing the issues for Matheny Tract at the local and statewide legislative levels as well as in the courtroom. In the past, Matheny Tract residents had plenty of spirit, but no expertise or voice to challenge the system.
“We needed to go beyond organizing and knocking on county supervisors’ doors,” says Veronica Garibay, co-founder of the Leadership Counsel. “It is really about engaging decision-making bodies on how and when we will invest in a certain community.”
Leadership Counsel helped lobby for the state law that required California cities to connect their water systems to communities such as Matheny Tract. And when the city of Tulare briefly balked in the process, Leadership Counsel represented the community in court. Eventually, the city complied with the state law.
Now, Leadership Counsel has begun a push to connect Matheny Tract with the nearby sewage treatment plant. Lawyer Werner sent the Tulare City Council a letter requesting the city’s cooperation in the process, citing legal obligations. It won’t be the last communication, she says.
“The letter was accepted without comment,” says Werner.
Life and death
On his walk around Matheny Tract, Vance McKinney stops at Reinelda Palma’s house. Her Chihuahua sniffs madly at McKinney’s feet as he talks about the new fight to connect to the sewage treatment plant.
She smiles and says, “We’re proud of what we’re doing here.”
“We got to keep going after what we need,” McKinney says to Palma, waving as another neighbor drives by, kicking up dust. “The septic tanks make more groundwater pollution. We need to be on the sewer system. It makes no sense to be right next to it but not using it.”
His angst subsides as he strolls.
Each building or empty lot brings back a memory for McKinney – free food from a church, cages and cages of rabbits at Benny Frank’s property and down near the end of Casa Street, the blue house where he grew up. His family raised pigs, corn, squash, black-eyed peas and chickens.
When I die, I want my ashes spread on Reed Pond on the other side of that field where I worked as a kid.
He learned every aspect of farming from his hard-drinking, hard-working father, who lived into his 90s.
He and his seven sisters occasionally endured tough times within the family because of his father’s drinking binges, McKinney says. He still has some physical scars from those moments. But that’s not what he dwells on.
“I have nothing but good memories. Some of my oldest friends are here,” says McKinney, who says he also has become a deacon at the Living Christ Church in Tulare. “I love to tell the children there are good times in small places. You just have to look for them.”
After he grew up, McKinney moved to Delano in Kern County where he met his wife. They eventually moved to Tulare County and Matheny Tract as his parents got older. He says all three of his children attended Palo Verde School in the community.
He was determined not to lose his parents’ house, which they built in 1967.
“Everything was different when I came back,” he says. “This area around my house was all African American when I was a kid. Now all my neighbors are Hispanic. I’m the only African American on this block. But the spirit here is still the same. People care for each other.”
He wipes his forehead, which glistens as heat begins to spike at midday. He stares across the street. A hissing orange cat backs down a large dog. Cats won’t be intimidated out here, he says. Mariachi music wafts through an open window nearby. Laughter follows.
Does McKinney have second thoughts about selling the blue house on Casa Street?
“It was hard to move,” McKinney says. “We weren’t sure we really wanted to do it. But I’m not really gone. I come back all the time.”
He’ll help get this place hooked up to the sewer, he repeats. His gaze shifts to the green cotton field in the distance and the bucolic splendor surrounding it. His mind is racing.
“When I die,” he says, “I want my ashes spread on Reed Pond on the other side of that field where I worked as a kid. If the pond isn’t there any more, then I want my ashes spread over the field. That’s where I belong.”
About this report
Former Bee reporter Mark Grossi was a 2016 fellow for the Washington, D.C.-based Alicia Patterson Foundation. This is the third in a series of stories he wrote that focus on the San Joaquin Valley’s rural areas where people face environmental challenges.
Read some of Grossi’s reporting while he was at The Bee, archived on his blog: www.fresnobee.com/earth-log