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Unincorporated South Dos Palos struggles with economic development

Bernice Yeung/California Watch A former pool hall stands abandoned in South Dos Palos. 

Once a thriving rural community with a nearly equal number of bars and churches, South Dos Palos, an unincorporated area in Merced County, has been in decline for decades.

But it’s still possible to make out the contours of the community from a time when it was a growing place. On the edge of town, which borders the city of Dos Palos, there’s an abandoned reddish-trimmed building that used to be a popular pool hall.

The railroad station a few blocks away is now dark and defunct, and it's not far from the skeleton of the produce packing shed where workers used to give melons to local kids. The textile mill is now an empty edifice, a disintegrating monument to a more prosperous past.

Technological advances in farming and manufacturing, coupled with the economic downturn, have created fewer jobs in the area, said Jerry O’Banion, the county supervisor who represents South Dos Palos. “Basically, it’s gone the way of rural America,” he said. “Having the community out in a farming area is not a viable structure as far as being able to survive.”

Despite ongoing efforts to revitalize South Dos Palos, as a poor and unincorporated community, development has been hampered by a dearth of precise information about the place and people who live there.

“It is extremely difficult to gather discrete data for disadvantaged unincorporated communities,” Veronica Garibay of California Rural Legal Assistance’s Community Equity Initiative wrote in an e-mail. “For example, in many cases, these communities are placed in large census tracts or block groups that encompass a broad geography that includes wealthier areas. When data is aggregated, the results are not representative.”

According to a community survey released this week, an estimated 48 percent of South Dos Palos residents live below the poverty level, and the annual median household income ranges between $15,000 and $18,999. The U.S. Census Bureau, however, reports the annual median income in South Dos Palos at $28,931. 

Surveys of other low-income unincorporated communities reflect a similar phenomenon. In Parklawn near Modesto, the U.S. Census Bureau says the median household income is $32,902, while a local survey puts that number at $18,999. In Lanare, outside of Fresno, the official federal tally for median income is $42,813, though a local survey reports a range of $22,000 to $25,999.

The community surveys have been conducted by the advocacy organizations California Rural Legal Assistance and PolicyLink with assistance from University of California researchers and students. These groups say they are trying to fill in data gaps for low-income and unincorporated communities because state and federal agencies rely on these numbers to dispense grants that could help pay for infrastructure improvements.

“Many communities like South Dos Palos suffer from severe underinvestment in infrastructure,” Garibay said. “Because they are low-income communities, many qualify for state and federal grants for improved services,” especially for drinking water and wastewater.

“If the data is not representative of the community, the community can potentially be negatively impacted with high water and sewer rates,” Garibay added.

According to the recent South Dos Palos survey, residents cited crime and safety, access to markets and services, and poor infrastructure as their top three concerns.

Howard Redding, president of the board of the community center in South Dos Palos, said infrastructure improvements are needed.

“The main thing is to get the sidewalks in, beautify the place,” he said. “Things to make it look like a town again. Because frankly, people, when they talk about South Dos Palos, it’s not in a good light, but it could be. It could be beautiful.”

Robin Maria DeLugan, a UC Merced anthropologist who oversaw the South Dos Palos survey, said in an e-mail that the data demonstrates the tension between “low-income household expenses and the costs of basic services.”

For example, despite the high poverty rates in the neighborhood, 56 percent of the residents purchase bottled water each month because they are worried about the way the tap water smells and tastes. Additionally, half of the residents spend $200 or more each month on gas and don’t use lower-cost public transportation because the routes are infrequent and don’t stop near their jobs. Residents also reported feeling unsafe walking at night in the community because there are no sidewalks, few streetlights and dogs that run loose on streets.

O’Banion, the county supervisor, said he is concerned about the poor infrastructure in South Dos Palos and plans to try to find federal funds to install sidewalks and upgrade aging water and sewer lines.

“For safety’s sake, that’s the most important reason to put in sidewalks,” he said. “It also will improve the appearance of the community. There is old infrastructure that needs to be addressed in the future, the water and sewer lines. They are going on over 50 years old, and they are going to start breaking down.”

The community’s infrastructure is tied to its potential for growth, said Ismael Diaz Herrera, director of the San Joaquin Valley Rural Development Center, which is working in South Dos Palos.

“Infrastructure is needed for housing and economic development; you can’t have one without the other,” he said. “If you don’t have infrastructure and transportation, then it’s hard to recruit and retain businesses and encourage people to open businesses.”

Despite the challenges, incremental improvements can be seen in the community, which started out as an Italian enclave in the late 1800s, became an increasingly African American neighborhood in the 1930s and is now home to a primarily Latino population. Although abandoned buildings litter the landscape, it also has its share of new houses interspersed between historic homes and tidy clusters of public housing and apartments.

The jewel of South Dos Palos is the recently refurbished George Washington Carver Community Center, the site of baby showers, quinceañeras and a monthly food bank. The county is also planning to open a kiosk at the center so that residents can sign up for social services without traveling 30 miles to Merced.

Built in the early 1960s by residents, local growers and a church pastor, the building began to show some wear and tear in recent years. The roof leaked, and the heat and cooling system that had been suspended from the ceiling generated a loud roar. A small group – including Denard Davis, a retired assistant superintendent of Merced County schools and longtime South Dos Palos advocate – pushed for a new building. It was refurbished for about $300,000 with federal grants and county funds and reopened in late 2010.

The public presentation of the South Dos Palos community survey was made this week at the Carver Center. Angelica Rivera was one of only a handful of residents who attended the presentation.

She has lived in the community for 18 years, and she said she became interested in improving South Dos Palos because she has two daughters in college. “I’m thinking that when they graduate, they will not want to come back to the community because they will not find work here,” she said. “I want to make things better so they will come back.”

California Lost is an occasional series examining challenges facing neglected communities around the state.


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