Lush Agriculture, Great Weather and a Welcoming Ambiance

City of Modesto, CA
Written by Nate Hendley

Located in central California, the City of Modesto boasts glorious weather, a low cost of living and a rich sporting and cultural heritage. The city hosts annual events celebrating the movie American Graffiti, has produced more track and field records than any other city, has its own poet laureate and a world-famous winery.
Situated in one of America’s lushest agricultural regions with a revitalized downtown, Modesto is a family-friendly place on the go, say city officials.

Cynthia Birdsill, director of community and economic development for Modesto, describes the city as a “wonderful community” with “a Mediterranean climate” and welcoming atmosphere.

The city has a “small-town feel but access to great amenities,” adds Margaret James, senior business analyst for Modesto. These amenities include ample parkland, a flourishing cultural scene, great restaurants, accessible transportation and inexpensive housing.

According to Birdsill, Modesto is “a much more affordable area in California” than the Bay Area and other bigger locales, making it an attractive option for families. The median housing price in the city is around $225,000—a fraction of what residences go for in San Francisco. In total, there are roughly 75,300 housing units in Modesto.

Modesto is not isolated; it is close to major metropolitan centers and tourist attractions. The city is 73 miles from state capital Sacramento, 81 miles from San Jose, 87 miles from San Francisco and 317 miles from Los Angeles. The city is well-served by transportation, being close to both Highway 99 and one of the most-used rail corridors in the United States. It also features an executive airport. Convenient highway access provides commuter links to the Bay Area for residents who work there. Modesto is near the Pacific Ocean, the foothills leading to the Sierra Nevada mountain range and Yosemite National Park.

The city’s population is just a little over 210,000, with the municipal revenue budget standing around $370 million. City government is organized in council-manager fashion. It has a median household income of $50,877 and youthful median age of 34.2. About half of the population is white, while 35.5 percent are Hispanic. Some 6.4 percent of people are of Asian heritage, with small numbers of African-Americans and American Indians.

The warm climate means outdoor activities are possible year-round. To this end, the city claims over seventy-five parks (some of which feature regular concerts and festivals) and offers river rafting and hiking. Balmy temperatures also underpin the region’s farming heritage.

Modesto is in the heart of the very fertile San Joaquin Valley, one of the largest centers of agriculture in the United States. Popular farm commodities include dairy products, nuts, fruits, wine grapes and poultry. The Modesto Farmer’s Market is a popular attraction for residents and tourists alike looking for fresh produce. In early spring, orchards in the region are in full-bloom, which is also a popular draw for visitors.

Modesto is the birthplace of famed filmmaker George Lucas (best known for the Star Wars saga). Lucas based his 1973 film, American Graffiti on the teenage car culture he had experienced here in the early 1960s. While the movie was not filmed in Modesto, the city has enthusiastically embraced its portrayal of teenage ‘cruising.’ Each June, it hosts street fairs, a classic car parade and screenings of American Graffiti.

Possibly due to the city’s climate, more track and field records have been set in Modesto than any other city in the world, according to the Modesto Convention and Visitors Bureau. Indeed, the city is wild about sports and has recently hosted the National Association Softball Western World Series (twice), the United States Junior Handball Championships, the California Police Summer Games and more. Modesto has three municipal golf courses and is close to several famous private courses. Modesto’s massive Mary E. Grogan Community Park has a sports complex with seven lighted soccer field. Last year, over 165,000 people either visited or used this soccer mega-facility.

The city has a minor league baseball team called the Modesto Nuts (after one of the area’s prime agricultural products) and is a hotbed for baseball talent. Several superstar baseball players, including current and future Hall of Fame members Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers, Mark McGwire and Ricky Henderson played here before joining Major League Baseball (MLB).

Modesto was founded in 1870. By all accounts, it was something of a wild frontier town in its earliest days. It acquired its name through a curious twist of fate. The town founders wanted to name the fledgling locale after William Chapman Ralston, a millionaire banker and a director of the Central Pacific Railroad. Ralston turned down the honor, so the town was called “Modesto”—from the Spanish word for modesty—to commemorate this act of humility.

By 1880, Modesto’s population stood around 1,700, and on August 6, 1884, it was incorporated. The region by this point had acquired a reputation for lush agriculture. Some of the area farmers had originally travelled to California to get rich in the Gold Rush. Failing to make it big, hundreds of these would-be entrepreneurs stayed in the state but turned to farming to earn a steadier livelihood. Starting in the late 1860, the Modesto area was renowned for producing wheat.

The population grew to 4,034 by 1910, rising again to 13,842 by 1930. The city kept growing at a rapid pace with the population hitting 36,585 in 1960. That figure nearly tripled, to 106,963 by 1980. By 2010, the city recorded over 200,000 people. As of 2015, the population stood at 211,266.

In the late Victorian era, many beautiful homes were built near downtown Modesto. Unfortunately, few survive. One of the few remaining residences, called the McHenry Mansion, is now a tourist attraction.

Other notable historical achievements in Modesto’s history: in 1912, a contest was held to come up with a city motto. The initial winner was the slogan, “Nobody’s Got Modesto’s Goat”. This was not considered terribly dignified, however, so contest officials chose instead a runner-up entry, “Water, Wealth, Contentment, Health” which remains the city motto to this day. The year 1912 also saw the construction of the famous Modesto Arch, which spans a roadway and bears the city motto.

In 1921, Modesto Junior College was launched. The oldest junior college in California, this institution currently offers two-year programs and instructs roughly 20,000 students.

Shortly after prohibition was lifted in 1933, brothers Ernest and Julio Gallo opened a small winery in Modesto. Said winery, originally funded for under $6,000 in borrowed cash, is now one of the top wineries in the world. Over 3,000 people currently work for the E&J Gallo Winery, making it the biggest manufacturing employer in the city.

Other large manufacturing employers include Seneca Foods, Foster Farms Dairy, Del Monte Foods and Frito-Lay (Pepsi-Co). Top non-manufacturing employers include the city government, school system, Modesto Junior College, Wal-Mart, AT&T and the healthcare sector. In total, there are 13,728 companies in Modesto.

According to city figures, roughly thirty percent of Modesto workers are employed in managerial, professional and related occupations. Some 17.5 percent have service occupations, while 27.6 percent are employed in sales and office jobs. A little less than ten percent of the workforce is engaged in construction, extraction, maintenance and repair while 14.4 percent have jobs in production, transportation and material moving. Some 1.4 percent of Modesto workers have jobs in farming, forestry and fishing.

City officials eagerly point to future anticipated economic growth. A downtown revitalization project has been a success, and the city’s healthcare sector is rapidly expanding. Some high-tech businesses have taken to locating in Modesto rather than the Bay Area, because of the considerably more affordable real estate market and low-cost of living. In terms of the cultural scene, the Gallo Center for the Arts, opened in fall 2007, is a point of local pride.

The Gallo Center offers two performance spaces, the 1,250 seat Mary Stuart Rogers Theater and the 444-seat Foster Family Theater. The Gallo Center calendar for 2016 to 2017 features a mix of pop music, classical music and plays in these two venues, with performances by rock bands such as Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, The Guess Who, Jethro Tull and Foreigner. Also on the lineup are evenings of Gershwin music and the plays, The Diary of Anne Frank and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

As for other cultural developments, Modesto is home to its own poet laureate, definitely not a common fixture in most mid-sized California cities.

Modesto officials have a clear vision for their city: they would like to see Modesto continue to expand economically and culturally, while at the same time retaining the small-town ambiance so key to its appeal.



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