Several days ago a friend and I drove to Merced, Calif., to take a look at what it has become.

Merced is a sleepy agricultural town in the San Joaquin Valley that, at some angles in broad daylight, still possesses a Rockwellian charm. There is a landmark movie theater. Tree-lined residential streets have overgrown flowering bushes and old freestanding stucco houses. Quaint motels were built in the 1930s and '40s, when Merced was a stop-off known as the “Gateway to Yosemite.”

Merced now consistently rates as one of the top-10 worst cities in America. (Forbes recently proclaimed it the No. 1 “Worst Place in the U.S. to Do Business.”) It has been victimized by unregulated markets and the economic crash they created — and abandoned by the same elite forces that exploited and flunked it out of viability.

Gray Davis, when he was governor of California, had big plans for Merced. Education was his pet project; as part of an overall economic-stimulus effort, he pledged $100 million, matched by another $200 million in non-state funding, to build a University of California at Merced, scheduled to open to undergraduates in the fall of 2004.

All of a sudden, Merced suddenly found itself swept up into the frenzy of the real estate bubble. Housing prices went nuts in anticipation of Merced becoming a “college town.” Real estate speculators came in from L.A. and San Francisco, and tract homes were hastily built in a sudden surge of overdevelopment.

In 2003, Governor Davis, besieged by criticism for various acts of political connivance and stoogery around Enron's energy-market-manipulated rolling blackouts, sought to relieve his budgetary pressures by reneging on a large chunk of funding for the university. That same year, state Republicans waged a massive effort to recall the California gubernatorial election. Gray Davis was ousted and replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger — who did not share Davis's enthusiasm for education.

U.C. Merced got off to a slow and dismal start. Its kickoff was delayed until 2005; since then, it has had trouble attracting professors and maintaining an academic reputation equal to that of Fresno City College.

And so, the housing market tanked. Hard.

The real estate bubble-pop smeared Merced. Since their highest point in 2006, housing prices have fallen 62 percent.

The unemployment rate in Merced as of May, 2011: 17.8 percent.

I found it striking that some of the poorest corners of Merced are submersed beneath impenetrable layers of aggressive corporate marketing. The crappier and more mass-produced the product, the more economically depressed the venue, the larger, louder, brighter and more intrusive the branding. Coercing money out of poor people apparently means cranking up the ad campaign volume to a kind of Clockwork Orange, strobe-torture, throbbing scream-level — and limiting choice.

There are a great deal of overweight people in Merced — it is typical of many low-income areas in that it has limited access to healthy food.

Across from Merced High School, Olive Avenue is a literal phalanx of every conceivable fast food chain, crammed lot to lot. Even though Safeway and other big agribusiness corporations own a vast amount of California's Central Valley, there is no fresh food option in the immediate vicinity of the high school. If students wanted to eat something off-campus involving fresh produce, they would have to drive.

The Baskin Robbins in the low-income mall is plastered with pro-military super-soldier propaganda to celebrate the upcoming Captain America movie (which has its own ice-cream flavor) — the employees all wear Baskin Robbins/Captain America T-shirts (given this level of insidious brainwashing, many will conceivably go straight from high school into the Army). The retail stores — Kohls, JC Penney — are choked with vinyl handbags by third-tier dispersion lines like “Chaps by Ralph Lauren” and “masstige” (mass market + “prestige”) collections by designers like Vera Wang and Nicole Miller — their brand names are etched hugely on brass plaques, that they might fully exploit their buyers unto using them as free billboards.

My friend and I came up with a word: Merced has been monopulated.

Beloved small businesses and restaurants have perished behind the intrusion of corporate chains. Once-charming motels have been converted to flop-houses. The groundwater beneath Merced has been contaminated; there are dismally high rates of cancer. Today, many of the storefronts and houses are vacant, with boarded-up windows marring the blocks like dead teeth. As soon as the sun goes down, the whole vibe of Merced turns a bit hostile, drunk and meth-y. The most visibly active cultures are those surrounding lowriders and tattoos.

There was one note of hope and human resilience: the Goodwill store is a cheerful and thriving community business, extremely well run. The clothes are clean and well-organized. The rest of the inventory, a wide and unpredictable array of consumer cast-offs, is arranged according to no organizational principle save for color — it is a nice renegade art project, this rainbow in bright plastics against the clean white walls.

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