Worst-Rated Town--How Bad Is It? : Angry Residents of Farm Community Yuba City, Number 329 in a Rand McNally Survey, Fight Back With a Rally and a Map Burning

Times Staff Writer

This is not the worst city in the U.S.A. in which to pitch a tent. Let's settle that straight off. The question is not, then, why is the town so terrible, but, why are the locals making such a big deal over a purely statistical slur?

The farm community, 35 miles north of Sacramento, came in dead last on a list of 329 possible homesites in the new edition of Rand McNally's "Places Rated Almanac." Cities were judged on the basis of availability of transportation, health care and education, among other factors. This was all done by phone and mail; the authors did not visit.

"The book provides some useful yardsticks," said Con Erickson, spokesperson for Rand McNally in Chicago. "We don't claim it's the whole story."

Yet the magnitude of the insult as perceived by "Yubies," as one resident referred to the locals, became clear last week when some 500 high school girls and boys, farmers and farm wives, babies and unemployed workers gathered for a "GO YUBA CITY" rally and Rand McNally map-burning at the fairgrounds.

It was understandable that those who love the place would come out to show solidarity. But why did some people who would really prefer to live elsewhere also attend?

The answer may help explain why the Rand McNally pronouncement has turned into such a major event, creating as much excitement in these parts as two tragic occurences from the town's past--the murders of 25 farmworkers by Juan Corona in 1971, and the Yuba City school bus accident in 1976 that left 29 children dead.

"Why did I come here?" asked Frank Phanton, an architectural draftsman who said he sides with Rand McNally in the matter. "Well, in Yuba City, anything is something."

Approaching Yuba City by car, curiosity seekers are apt to be on the lookout for the first signs of the blight that earned the town its recent fame. But instead of belching smokestacks, they'll find long-necked birds soaring over yellow mustard fields and catch the scent of blossoming peach and almond trees.

Founded in 1849, the city relies on agriculture for its livelihood. On a recent late afternoon, the sky over Yuba City--pearly blue and studded with clouds--looked like something from a Dutch landscape.

Even inside the city limits (population, about 20,000), the expected scourge failed to materialize. Sure, there is the usual row of unsightly fast-food franchises. But downtown has a dash of personality, with not one, but two shops specializing in wood stoves, a hang-out called the Town Pump and an old movie house showing up-to-date releases--"Passage to India" and "The Falcon and the Snowman."

Across the street from the Hall of Records, two boys--finished with school for the day--went fishing in the Feather River, a reassuring presence in the middle of town. No freeway runs through Yuba City, or even nearby.

It's this bucolic quality that has won the community converts from cities that ranked much higher in Rand McNally's judgment.

For example, Marilyn Alverson is a Yuba City police officer who grew up in the Bay Area (San Francisco was rated No. 4 in the almanac, subtitled "Your Guide to Finding the Best Places to Live in the United States"). But since coming to Yuba City, she has no desire to return to urban life.

"I don't care what other people think of my home," she said. "I call it God's country. Here I can have my horses, dogs, cat and goldfish."

Alverson, 46, is fond of hiking among the Buttes, a distinctive, miniature mountain range just outside town. With skiing, hunting and fishing all close by, Yubies often cite the many recreational opportunities nearby in defense of their city.

Alverson said she's proud of the fact that Yuba City scored favorably in the low-crime category. Law enforcement problems tend to be of the drunks and run-away juveniles variety, she said.

"If they (Rand McNally) are going to print something bad about us, they ought to live here a few months--c'mon and join us and watch the seasons change," she said.

Low Marks for Culture

Shaune Pfeister, a Yuba City High School student, said that although the town received low marks for cultural life and entertainment, locals needn't lack for amusement if they know where to look.

She, for instance, occupies the hours with ballet lessons, "and then there are little gigs like this one," said Pfeister, 15, referring to the Pro-Yuba rally.

Pfeister, whose parents are cashing in on the town's misfortune by marketing packets of Yuba City dirt, said her hometown is nowhere near as dreary as Biggs, a little place 20 miles to the north.

"That whole town is no bigger than from the Taco Bell bridge to the 7--Eleven in Yuba City (a space of a few blocks)," she said. "What more do we need here anyway?" she asked. "A waterfall? Let's see . . . Oh, we don't have a zoo. . . ."

Steffan Stromberg, an exchange student from Stockholm, thinks the farm town could indeed benefit from more of the big-city amenities he was used to at home. "I guess I'm just unlucky because I ended up in Yuba City," said Stromberg, 17, who had pictured his temporary home in a more cosmopolitan light. "I only have three more months to live here," he added. "I feel like I've been lost in the fields--I don't even have a car."

Tolerance Important

Stromberg's friend, who wears his hair in a two-tone Mohawk and calls himself only Momman, suggested that tolerance might be just as important an attribute in a city as zoos, discos and bus systems.

Standing outside the ring of fire light at the bonfire during the "GO YUBA" rally, Momman said he cannot walk down the street without being harassed for his city-punk look. His point was made when two young men wearing high school letter jackets scrutinized his clothes and hair, and then loudly suggested that Momman be shipped to Pittsburgh (the No. 1 city in the Rand McNally report.)

"This is kind of stupid," said Michael Pfeister, 17, referring to the map burning that was under way. "What's next? Human sacrifice? This (the burning of maps to symbolize disgust with Rand McNally) just kind of supports how backward we really are here." Rand McNally's opinion aside, Pfeister and friends say Yuba City is not remarkable in any way; it's just another farm town--no better or worse than hundreds of others like it across the nation.

Pressed close around the column of smoke rising from the fire was a sea of baseball caps and people wearing freshly printed T-shirts bearing anti-Rand McNally messages, many of them off-color. High school athletes held hands with their dates for the evening; and children cavorted, aware that something momentous was going on.

Every hand seemed to clutch either a Coke and hot dog (compliments of the Yuba-Sutter Chamber of Commerce) or a page torn from a sacrificial Rand McNally map. (The "Places Rated" guide wasn't yet available in the bookstores, so maps were being substituted.)

Fat flakes of charred paint peeled off the flaming trash can and settled on the heads of the townspeople. With excited faces, they jostled each other, and some even perched on friends' shoulders to get a clear view of the pages going up in smoke.

As a toddler in a stroller surveyed the ritualistic scene from ground level, her eyes widened with fear. By the time she's old enough to go to school, another city will have taken over worst-city honors, and the reason for this particular thunderclap in Yuba City history will mostly be forgotten.

But chances are, the girl in the stroller will be one Yubie who remembers the night the grownups burned the maps.

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