Believe It or Not : Ripley Residents Trying to Bring Tiny Town 'Back From the Dead'

Times Staff Writer

They can't afford trash collection services, or even their own cars to haul it away.

So some residents of this isolated town routinely violate county ordinances by piling refuse next to their homes, dumping it on vacant lots or burning it.

Early each morning, out of view of the local fire marshal, wisps of smoke curl into the air as some people chip away at their mountains of trash by tossing refuse into fires they build in oil drums.

Ripley (population 300), a speck in the desert 230 miles east of Los Angeles and 10 miles south of Blythe, is the poorest rural agricultural community in California, according to Riverside County officials. Few who have been here doubt it.

Left Little to Show

Some believe that little can be done to save a community like Ripley. Indeed, over the last 20 years, a parade of social workers, government poverty agencies and politicians have descended on the town, leaving little to show for their efforts.

Residents, however, contend that Ripley is worth saving and over the last seven years have persuaded Riverside County officials to pump $4 million in improvements into their town.

Ripley acquired a sewer system, natural gas, potable water, 50 low-cost housing units, a park and a few more paved streets. These represent the first serious signs of progress this unincorporated community has seen in 63 years.

What is more, the state Department of Housing and Community Development plans to provide inexpensive shelter and a day-care facility for 100 farm worker families.

This year, however, county largess dried up, and the Board of Supervisors plans instead to funnel aid to at least a dozen other poverty-stricken towns.

Joe Hernandez, an analyst with the county Housing and Community Development Department, which has spearheaded most of the Ripley projects, acknowledged that although the town "still needs lots of improvements," these are not likely to materialize in the "foreseeable future."

Need More Help

"It's Ripley's turn to pick up the ball," Hernandez said.

Ripley residents argue that they need more help.

"We're trying to bring Ripley back from the dead," said town activist, Rev. Samuel Powell, 72. "But we need the county to help us out of the grave."

Bisected by the heavily traveled California 78, Ripley has no school, sidewalks, street lights or adequate drainage system. The ground is so hard and flat that even mild storms flood the town and turn dirt streets into rivers of mud.

Ironically, Ripley was envisioned as a resort town for the wealthy when it was established in 1920 by the Santa Fe Railroad and real estate speculators.

By 1921, there was a $1-million, Spanish-style hotel, a train depot, post office, shops, restaurants and acres of cheap land, attracting homesteaders from as far away as Los Angeles and Phoenix.

A year later, the Colorado River overflowed its banks, forged a new course and washed away most of Ripley's buildings and its reputation as a boom town. After the flood, Ripley's economy began to deteriorate.

All that remains of its glory days is a broken five-story water tower--Ripley's landmark.

Today, it is a shantytown, where mostly Latino and black seasonal farm workers earn an average of $8,200 a year. Many workers are transients who travel from Mexicali and Yuma in search of work and then leave. A few dozen permanent residents live in well-kept mobile homes. But about 40% of the housing consists of dilapidated homes and battered trailers, many of them parked along dirt roads or hidden behind tall weeds.

"Our motto is, 'Ripley, believe it or not,' " joked Alfred Figueroa, a member of one of the region's oldest families who has made a personal crusade of improving the town he was raised in.

Comment on T-Shirt

There are three country stores in Ripley. One of them, Benefield's Department Store--home for the local U.S. Post Office--sells T-shirts that ask "Where the Hell Is Ripley?" on the front, and "Who Cares?" on the back.

Benefield's owner, Esther Rogers, 77, keeps a drawerful of credit receipts for customers who are strapped for cash. "In my business," said Rogers, who has lived in Ripley for 33 years, "you let your heart get ahead of you sometimes."

Children are bused 10 miles to school in Blythe, which is where most locals also travel to seek medical attention and buy gas and clothing. Ripley also lacks such amenities as Laundromats and movie theaters.

Others eke out an existence between local harvests of cotton, melons, alfalfa, lettuce and corn. For six months a year, low-paying jobs are plentiful. Off-season, the unemployment rate in Ripley climbs to 30%, said Herlis Denton, supervisor of the state Employment and Development Department in Blythe.

Like many here, Benjamin Crowder, 61, was waiting for the cotton harvest to begin in late October.

Ramshackle Home

At the ramshackle home he rents for $100 a month, roosters drank from a fetid pool of water formed by a leaking pipe that led from the house to the cesspool. Mice scurried across the floor. A dead cat rotted on the roof.

"Just eat and sleep--that's all we're looking for in this life," said Crowder, who expects to earn $4,000 this year by hauling trash in a borrowed truck. The rent is shared by two other men who live in the house. By September, they were four months behind.

Stirring a pot containing water, a chicken neck and a few potatoes, he added, "It's a miserable life but it is the best you can get hold of here."

A few impoverished Ripley residents said they like the small-town atmosphere.

"You don't need beautiful clothes or big cars," said Antonio Ponce, 85, who lost his sight eight years ago in an accident. "You can walk to the store without shoes and nobody cares."

Not Everyone Poor

Not everyone here is poor. It is the minority of residents with year-round jobs who have fought hardest for progress.

Rigoberto Perez, 37, an irrigation foreman at a local farm, is one of the lucky ones. Perez said he works seven days a week with two days off each month, earning $22,500 a year. The mobile home where he is raising a family is nearly paid for. He hopes to see his children graduate from college.

But county officials say the dropout rate here is high because many children leave school to find work and help their families.

A handful of residents have clamored for a school in Ripley and regularly bend the ears of county officials on this and a host of other issues.

Perez, among others, has chastised the county for building projects that he considers inadequate. "If everything was working right, we'd be happy," he said.

Perez has not forgotten the water system installed in Ripley in 1975 that did not circulate properly and provided residents with yellow-colored water that smelled like rotten eggs.

Improvements Fall Short

The water system was corrected three years ago. But even some of the latest improvements seem to have fallen short.

For example, when sprinklers are turned on at the local park, which is still under construction, some residents lose water pressure in their homes.

At the new housing project, only 25% of the renters of 50 low-cost housing units, which were ostensibly constructed to get local residents out of their shacks, are from Ripley, according to housing project manager Monica Garcia.

Garcia blamed the problem on Ripley residents who "had time to register," but either submitted applications too late or not at all. As it turned out, she added, most of the renters are low-income residents from Blythe, Mesa Verde and other outlying communities.

Riverside County Supervisor Patricia (Corky) Larsen, in whose district Ripley is located, said she was "upset" and "angry" about these and other problems and that "it doesn't help when you don't get the full bang for the buck."

Larsen said county officials will find solutions. "I believe Ripley is going to make it," she said.

New Frustrations

Jess Martinez, 55, co-owner of Esperanza Market, is not so sure. Like many here, he once welcomed the improvements as a sign of progress. Now, he said, they are a source of new frustrations.

"We fought hard for low-income housing for farm workers," he said, "and all we got were welfare people from Blythe."

And, he added, "We're going to put a 'for sale' sign up and get the hell out--there is nothing to stay for."

Some county officials have belatedly begun to wonder whether Ripley can afford the improvements at all.

Craig Manning, analyst with the county administrative office in charge of Ripley's new sewer treatment plant and water system, suggested it might have been cheaper to "buy everyone out and relocate them" than saddle the town with such expensive facilities.

'Rough Row to Hoe'

"It is yet to be seen whether the people of Ripley can support all the goodies we put there," he said. "The community is going to have to carry the cost of maintenance and they are strapped. . . . They have a rough row to hoe."

"I guess we'll have to holler a little louder," said Mary Guilin, co-owner of the newest business in town, J&J; Market, which moved here from Blythe six years ago.

Without additional county help, she added, "We'll survive--but we want to progress, not just survive."

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