Poor Neighborhoods Left Behind

Times Staff Writer

This city has grown in lurches in recent decades, snatching up vacant land to erect subdivisions with soothing names like The Bluffs and Fleur de Lis.

The costs of sidewalks, sewers and other urban amenities have been borne by developers, who have passed them down to incoming -- and largely white -- homeowners.

Left behind in the hopscotching growth rush have been a cluster of aging unincorporated pockets just outside the city’s southern flank. Poor, predominantly Latino, and now nearly surrounded by annexed property, the neighborhoods have long outgrown their fraying rural infrastructure.


With no storm drains or sidewalks, the weed-lined roadways here flood in even modest rain. Posted speed limits are rare, as are streetlights that could ward off crime or illegal dumping. Septic tanks back up or give way altogether, and sewage oozes into the yards of aging homes.

Now, residents in four distressed pockets -- one is known as No Man’s Land -- are suing Stanislaus County and the city of Modesto in federal court, alleging discrimination in the delivery of municipal services.

Believed to be the first of its kind in California, the lawsuit is modeled on cases once common in the post-segregation American South -- where street paving, sewer lines and even water service ended where the black side of town began.

The suit alleges that Modesto, Stanislaus County and the county Sheriff’s Department have violated federal civil rights laws and constitutional guarantees of equal protection by denying the Latino pockets basic infrastructure, responsive policing and bilingual services.

“Our neighborhoods are more Hispanic than anything,” said Jazmin Mercado, 18, who is among the 17 residents suing, along with two community groups. “You can’t help but think it’s discrimination. We pay taxes like everyone else. Why can’t we get the services?”

County and city officials blame financial realities, not race or ethnicity, for the pattern of annexation and disparate services.

Modesto has long maintained that it will support annexation of older enclaves only if the county brings infrastructure there up to city standards. Stanislaus County officials say they haven’t had the money to do so but insist they have not favored predominantly white pockets.

In fact, they say, in the last few years they have made improvements to several unincorporated Latino neighborhoods that whiter areas have not received.

A long-neglected pocket known as Shackelford near a reeking tallow plant received $9 million in infrastructure improvements, and officials say annexation is the goal. The community is not part of the lawsuit.

Some of the pockets are of mixed ethnicity and one is wealthy and largely white.

“I am not going to tell you that if you go back in history far enough, there wasn’t racism in California. I’d be an idiot,” said John McDermott, outside counsel for Modesto. “But to say that it’s been recent or has anything to do with the situation we’re facing today is just wrong.”

Whether discrimination is to blame is unclear. But one certainty of California growth emerges: Poor unincorporated neighborhoods are getting left behind as cities spread around them, particularly in the fast-growing Central Valley.

“Pick any place else in the state, and you’re probably going to see the same issue,” said Clark Alsop, counsel to the state association of Local Agency Formation Commissions, which govern annexation.

“There are these old areas that are probably not up to standards any city would provide,” Alsop said, “and no one wants to take them on. It sounds like it just kind of happened that way. The question is: Did anybody plan it that way?”


The four Modesto-area neighborhoods -- home to about 14,000 people -- are known by informal names: No Man’s Land, the Garden, Bret Harte, Robertson Road. All lie southwest of Highway 99, a diagonal line that has historically separated Modesto’s disenfranchised from decision-makers.

In 1886, the California Supreme Court upheld a city ordinance relegating public laundries -- then Chinese-owned -- to the southwestern quarter. The Great Depression brought more fortune seekers: fruit pickers and manual laborers whom a 1948 University of Denver study of Modesto dubbed “fringe area dwellers.” Although most were Oklahoma whites, the study found a small group of “Latin Americans.”

Haphazard building laid the foundation for today’s conflict. The study warned that poor sanitation and drainage could trigger health crises. The lack of parks and adequate policing, it said, “may combine to form ... a juvenile delinquency problem.”

Unincorporated status, researchers concluded, was bad for the fringe dwellers, who paid city sales tax when they shopped there but had no voice in city affairs. It was bad for the county, which was ill equipped to serve urbanized zones. And it was bad for the city, suffering health and safety problems at its borders.

But the city never annexed the areas, and resident activism was sporadic.

Of the four plaintiff neighborhoods, only Bret Harte launched a resident-initiated petition for annexation. That 1988 request stagnated when the city and county failed to reach a revenue-sharing agreement. Then, in 1991, Magdalena and Juan Mercado moved to Bret Harte. Juan, now 40, worked as a long-distance trucker, Magdalena, 36, as a seamstress. As they invested in home improvements -- a swimming pool in back, a fishpond out front -- the couple from the Mexican state of Durango saw their children, now ages 6 to 18, suffer.

The dearth of sidewalks forced the kids to walk to school in the road after rains. There was no park. Children had drowned in a nearby unfenced irrigation canal.

Meanwhile, a stone’s toss to the south, the weed-lined roadway gave way to well-maintained streets with sidewalks, street lights and costlier homes in an annexed neighborhood developed shortly before the Mercados moved in.

The couple demanded better. When septic tanks failed in the mid-1990s, residents secured a city sewer line extension. Years of requests for streetlights led to the recent formation of a lighting assessment district. But the Mercados say cries for storm drains, sidewalks, better policing and a park have gone unheeded.

“It’s always the same answer,” said Magdalena Mercado. “There’s no money. There’s no money.... They’re doing it because they think we don’t know how to ask for our civil rights, because the parents don’t speak English.”

In the nearby Garden neighborhood, Salvador Martinez Gutierrez’s septic tank often backed up into the shower. The alley was a dumping zone for sofas and cars. He spread gravel in the alley to make it passable in the wet season and poured concrete on the road’s shoulder.

“The county said the city, and the city said the county,” said Martinez, 68, a onetime heavy equipment operator now living on Social Security.

“Imagine,” he said with a glint in his eye, “with a sidewalk here and a little street light there.”

Meanwhile, in Robertson Road, failing septic tanks and flooding so plagued the area that county and city officials acknowledged “an incredibly serious health threat.” Modesto voters last fall approved a sewer trunk extension to the neighborhood (city law requires an advisory vote), and county officials say work will begin soon. The improvements will bring the number of Latino pockets with city sewer service to three, while no whiter unincorporated pocket has received it, officials say.

But frustrated residents had already sought legal help. Concerned that Latino colonias reminiscent of segregated black neighborhoods in the South were spreading statewide, the nonprofit Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area stepped in, with help from another public interest group and a law firm.

If the neighborhoods were annexed, the lawyers note, the Latino population in the city of 208,000 would nearly double, offering Latino residents their first real shot at political participation. But with little political muscle, they turned instead to the courts, filing suit in August 2004.


The lawsuit is mainly directed at the county. One claim against the city, that it discriminated by not initiating or backing annexation, was dismissed, in part because residents tried to be annexed only once.

However, plaintiffs are still suing the city on grounds that it has spent money outside its borders in a discriminatory way -- on better joint policing in whiter areas for example. City officials deny the allegation.

Latinos, the suit contends, are almost three times as likely as non-Latinos to live in an unincorporated pocket with inferior municipal services. While city and county officials have spent public funds on a new performing arts center, dozens of parks and three golf courses, Lawyer’s Committee Executive Director Maria Blanco said, neighborhoods desperate for services have been left to decay. Although the plaintiffs must prove intentional discrimination to prevail with the federal claims, the lawsuit also includes a state claim in which plaintiffs need to show only that the allocation of state funds has had a disparate impact on Latinos.

The lawsuit demands that the disparities be corrected but does not seek compensation for individual residents.

Plaintiffs believe that they will find evidence of discriminatory intent. For now, they point to comments by public officials that hint only vaguely at bias.

One councilman and former Robertson Road resident initially opposed the sewer proposal there, arguing that the county would waste taxpayer money by investing in an area with “substandard housing on a flood plain.” Another councilman provoked controversy when he said that building affordable housing in downtown Modesto would attract too many large Latino families.

Officials call the allegations of discrimination offensive. Housing on the city’s unimproved edge has always been cheaper than within Modesto, said County Counsel Michael H. Krausnick, so it has always attracted low-income residents. Those residents now happen to be Latino, he said.

Not only is the Latino population spread across the county, Krausnick added, but the county spends disproportionately more on Latinos for health and law enforcement services.

Public policy experts say the case raises important issues: Cities and counties across California compete for revenue-generating land and shun money losers in the post-Proposition 13 era. The plaintiff pockets are no prize.

“Let’s be blunt: Even middle-class housing is a fiscal loser,” said Peter Detwiler, longtime staff director of the Senate Local Government Committee who once worked for LAFCO. “There may be very important social and political and community reasons to approve [housing] or to annex [housing], but it’s a poor choice from a fiscal point of view.... Whether it’s racism in their hearts or they’re looking at red ink, they say, ‘Eh, not enough property tax revenue. We’re not going to go for this.’ So it stalls.”

Others predict that such disparities will only deepen statewide. Regardless of race, wealthier unincorporated neighborhoods are more likely to form assessment districts to ensure that their own needs are met.

“Municipal services and infrastructure are now coming from development fees ... and there’s no money to fix up old neighborhoods,” said Carol Whiteside, a former Modesto mayor who heads a Central Valley think tank.



Selective annexation

For decades Modesto has grown by annexing vacant land for new development, hopscotching existing neighborhoods, among them poor, heavily Latino areas. The result, in general, is a patchwork of unincorporated pockets surrounded by wealthier subdivisions. Residents in four of the largely Latino pockets are suing, claiming discrimination by the city and Stanislaus County. The four neighborhoods have informal nicknames.

The four neighborhoods have informal nicknames.

Latino populations (2000)

Stanislaus County: 32%

Modesto: 26%



Bret Harte: 76%

No Man’s Land: 71%

Robertson Road: 70%

The Garden: 63%


Sources: ESRI, TeleAtlas, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, U.S. Census Bureau