Located almost in the dead center of California, North Fork is like a lot of other rural outposts: It’s losing businesses and hopes for a turnaround.
But there’s nothing typical about the town’s biggest booster, Josh Freeman. His efforts to resuscitate this tiny town include launching a local currency emblazoned with butterflies and hummingbirds in a bid to keep wealth in the community.
Freeman grew up in Pacific Palisades and drives a car powered by vegetable oil. Until a few months ago he wore dreadlocks down his back. To make a living, he repairs computers and develops websites. And he has an unshakeable belief that small-town life is not only worth reviving, but also essential to preserve.
“Wall Street is making more money than it’s ever made, and Main Street is evaporating,” said Freeman, sitting in his studio, which also serves as the town’s yoga studio, karate classroom and concert hall. “That’s unsustainable.”
Nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada near Yosemite National Park, North Fork is one of scores of struggling towns across the United States. Many rural areas in eastern California and western Nevada shed residents between 2005 and 2009, according to recent census data. The rural California county of Inyo, for example, lost 2.8% of its population from 2000 to 2009. The U.S. population grew by nearly 10% over the same period.
A former lumber town, tiny North Fork is on a two-lane road dotted with rustic barns in long-suffering Madera County, where the unemployment rate in November was 15.7%. Businesses in the town of about 2,400 are finding it harder to keep their doors open.
“We’re all kind of hanging on by our fingernails,” said Bob McKee, who has run the town’s hardware store for 21 years.
In the last two years on Main Street, an insurance company, a beauty salon and a boutique closed, leaving behind empty storefronts, he said. Even McKee’s store is in trouble. Many of the town’s residents, who commute to jobs in Fresno, find it easier and cheaper to shop in the Central Valley.
“Everyone comes here and then they realize there’s no economy,” said Johnnie Rae Ruiz, a wedding singer who has lived in North Fork for eight years but is contemplating a move to Los Angeles or Fresno. He isn’t making enough money in town to make ends meet.
Freeman moved to North Fork from San Francisco with his wife and daughter in 1991. He wanted to be closer to a nearby meditation center, where he has spent up to 10 days in complete silence. That would seem an unlikely state for the 45-year-old, whose answers to questions sometimes resemble a pool ball bouncing off many rails before finding the mark.
Freeman’s efforts to jump-start the town’s economy run the gamut from cultural to financial. He founded a weekly coffeehouse held in a studio where residents gather to play musical instruments, read poetry and listen to an eight-piece ska band Freeman put together by recruiting residents. He’s trying to organize a living chess match using townspeople dressed up as pieces, and play one another. He and other residents formed a group that gets together every weekend to perform chores for their neighbors, similar to an Amish barn-raising.
His efforts at community building are evident when he sits down at a local Mexican restaurant and is greeted warmly by two groups having lunch on the patio.
“When the [stuff] hits the fan, what do people choose to do?” Freeman said. “We can shoot each other from gated communities, or we can work together.”
Perhaps the biggest of Freeman’s projects is North Fork Shares, the local currency he created last year with resident Dan Rosenberg, also 45. The pair developed the scrip — which is worth $12 per share — to encourage residents to spend their money in North Fork. If someone needs help fixing their car, for example, they pay a local in North Fork Shares, rather than driving elsewhere for repairs. That money will then be spent on another local service — on homemade food, say, or gardening supplies.
Freeman describes the currency as a type of bartering service. One share is worth roughly one hour of labor, so if someone mows a lawn for an hour, for example, they can get paid a full share. People can also obtain the bills by buying them or by attending meetings about the shares, where they’re sold at a discount.
The money spent on the shares helped defray the cost of the ink and paper used to print them. Leftover money — a few hundred dollars — now sits in a group bank account. Those involved in the project are discussing what to do with it. They are considering issuing loans, throwing a party or creating a scholarship.
“We all believe that the way to strengthen our community is to strengthen the economy in our local community,” said Rosenberg, who was a congressional candidate in 2000, winning the Democratic primary but eventually losing to his Republican opponent.
A local artist designed the three paper bills that make up the North Fork currency, which are slightly smoother and smaller than U.S. bills. The so-called quarter-share, worth $3, features a Mariposa lily and an insect and green ink. The $6 half-share, with words in red ink, depicts a hummingbird and a compass. The full share, which has blue printing, features a picture of a woven basket.
A group of residents hand-printed about 1,400 bills in an abandoned garage on Rosenberg’s property, a process that took about 900 hours. They’re made of a special waterproof, synthetic paper called yupo.
Currency collectors from overseas have contacted Freeman about buying some. But he wants it to circulate.
“The only way you can spend it is to interact with others in town,” he said. “It’s never going to end up in a corporate headquarters.”
North Fork isn’t the first community to launch its own currency. Probably the most successful is Ithaca, in upstate New York, which launched a local scrip in 1991. About $100,000 worth of Ithaca currency is now in circulation; it’s accepted by public transit and a number of local businesses.
Most efforts have failed, however, including Freeman’s initial push in North Fork. He first attempted a local currency in 1998 but abandoned the project to work on Rosenberg’s congressional campaign.
His latest experiment has been slow going. Only about 100 shares are circulating, mostly between individuals. Freeman has used the shares to pay a friend who helped pull his car out of the mud. A local family farm accepts it, as does an auto repair shop, a dentist, and a resident known for making bread. But most businesses in town are still looking for old-fashioned greenbacks.
Some residents don’t know about the shares — although Freeman is quick to educate them. Even those familiar with the experiment are skeptical, though.
“It’s going to take a long time,” said John Telenos, an unemployed pump technician hanging out in a North Fork gas station.
Freeman said he won’t be disappointed if the new currency flops. The point of starting North Fork Shares, he said, was to create one more excuse to bring the community closer.
“It’s about getting people connected to each other in ways they weren’t before,” he said
Freeman already seems to accomplish those connections as he wanders around the sloped streets of North Fork, where he can barely make it a block without being stopped by residents who want to rub his newly shorn head and talk about the weather. He encourages them to stop by his coffeehouse and get more involved in town events, sometimes not even mentioning the currency.
“In a small town, you tend to look out for each other,” he said. “With the changes in economy, the more we support each other in positive ways, the better the quality of life is for everyone.”