Why Is Downtown Modesto Dead: Homeless, Development and Resistance

Why Is Downtown Modesto Dead: Homeless, Development and Resistance
Modesto anarchists say “it’s our city, let’s take it back.”

In the early 2000s, the place to be for young people was downtown Modesto. People came to hang out, meet new people and be with friends. Go to downtown Modesto now, and you’ll find a very different scene. Instead of young kids, you encounter mostly young adults going to clubs and bars. Police have a much larger presence in the area than in years past with a substation and surveillance cameras everywhere. Police also block off and barricade the streets around 10th and J streets, stopping traffic.

But if you aren’t interested or because of your age can’t go to a club or a bar, there’s really nothing for you to do in downtown Modesto on a Friday or Saturday night. There are hardly any people other than the ones walking to a club or bar. There are certainly not many young people, especially high school age. How did an area of the city that was so popular among young people become so dead?

Not Just a Mob, but a Mob That Doesn’t Pay

The development at 10th and J streets was a developer’s dream. It featured a mix of government, retail, shopping and restaurant property. There was just one problem. This open area of downtown created a convergence point for many of the city’s youth. Even worse, the majority of these kids didn’t pay for anything! They weren’t there to buy, they were there to hang out.

Who would protect the downtown business owners from this rabble? Who else but the police? By the mid-2000s, police were doing sweeps of downtown, ticketing young kids for smoking and loitering and, when they could, enforcing curfew laws. This was an attempt by the city government to respond and cater to the interests of the business owners downtown and the associations of developers and business interests inside local government. The police, forever at the beck and call of city and government interests, were quick to use a slew of quality-of-life measures to try and drive the kids out of the area.

If the Kids Are United…

The kids downtown faced a serious challenge. The place where they all used to come together and hang out was being threatened from police harassment. Some young people responded by organizing a Copwatch group, which monitored the police and videotaped them during interactions with people downtown. In this way, kids tried to create a buffer zone between themselves and the police. While this sometimes caused the police to back off, in other situations, police issued tickets and turned on the Copwatchers, trying to drive them out of the area. Other times, police simply attempted to interfere with their recording, stepping in front of the camera.

In one instance, a police officer told a young Copwatcher that, “If they weren’t there to buy, they had to leave.” The mission of the police and their relationship to the youth downtown was clear: They were there to make things safe for capital, not people.

Anarchists downtown worked within this tension against the police and helped organize weekend “Anarchist cafés.” These cafés featured live music or a boom box, free food, free literature, newspapers, books, films/movies, allowed people to make t-shirts and, in general, tried to create a fun and open environment for young people. The cafés, on Friday and Saturday nights, were often harassed by the police. The police also encouraged storeowners to complain when the youth were in front of their stores, so the police could kick the kids out of downtown. This strategy didn’t work, and the café space stayed, adding to the push against police harassment of the youth.

The Downtown Explodes

Although the crowds of youth downtown presented a problem to the business interests in the area and thus drew the wrath of the police, the bringing together of so many people in the area also created the possibility of a larger rebellion. In 2006, police attacked young people coming out of a downtown DJ event for high-school-age students as they were looking for a robbery suspect. Police arrested, beat and Tasered several young people, who, according to the police, fought back.

E-40, hyphy music act.

Video of the event was recorded but never released to the public. All charges against those arrested were later dropped, and the police did backflips trying to blame the brutality on the fact that the event was a “hyphy” music concert. Hyphy, they argued, was a form of black music from Oakland that involved outrageous dancing and car sideshows, often ending in fights against the police. Thus, their attack was warranted because of the genre’s threat to the good citizens of Modesto. Of course, this was just the police’s attempt to use racism to justify their attack. However, with the Hyphy riot, the point had been made: People could fight back against the police downtown.

In 2008, people coming out of bars on St. Patrick’s Day fought back against the police trying to move them out of the area. More than 1,500 people fought the police, threw bottles and chanted “Fuck the Police!” More than 100 police from various agencies had to be called out to the area to quell the riot.

Downtown political demonstrations were a continuing headache for the police. In 2005, more than 100 protesters against George W. Bush marched when his second term began, taking the street and shutting down traffic. Police attempted to arrest several marchers and drove the people out of the streets. The number of people in the streets during the weekend made the act of harassing various people problematic for the cops. Whenever they attempted to arrest, harass or move along a group of people, they feared a possible riot.

The Rich Respond

The combination of a bunch of youth downtown who were more interested in hanging out than buying things and the periodic eruptions of people taking to the streets and fighting the police drove many of the elites in city government to devise solutions to the downtown problem. The Citizens Redevelopment Advisory Commission and the Board of Zoning Adjustment in their five-year plan to redevelop downtown pointed out several measures that have helped to end many of the problems that the police and elites perceived in the early and mid-2000s.

First, a police substation was placed in the downtown area, which helped drive kids away from downtown. Police were even quoted in the Modesto Bee as stating that the goal of the substation was to drive many of the youth away from downtown. For now, it seems to have worked.

Second, the groups representing developers have helped to put in a system of real-time surveillance cameras. These cameras help give the police greater control over downtown and make it harder for groups of people to amass without the police knowing about it.

Lastly, the police have developed a system of blocking cars around 10th and J streets, which gives them greater control over traffic in the area and the movement of crowds.

In July 2009, when a fight broke out at the Downtown Fat Cat night club, we saw all of these parts of the puzzle coming together, as

police responded to a fight that had spilled into the street in full riot gear, pushing and roughing up many within the crowd. The police were quick to show the extent to which they would respond to any small disruption of the social order.

Clearing Out the Homeless

Those who have drafted plans to remove the youth from downtown have similar plans for the homeless. Vice Mayor Brad Hawn, who helped write the five-year downtown development plan, is also on the Safety and Communities Committee, which helped push for the closing of Paperboy Park. The committee also includes Joe Muratore, the City Council rep for District 4, who was involved in the La Loma Association, an anti-homeless homeowners association that has pushed various anti-homeless initiatives in the city.

The La Loma Association called for harsher criminalization of the homeless, surveillance cameras in public parks, the criminalization of dumpster diving and many other measures aimed at street people. Muratore, a Harvard grad, is also a businessperson with developer ties and many connections in real estate.

This Modesto Park is now closed to the public.

As written in Modesto Anarcho #15, members of the committee spearheaded a push to close the park after business owners complained that homeless people were using the park too much (e.g., sleeping and resting there). The city responded by shutting down the park, allowing public access only from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., or if a person paid a fee. This is Modesto, where business interests’ direct government and the rest of us pay the price.

Now, Muratore is starting a Blue Ribbon Homeless Commission to “tackle” the problem of homelessness. The committee, according to the Modesto Bee, will be made up of a “seven-member commission…of representatives from service, business and neighborhood organizations.”

Neighborhood organizations such as the La Loma Association want the homeless gone because they threaten property values and scare upper-middle-class members of their organization. Business organizations want them gone because the homeless scare away investor capital to the area. “Service” organizations such as the Gospel Mission or various churches are more interested in “saving the souls” of the homeless than they are in getting people off the street. Nor are the churches going to kick up much of a fuss when people start to attack the homeless.

Of course, none of the people on the commission will be homeless themselves. And none will have any desire to tackle the problems that cause homelessness in the Central Valley such as poverty, foreclosure, unemployment and drug addiction.

Muratore has often stated that his goal is to consolidate homeless services and get the homeless out of public parks and out of downtown. To many people, this will seem reasonable. Why shouldn’t all the services be located in only a couple of places? The problem is that Muratore’s drive to do so is not caused by a love for the homeless; it’s part of a push to develop and gentrify downtown and remove undesirable elements from it. Such actions will also do nothing to end homelessness, which in the current crisis is only going to be on the rise, and instead simply remove the “problem” from the area via harassment and force.

Ghost Town?

In the end, the “bourgiefication” of downtown ultimately means not only gentrification but also boredom. It means not having people to talk to other than over something that you paid for, watching a film where you are silent, being spoken to at a City Council meeting or conversing with another worker who is on the clock.

The reason for all of this—the police, the redevelopment plans, pushing people out of parks—of course, is simply to make money. By “cleaning” the downtown of elements such as youth and the homeless, neighborhood associations like La Loma can stay prestigious and attract new renters and keep their old ones. Businesses downtown will not feel threatened, and capital looking to invest will not be scared away. The city government, looking to make money off of property and sales taxes, can be assured that its coffers will be filled. The police, looking to “keep the peace,” ensure job security as repression becomes a boom industry.

There are several things to take away from the last decade of life in downtown Modesto. The first is that the police are not neutral. They serve and work for the business and political interests that run the city. The police know full well who they work for.

Modesto anarchists say “it’s our city, let’s take it back.”

Second, we can see that the push to attack the homeless, push out youth and develop and gentrify downtown are not problems of bad policy or mean politicians. They are instead actions of an upper class that seeks our removal so they can make money.

Lastly, we can see that the drive by the ruling forces to stop people from coming together without buying things is not only an economic decision but also a political one. The forces that want us gone because we don’t buy things also don’t want us coming together in the middle of town, talking, organizing and resisting together.

This isn’t just happening in Modesto. In Arcata, the square that once was filled with travelers and music is now almost silent, as police have cracked down on basic code infractions. In Santa Cruz, it’s a crime to smoke on Pacific Avenue. To many people, these actions by the state are seen as simply poor policy, which is why it’s important to understand that these laws are the first wave of an effort to develop and gentrify an area.

Will the places where we live be open and full of life? Will we have public space that is open to all, where music, food and passion flow freely and we meet new faces, lovers and friends? Or, are we going to allow our streets and public spaces where we gather to become simply boring, expensive and heavily policed? The choice is ours.


  • Community Alliance

    The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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