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How Fresno drained my brain


Last week, the L.A. Times ran an article about how the city of Fresno, California is suffering from a major case of “brain drain”—the loss of its “best and brightest”--as huge numbers of young people leave the city the first chance they get. I read the story with intense fascination, of course, because I am from Fresno, and I now live on the east coast. I was one of the students the story describes who put Fresno in the rearview mirror at the earliest possible moment, and hasn’t looked back.


This is not to say that Fresno doesn’t hold a special position in the cosmos for me. My family still lives there, so I come back a few times a year to visit. There are too many connections to the people there—a few friends from school, the piano teacher I still try to see every time I’m home—for me to truly not look back at all.

But in all honesty, to me my hometown is really more of a schtick. I love to tell stories about the ride-by shooting (ride rather than drive because the shooter was on a bicycle) at my high school. Or of the time I looked out the window of my office to see a police shooting (during the last time I was in Fresno for more than a visit; working there in between my sophomore and junior years of college,). There’s also the public relations slogan “Fresno—smile when you say that” that my sisters and I think sounds much better as a threat than as a slogan. And the fact that the current mayor was previously best known for playing “Bubba” on the TV series “In the Heat of the Night.” Halfway through his first term as mayor, he made a Christian-themed western starring himself and his wife that even the Fresno Bee reviewer couldn’t give above a “D.”

For me, Fresno is a punchline, not somewhere I ever want to move back to. I relish the anecdotes, but when a friend recently asked me if he should be planning a trip to Fresno for a wedding, after my explanation that no, six years of dating my partner still doesn’t mean we’re getting married any time soon, I also laughed and said “And there is no way in hell that I am getting married in Fresno!”

It’s an odd experience, therefore, when I talk to people who have a deep attachment to where they’re from. While out to dinner with a friend recently, as he talked about wanting to move back to the South eventually, even though he already has already begun a successful career in Washington, I marveled at the pull his roots have on him. I know several people who chose law schools in part because they want to stay in the states in which they were raised, and thought that studying at schools there would be of more use to them than going off to an arguably better school across the country.

That kind of consideration has never entered my mind. Even now, as my fellow first-year law students start to send resumes out for summer jobs, some people are choosing where to send applications to based on where they want to settle down after graduation—and for many, that’s where they originally came from. My usual indecisiveness is only exacerbated by the fact that I have no set conception of where I want to live after law school, other than “not Fresno” and “not Texas.”

In the Times article, there is considerable discussion of what Fresno might do to stop the brain drain. There is a mention of how this may be the flip side of the traditional marketing of Fresno as a low-cost place to do business, and whether the Mayor’s efforts to draw more “knowledge workers” will be successful.

When writing this column, I came to a bit of a frustrated standstill on how to finish it. I could make some suggestions of ways to improve Fresno, but I doubt that they would be well-received, and I am certain they would not be acted upon. Raise municipal taxes, and spend the money on public transportation, planting trees, making parks useful, fun, and safe, and improving the schools. Don’t build eighteen foot high “arches” over a downtown intersection and pretend you are St. Louis. Don’t drive away world-class symphony conductors because they are black and gay (yes, Fresno did that). Work with regional and state authorities to clean the filthy, unhealthful air.

I wish Fresno would do all these things. But barring a fundamental shift in the way Fresnans think (and vote), I don’t see them happening any time soon. I see yet more opportunities for me to jokingly send out emails to friends noting news like the recent Brookings Institution report naming Fresno as the city with the worst concentrated poverty in the nation. I see more jokes about the Police Chief, who was twice investigated in the 1980s for allegedly having sex with a 16-year old girl. (When asked about the investigations when promoted to Chief in 2001, he refused to either confirm or deny, and only replied by discussing his conversion to born-again Christianity. Sound familiar?)

In short, Fresno needs to do more than make a few speeches about knowledge workers. It needs to make a concerted and active effort to alleviate the crushing and concentrated poverty. It needs to acknowledge the hypocrisy of agribusiness interests refusing illegal immigrants services like education or hospitals, but being happy to employ them. It needs a monumental change in perspective and priorities before I, or I suspect any of my brain drain brethren, will ever think of Fresno as a place to move back to.

Dara Purvis is a weekly contributor to Raw Story. Visit her on the web @


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