Highway 99: Central California’s ‘Despair Belt’

Last month I drove California’s version of the infamous Midwest Rust Belt.

It is Highway 99 through the heart of the San Joaquin Valley. Driving from Fresno to Sacramento for what must have been the millionth time since I became a Californian almost three and half decades ago, it became increasingly depressing as the miles rolled by. Highway 99 has become the “Despair Belt.”

‘For lease’ signs adorn hundreds of buildings, many only recently vacated by businesses.

Used truck sales lots were packed; one near Turlock was so jammed you could not park a Volkswagen on the lot. Fuel and regulatory costs have driven hundreds of trucks off the road.

Two of the three near-new auto dealerships at Turlock Auto Mall closed; the last time I drove by one Chrysler dealership had hundreds of cars and trucks parked around it. It was no small, rural dealership.

Equipment rental yards full.

Businesses I know have been operating for more than a decade now closed.

A mall near El Grove, a skeleton, maybe half completed.

Around every corner, signs of economic despair.

The 99 drive is also a moving portrait of California agriculture. Orchards, vineyards and fields are green this time of year. Most are still well-tended. Agriculture is faring a bit better than the rest of the economy in the recession. However, there were more fallow fields and some orchards needing attention.

I kept asking: Am I still in California as I drove along the major highway through the San Joaquin Valley? The Despair Belt is certainly not exclusive to California, although I understand California is at or near the top of the down-and-out states list. Hello state legislators!

A recent online article asked the question, “Can the U.S. afford to have California fail?” The eighth largest economy in the world is on the verge of collapse? The No. 1 economy in the world is almost as bad, and California is looking for the federal government to bail it out.

It should not be happening in California, the most populous state in the nation and once the most prosperous. However, it is, and the reasons are many.

• Bad — no, no stupid — business decisions such as subprime mortgages.

• Crooked financiers.

• Greed of the economically powerful.

• Inept politicians and regulators.

• And on and on.

Just like the judicial/regulatory drought California is in, the economic malaise was created largely by the few who have yet to suffer like those who once worked in those vacant buildings lining 99.

Driving the Despair Belt is not only sad, but with each mile the anger grows with the reality that it should not be happening in California.

California is not immune to the vagaries in the economy. However, driving Highway 99 is visual evidence California and the Central Valley are not suffering the normal economic ups and downs. It is sad testimony to the ineptitude of those who profess to lead this state.

Highway 99 was once a vibrant, broad picture of the Central Valley. Now it is a sad statement. It is the Despair Belt.

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