Doane Yawger: Merced is a place that really grows on you

dyawger@mercedsunstar.comMarch 31, 2014 

— Merced grows on you.

I’ve lived in Merced for 45 years, moving here straight out of college. Progressively, this town that’s both cosmopolitan and country at the same time has become home.

Our community has endured some significant transformations in the past century and a quarter, with the past two decades bringing marked changes as well.

Still, it’s all good, and I think Merced deserves a whopping big birthday cake for the way it has grown and aged.

Merced has many charms. Let’s list some of them.

The vintage 1870s Old Merced County Courthouse in downtown Merced reminds me of a state capitol building, with its dome and the statue of Minerva on the top. Inside, its museum is a must-see for history buffs.

A relative newcomer in the overall scheme of things, UC Merced also is a jewel for the community. Its buildings are spectacular and its programs are first-rate. The university is becoming the major engine in local economic development and its people contribute much to the betterment of the city.

Another sparkling asset here is the Merced Theatre on West Main Street, resurrected a few years ago to reflect its 1930s glory. The theater marquee with its abundant and sophisticated neon displays ranks right up there as one of the community’s treasures.

I’d also like to nominate the nearly new underpass at the BNSF Railway on G Street. Its appearance is dazzling, and it adds measurably to grade crossing safety with traffic and speeding trains.

We can always hope that somehow in the next couple of decades that the original county library and Merced’s first high school, born in the late 1890s, will enjoy a rebirth. It’s too bad the stately Merced High School buildings on G Street fell victim to earthquake safety codes in the 1970s.

Mercy Medical Center also qualifies as a local jewel, a pretty and prominent place that has a crucial healing mission. Both the main county library and the county administration building are children of the 1970s but still functional and attractive.

Another newcomer that’s scoring points for its aesthetics and key educational goals is the new El Capitan High School, a 21st-century institution where all students are issued computers and textbooks are a thing of the past.

Merced has a number of gorgeous housing areas. I’m particularly impressed with Harris Acres off East North Bear Creek Drive and the Ragsdale area near Hoover Middle School. Near the Merced Golf and Country Club, the mansions on Phoenician Court and surrounding streets are breathtaking.

One of my favorite drives is along West North Bear Creek Drive between M and R streets. The homes and abundant foliage make Bear Creek Drive picture-postcard worthy. Merced has enjoyed a Tree City USA designation, with the tree canopy making some city streets extra scenic.

We also should be thankful for Applegate Park, the sprawling recreation complex between M and R streets. It boasts a rose garden, playground equipment, open air theater and a very respectable zoo.

Merced has well-maintained streets and other features we generally call infrastructure. Basic services are faithfully rendered by city government.

As the 1990s dawned on Merced, I would never have guessed that two of its anchors, Castle Air Force Base and the regional office of Farmers Insurance, would be gone before the decade ended. We’re still awaiting a rebirth out at Castle, but it is enjoying some post-military uses and appears poised for significant growth.

But those wouldn’t be the last challenges faced by the city.

Merced has had a rough time in the past decade or so, with the arrival of the Great Recession and the real estate market collapse. That economic double whammy resulted in some of the highest foreclosure rates in the country and drove chronic unemployment rates above 20 percent. A rising tide of business closures soon followed.

As economic conditions worsened, crime continued to plague the city. Law enforcement struggled with tighter budgets and reduced staffing in the battle against criminal street gangs, the proliferation of large marijuana growing operations and attention-getting violent crimes.

But the latest figures for the city show crime in decline, law enforcement continuing to zero in on trouble spots and community groups pushing to clean up neighborhoods.

The unemployment rate, while still high, is declining. The housing market is also showing renewed signs of life. And new businesses are once again coming to Merced.

This city has proved its resilience in the face of major economic setbacks.

The people of Merced should take a bow for how they have made the town better. There’s a friendliness and giving spirit among residents that you aren’t going to find in a big city like Fresno, Sacramento, San Francisco or Los Angeles. Now and then it’s good to visit one of these bigger locales, but living there is not even an option for me.

Merced has had a rough time in the past decade, with the stubborn recession and chronic unemployment, numerous housing foreclosures, criminal street gang problems and businesses closing. Of late, things appear to be on the mend and the outlook appears positive.

My mother-in-law used to say happiness is not a geographical location but a state of mind. I agree with that maxim and believe Merced is comfortable, clean and companionable, all in one package. I expect it to continue to develop and only get better.

Sun-Star staff writer Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dyawger@mercedsunstar.com.

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