A tiny town in decay: Can Fairmead be revived?

FAIRMEAD -- No one seems to know why this tiny town is dying.

A poor water system? A closed-down off-ramp? A changing population?

Whatever the reason, the bumpy dirt roads, boarded-up homes and overgrown grass medians scattered throughout Fairmead are evidence of a town in decay.

But a diverse group of current and former residents -- and a handful of local academics and students -- want to revive this rural community. They are lobbying for grants, hosting town halls, raising money and trying to get the attention of county officials.

Madera County planners are pushing for improvements, too: They consider Fairmead, an unincorporated town of about 700 residents, to be the county's top revitalization project.

But change won't come easily.

Fairmead, about four miles south of Chowchilla, doesn't have a single business in town. Even if someone wanted to open one, they couldn't -- the aging well-water system wouldn't support it.

For decades, in fact, the water system has constantly been on the blink, sometimes shutting down for days at a time and forcing the county to haul in bottled water and portable toilets. The water pressure is so low that Fairmead Elementary School doesn't bother to water its grass during the summer.

And there isn't much of a sewage system. Each home has a septic tank -- or a hole in the ground.

The outskirts of town are dotted with a handful of well-maintained ranchettes adjacent to cow pastures and horse ranches, but most streets are lined with dilapidated houses, trailers and mobile homes. A survey conducted by the county two years ago found that 12% of homes were vacant, half the homes were occupied by renters, and that 90% of residents were low-income.

Fairmead has no sidewalks -- and driving through town is a bad idea if you're not in a truck: Many of the roads are nothing more than gravel and dirt.

"It just seems like a lost little area," said Terry Barnes, the elementary school's principal. "I mean, people live here, but the services for them are few and far between."

It wasn't always this way.

The town was founded in 1912 as a farming colony and was home to about 1,500 residents, most from African-American families. It soon expanded -- a pool room, cigar stand, two blacksmith shops, an insurance company and four grocery stores all popped up. It also had a 30-room inn, a lumber company and a cheese factory.

But in 1930, Highway 99, which ran through the town, was rerouted to the west side of the Southern Pacific railroad tracks, making the town more isolated. By the 1970s, most of the businesses had disappeared, though Fairmead still had a soul-food restaurant called Chick's Retreat and two small markets.

On a recent afternoon, Freddy Gaines, 50, pointed to a large lot overgrown with weeds across the street from his mobile home. That's where one of the markets once stood, he said.

The town's demographics have changed, as well. In the 1970s, it was still mostly a black community. Now it is mostly Hispanic.

In July 2007, the town's last business -- the Mammoth Orange drive-in, a local landmark next to Highway 99 -- closed down. Caltrans, which was closing ramps that didn't meet modern highway standards, fenced off the ramp that led to the juice and hamburger stand, and also directly into town.

Once the ramp closed, Fairmead residents felt "like the highway doesn't exist anymore," Gaines said.

A new $51 million interchange that opened one mile south in July 2009 is surrounded by dirt and fields, but county officials hope that one day there will be a gas station or fast-food joint that will provide jobs for Fairmead residents.

The interchange also leads to the Fossil Discovery Center, which is scheduled to open this summer. The county hopes that the museum's ancient mammoth bones will attract tourists who might also take a side trip through century-old Fairmead.

Visitors will see parts of the town's history, including 20-foot-wide medians that are dotted with sky-high palm trees and used to be the pride of Fairmead. For now, those medians are overrun with weeds and littered with trash and beer cans.

A group called Fairmead Community & Friends is working on cleaning u those medians -- and the rest of Fairmead.

The 22-member group, which formed three years ago, has been busy hosting town halls, going to government meetings and organizing residents. When someone set fire to the school playground in July 2008, the group raised $1,000 at a flea market to help pay for repairs. Group member Nettie Amey said many residents also hope to build a community center in town someday.

Fairmead Community & Friends may be key to restoring the town, said Robin DeLugan, a cultural anthropology professor at the University of California at Merced. She and her students launched a project late last year to research the history of Fairmead and find ways to help improve the town, both through economic development and better services. The project will have academic benefit for UC Merced as well as provide outreach to a community in need, she said.

"This small, rural community is getting a lot of attention because its residents are very well organized," DeLugan said. "That's something Fairmead has going for it."

Also, despite the poverty, crime isn't a huge issue in Fairmead other than some gang activity that spills over from Madera, said Erica Stuart, a spokeswoman for the Madera County Sheriff's Department.

DeLugan and her students plan to start surveying Fairmead this summer to get a better understanding of its demographics -- basic information that is critical for the town to compete for grants.

Eventually, DeLugan hopes to uncover one of the town's biggest mysteries: Where did things go wrong?

"We're going to look at the past to get a better understanding of where things are now," DeLugan said.

Amey, who grew up in Fairmead but now lives in Madera, said that for too long county officials did not pay enough attention to Fairmead, which was the "red-headed step-child of Madera County." That seems to be changing now, she said.

Supervisor Vern Moss, who has represented the Fairmead and Chowchilla area for 12 years, said that it's only been since the Fairmead group started advocating for changes that the county focused on the town.

"There wasn't really anybody coming forward wanting to do a lot of things before," he said.

Now the county is moving forward with a $1 million project for a new water storage tank -- something county officials say is critical for the town to grow. Fairmead also needs a sewage system, though residents shot down a proposal in the mid-1990s that would have increased rates to pay for the new system's maintenance.

Scott Harmstead, a county planner working on Fairmead's revitalization, said the county hopes to come up with a new proposal soon, but he acknowledged that "it will be a hard sell" to the low-income community.

Meanwhile, the Chowchilla Elementary School District, which includes Fairmead Elementary School, is hoping to team up with the county to turn part of the school grounds into a community park where kids can play soccer in the afternoon.

The town's only park now is a tiny playground, so in the afternoons and evenings, kids jump the fence surrounding the elementary school so that they can play soccer or ride their skateboards on the school grounds.

Jose Belasco, 30, and a lifelong Fairmead resident, said the several hundred kids who live in the town desperately need their own park.

"If they have nothing to do, they do stupid things," he said. Such as throwing parties -- like the one four years ago where a 15-year-old boy was shot and killed.

DeLugan is eager to see the changes happen. In the end, she said, Fairmead may become a case study for how an impoverished town can turn itself around.

"I think there're many Fairmead-like places out there," DeLugan said. "These are the small communities whose residents' voices are finally being heard."