That inevitable next question

By Bob Sommer

Staying at a B&B, the first question upon meeting other guests at breakfast is where people are from. This non-controversial query opens up conversation as there is usually something positive or interesting to be said about every city.

However, when we answer “Davis,” the next question is predictable. It’s not that we are ashamed of having worked at UC Davis most of our lives. Everyone has to make a stand somewhere and we chose to make it here. This was a great family town when we arrived and remains so today, with excellent schools, parks, and a friendly coherent downtown.

I know that not everyone in town works at the university. In fact, most people don’t, but in public perception this is a company town. One industry dominates employment, and most working adults are employed by the university and its derivative programs, or for a firm or agency that indirectly depends on university employees and students. In this respect, the public image of Davis as a university town is accurate. Yet it is off-putting to be so easily stereotyped.

If someone says that they live in Santa Cruz, there is no inevitable next question. Ditto for people who come from Los Angeles, Irvine, Merced, Santa Barbara and the other cities housing a UC campus. Only Davis is seen as a “pure” university city.

We are nationally recognized as a City of Bicycles. Yet when we tell people we are from Davis, no one inquires “Oh, do you ride a bicycle?” It would be pleasant to hear this response. Davis has received a “Tree City USA” plaque for several decades, but no one asks about the town’s shade canopy. Like it or not, the inevitable question when someone hears you live in Davis is “Are you connected with the university.”

Once an affirmative answer is received, the discussion continues regarding some aspect of the campus with which the person is familiar. In rank order of frequency, this means that the person 1) has a family member who attended UC Davis, 2) brought a sick animal to the veterinary hospital, 3) attended an event at the Mondavi or 4) admires the viticulture and enology program.

The tone of the discussion is inevitably positive; I cannot recall in this informal sample of B&B conversations a single instance of anyone recounting a student’s bad experience at UCD, a pet’s inadequate treatment at the vet hospital, a poor wine variety developed by the campus, or inadequate acoustics at the Mondavi.

Everyone out there, or so it seems, likes UC Davis. Even when the city politics are considered suspect (shades of People’s Republic of Davis), people in Northern California have a high opinion of the campus. A former Yolo County supervisor (from Woodland) quipped that he’d like to see the city of Davis relocated from the county while the campus should remain.

During the turbulence of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, we said that the Berkeley campus got the heat, and we got the light. UCDs student leaders used the tumult to create the campus Coffee House, the London buses (now Unitrans), the Experimental College, a free clinic (now the Community Clinic), and other innovations that succeeded where most counterculture institutions elsewhere withered and died.

We were at the time reputed to be “the safe campus” where other UC chancellors sent their children. I guess we still are relatively safe, but equally important, the campus reflects basic and applied interests. My happiest campus affiliations were with departments that combined basic research, applied research, and humanistic concerns, with none being dominant over the others. The same applies to the university’s tripartite goals— teaching, research, and service. None of which should be paramount or exclusive.

I am trying to understand why telling people where I live reveals where I work, and that this is followed by praise of my workplace. I know it sounds crude to call a university campus a workplace, but that is what it is. Among the nicer features of faculty life were that I didn’t have to “dress up” to go to work; I could set my own hours, which probably averaged more than 60 per week. I’m not complaining, as this wasn’t exploitation, it was fun! Department meetings, while tedious, provided ample time and material for writing humorous essays. Dramatists have to pay their actors; mine performed without charge.

Of the challenges facing the community, sprawl is probably the most significant. Is there an optimal size for a small city? Probably yes, but after this point is reached, one can ask the same question about a middle-size city. Unless we build the downtown higher (that ugly word “densification”), growth means spreading beyond existing borders, and the increasing distances will mean less walking and bicycling and more reliance on cars and busses.

There are already signs that this is happening. I see increased use of buses as positive. Every morning, clots of Sacramento commuters wait for a Yolobus while across the street university students wait for a red Unitrans bus going the opposite direction.

Is there a way to stop growth? The city fought expansion as far as the U.S. Supreme Court where it won, but lost later to development pressure. With so much money to be made from new housing, there was no way to prevent the town leapfrogging across Interstate 80. Like the Viet Cong, we use tunnels to bring needed supplies under the freeway. I don’t know if the Viet Cong gave awards for the longest, deepest, or best-fitted tunnel. From photographs made after the war, some of their underground passages were more elaborate than those in Davis today.

I don’t mind living in a company town so long as it’s a benign company that respects town traditions and prerogatives. My great-grandfather owned a store in Lawrence, Kan., home of the major state university. Town-gown relations were good, and Lawrence became “The Athens of Kansas,” which may be a step above “A People’s Republic.”

I shouldn’t mind being so easily identified and typed as a college employee. The campus is an engine of the state’s economy. However, I’d like to be less opaque in casual conversation. Why should people know where I work before I know anything about them?

Although I get tired of hearing praise of the vet school and the wine program, they are part of “The Davis Advantage” relative to our sister campuses. If I want to avoid this predictable sequence in casual conversation, I can answer that I live “near Sacramento.”

— Bob Sommer is a retired UC Davis faculty member and longtime Davis resident.

Special to The Enterprise

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