Drive around Tracy, and you can see the American Dream. Just make sure you drive down the right street. Because in some places, the dream is hidden behind cement walls, secluded in closed-off communities.
Call it a dream deferred, at least for those outside looking in.
The walls are a hallmark of the new Tracy and many cities like it. For residents, they provide a sense of exclusivity, recreating in style the gated communities that, until the 1990s made them ubiquitous suburban landmarks, only the affluent could afford. But the price of that special feeling might be a sliver of Tracy’s soul.
Drive down the cinder-block canyons of Corral Hollow Road and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Look up Tracy on Google Earth, and you’ll see it again. A city divided by walls, dissected into enclaves turned in on themselves. Sound barriers that look like prison walls keep neighborhoods tucked safely away from the rest of the city, and connecting them through select exit and entry points ensures through-traffic is kept to a minimum.
They’re symbolically, if not functionally, separated from the rest of Tracy. The walls block sound and the sight of passing traffic, sure. But they also send a subtle message: “Stay out. This is not your place. Keep to your part of the city, and we’ll keep to ours.”
That small-town Tracy feel everyone talks about losing? Maybe these separated neighborhoods have something to do with it. Maybe even more than the masses of commuters who barrel down Interstate 580 each day.
Yards used to not have fences between them. When my parents moved into their Stockton home in the 1970s, their backyard blended seamlessly into the one next door. There was no need to hide, nothing to keep pent up. A couple curious dogs changed that eventually, but the fence was low, with a gate that easily opened. Even with a hedge that’s grown high and wild over the years, it’s not so difficult to find a gap big enough where you can wave hello.
Lots of neighborhoods used to be like that. Now, there are fences everywhere. And not just between yards to keep inquisitive beagles out of petunia patches.
Take another glance from above with the help of Google Earth. It’s almost as if there are two Tracys. The first is the modern city, with a population spurred to new heights by last decade’s perpetual development. The second is the historic city, the hamlet by the railroad tracks.
It’s easy to tell them apart. The new Tracy has looping streets largely closed off from the rest of the city. The older Tracy has streets laid out in a grid that easily opens to the rest of town, with no walls except the fences built by neighbors.
It’s naïve to think development will return to the way it was. It’s become more desirable to live in set-apart communities with larger houses and cul-de-sacs, and it’s probably become more profitable to build them that way, too.
But it’s worth considering why it’s desirable to hide from one another in a town that values its historic sense of community. What are we keeping out of our gleaming new neighborhoods? Undesirable neighbors? Criminals? Terrorists?
No. It seems that the walls are designed simply to create private worlds apart from the public one. In other words, to keep people away from one another. That’s what walls do. They don’t foster community, they divide it. The more walls in Tracy — or Baghdad, or any other city — the more socially fractured you can expect that city to be. Even if those walls are simply on the border of the newest development.
I’m not going to pull a Ronald Reagan when it comes to the Great Walls of Tracy. But when planning for the future, we should be aware the irony that while we collectively say we want a sense of belonging in our neighborhood, town and country, we’re individually determined to retreat farther away from each other.
It’s no coincidence that losing a sense of community is on a lot of people’s minds.
• Jon Mendelson is a copy editor at the Tracy Press. To contact him about his weekly column, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his Tracy Press blog at jmendelson05.blogspot.com.