'Worst place' ranking still rankles

Rand McNally's nine criteria for its 1985 rankings are represented by the nine photos of Yuba-Sutter life starting at upper left: housing, transportation, recreation, crime, education, arts/entertainment, climate, economy and health care.

The ranking raised hackles and ruffled feathers throughout Yuba-Sutter.

When the gavel rang down in early March 1985, designating Yuba City the worst place to live in the United States, the proclamation was met with outrage, disbelief and amusement. Rand McNally's second edition of "Places Rated Almanac" had ranked the Yuba City metropolitan statistical area, which includes Yuba and Sutter counties, No. 329 out of 329 metro areas.

Many people hadn't even realized the region was an MSA, said Chuck Smith, Sutter County spokesman who worked as a reporter for the Appeal-Democrat in 1985. Yuba-Sutter had only crossed the 100,000 population threshold five years earlier in the U.S. Census.

"That was the first surprise for people — 'We're a metropolitan area?'" Smith said. "And the surprise for Marysville people was: 'And they're calling it Yuba City?'"

MSA names are based on the city with the largest population in the area, which was and still is Yuba City.

The ranking deeply insulted area residents, and on the 25th anniversary of the publication, bruised egos still remain when Rand McNally enters discussions.

Many residents were offended and angry, but an equal number found it amusing, said Mary Knapp, who was executive vice president of the Chamber of Commerce at the time.

The response was not what reporters were looking for.

"I said, 'We're having fun with it,' and (one) lady said, 'What do you expect from the land of fruits and nuts?' and hung up," Knapp said.

One of the greatest publicity stunts that followed was a mock funeral organized by area car dealerships. They took ashes from the burning of Rand McNally maps and atlases, put them in an urn and drove them to the publishing house's San Francisco headquarters.

Measuring up

Yuba-Sutter has been called a lot of things over the years, including most stressed-out small metropolitan region in America and home to the second-highest unemployment level in the state.

But in 2001, Forbes named it No. 1 for "Best Places" to do business in California. It's also one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S., and Marysville Charter Academy for the Arts was recognized as one of the best schools in the nation by U.S. News and World Report.

The Rand McNally ranking was based on nine categories including crime, education and health care. Each MSA was rated one to 329 in each area, 329 being the worst.

Pittsburgh was ranked the No. 1 place to live, with Boston, Raleigh-Durham, N.C., and San Francisco right behind. Other bottom-ranked areas included Dothan, Ala., Modesto and Pine Bluff, Ark.

The rankings relied on data from government agencies and a few private sources. Chico ranked 177 and Sacramento was 113th.

Many residents said the ranking system was flawed.

Just look at Pittsburgh, says Bill Fuller, who was working in the Yuba City administrator's office at the time. No logical ranking would place it as a superior place to live than other major areas, such as San Francisco or Seattle, he said.

And while almost all of Yuba City's rankings were low, some categories contained factual errors.

Health care was Yuba City's worst ranking, at 323. The criteria included number of physicians, prevalence of medical centers and fluoridation of drinking water. The ranking failed to note the area's three major hospitals — Rideout, Fremont and one at Beale Air Force Base.

The area also did poorly in transportation, ranking 319th. The almanac writers claimed Yuba-Sutter lacked a public transportation system — overlooking the area's dial-a-ride and fixed-route bus services.

Public transportation still is limited in the region, said Keith Martin, manager of Yuba-Sutter Transit. It continues to lack Sunday, holiday and evening fixed-route service.

"But the reality today is most of the systems that are our size are considering eliminating those services," he said. "They are coming back to what we were all along."

The service has five times as many riders as 25 years ago, and cheaper fares than in 1985, Martin said. One of the greatest accomplishments was development of regular commuter service to Sacramento in 1990.

Yuba City also ranked among the lowest in arts and culture, based on its number of museums, theaters, dance companies, fine arts programs, public radio, etc.

Bob Reich, executive director of the Yuba-Sutter Arts Council, said the ranking is not surprising, but not entirely fair either. Visibility of the arts and culture scene is a major struggle.

The presence of The Acting Company, Tri-County Concert Association and the Borgamaria Lyric Opera redeems Yuba-Sutter somewhat.

"This is not to say this is an artistic community," he said. "There are a lot of small towns that have a lot more than we have and have a lot more support. But we are not at the bottom."

According to Rand-McNally, climate was the area's strong suit.

The area ranked 68th, based on severity of weather during hottest and coldest months, number of 90-degree days and how close temperatures hover to 65 degrees.

The ranking system is different today, but ambiance, education and health care are still categories in which Yuba-Sutter ranks lowest. Climate mildness remains the most favorable attribute, Rand McNally reported in its 2007 publication.

Making the best of it

Though Rand McNally's assessment of Yuba-Sutter stung residents hard at the time, the community did its best to turn lemons into lemonade.

Residents hustled to create anti-Rand McNally swag, including a "Kiss my Buttes" bumper sticker and a T-shirt that read "Nuts to you. We like it here in Yuba-Sutter."

Two years later, Knapp was told by the state tourism director it was one of the best campaigns she had ever seen. The publicity generated by the ranking and the reactions was valued at more than $2 million.

"We became kind of like the little engine that could," Knapp said. "We decided there are only two places you ever want to be on Rand McNally's list — first or last — and it depends on what you do with last."

The ranking created a greater sense of unity between Marysville and Yuba City.

"People stood up and said, 'We know who we are,'" Smith said. "They knew they could work on their faults, but this was not the worst place to live."

Others took a more self-deprecating reaction.

"Some people in this community said 'Yep, I knew it all along,'" Smith said. "But those people would not be happy anywhere."

Today, even with the downturn in the economy, former Sutter County Supervisor Joe Benatar still considers his home the best place to live in the United States.

"If somebody wanted me to move to Pittsburgh, I'd tell them you'd have to give me 5 million dollars," Benatar said. "I wouldn't move there for all the tea in China."

The Yuba-Sutter region is still a farming community, and that's the way Benatar thinks it should stay, he said.

Just after the 1985 ranking, Benatar shared a beer with Rand McNally authors Richard Boyer and David Savageau when they came to town. The duo had never contacted the area prior to the ranking, but the visit did not seem to change the men's opinions.

"I think it was more of a publicity stunt on behalf of Rand McNally," Benatar said.

Destination station

Since 1985, the area has grown by leaps and bounds. But growth has not led to a higher ranking.

The 2007 Rand McNally "Places Rated" ranks the Yuba City MSA at 362 of 379, no longer the worst, but nowhere close to average. Pittsburgh again ranked first, and Goldsboro, N.C., placed last.

"People perceive their community sometimes based on success stories," Smith said.

Just like the 329 ranking, only one kind of attention seems to linger.

"There had been the Juan Corona episode and in the 1970s, the Yuba City (High School) bus crash," Smith said. "It seemed liked the only attention that was drawn to the area was bad news."

The notion that Yuba-Sutter is the worst place to live is absurd, he said.

Before the European occupation of California, it was the most densely populated area in the country, he said. It would have become the "New York of the Pacific" had it not been for the flooding.

Marysville is the smallest of the first seven cities to incorporate in the state, earning it the moniker California's Oldest Little City.

"The Donner Party, they ate their dead to get here," Smith said. "This cannot be the worst place."

Yuba City is a destination for many people, said Lee Jones, co-owner of the Harkey House, and she should know. Guests from the Bay Area, all over the United States and even other countries stay at her bed and breakfast while they make day trips to hike the Sutter Buttes or bird watch at Gray Lodge Wildlife Area.

Rand McNally's 1985 ranking was unfair, and the low 2007 ranking is another ignorant reflection on the community, she said. Many strides have been made in area health care, arts and transportation.

"Our community offers a lot," Jones said. "We may not be rich in dollars but we are rich in diversity."

Yuba-Sutter can boast election of two East Indians to the Yuba City City Council and honors the region's founding cultures with annual festivals like Bok Kai and the Sikh Parade.

Jones, like many residents, came to Yuba-Sutter because of Beale Air Force Base and has never looked back. She loves all Yuba City offers, inside and out.

"We are two hours to Tahoe, two hours to the Napa Valley and two hours to the coast or San Francisco," Jones said.

Jones' first husband was from No. 1-ranked Pittsburgh, and two years ago, her sons flew back with their father for a visit.

"When they came back, Steve, my older son, said, 'I'm so glad I grew up in California,'" Jones said.

The area may not have a professional sports team, but the Sacramento Kings are only 30 miles away. And though Yuba City has been faulted by the "city slickers" at Rand McNally for its lack of transportation, the area soon will have four lanes all the way from Marysville to Sacramento.

"The 170,000 people who live here today know this not as the worst place to live, but as the best," Smith said.

Contact Appeal reporter Ashley Gebb at 749-4724 or agebb@appealdemocrat.com

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