ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly

The Changing Face of Humboldt - Census Figures Are In

by  ARNO HOLSCHUH



Humboldt County is changing, in some ways slowly and in other ways very rapidly, and the 2000 census is the map to those changes. It delineates where we came from, where we are going, who we are and who we are becoming.

The numbers that have started to trickle out of the census look obvious on the surface. Humboldt County's population in 2000: 126,518. We're 85 percent white, almost 6 percent Native American and almost 2 percent of Asian heritage -- none of which should surprise anyone who is in the habit of looking at their human environment.

The data that have been released so far are population, ethnicity and the number of residents of voting age -- the detailed information about where people work and how many toilets they have in their house won't be released until later this year.

But take another look at this initial data and you begin to see some trends. Just underneath the surface of those numbers are stories, threads and social phenomena.

This week the Journal takes a look at three of these stories. We selected 11 communities in Humboldt County, compared their census numbers from 1990 and 2000, and tried to figure out what's changed.[chart of Percentage of change in under 18 population from 1990 to 2000]

These are just three of the stories. There are certainly many more, but these broad changes are affecting the county as a whole, presenting new challenges and changing our identity. More than anything else, that's what the census is trying to tell us: who we are.

We aren't children anymore...

In times of budget crisis, schools have to look at all their optional programs and decide what might be nonessential, said Trinidad Union School Principal Eric Grantz. (in photo below) In Trinidad, Grantz said, optional programs being "evaluated" include "music, art, library personnel and new technology acquisition. Plus luxuries like a vice principal and coaches." And Grantz's budget is definitely in crisis.

Trinidad's population of children shrank 44 percent between 1990 and 2000. In the last three years alone, Trinidad Union's enrollment has dropped by 35 percent. Why does that matter? State funding for schools is apportioned on a per-child basis; the more children, the more money. A child in California is currently worth about $4,200 in income; Trinidad has 28 fewer children now than 10 years ago, so the pool of possible funding open to Grantz has shrunk by more than $117,000.[photo of Grantz]

And it's not just in Trinidad. While the overall population in Humboldt County grew by 7,400 over the last decade, there are 1,194 fewer children under the age of 18. The annual loss to the Humboldt County's educational system is as much as $5 million.

It takes the wind out of a school's sails, said Janet Frost, administrative assistant with the Humboldt County Office of Education. "It can cause major problems in districts that still have to maintain the same number of teachers, the same school site and the associated utilities, but they have fewer dollars to do it," she said.

"We don't lose pupils in groups that equal one class," Frost said. "For instance, if you lose 20 students in your school, they will not all be in the third grade," which would allow you to cut a third-grade class out of the budget. Because the decline in enrollment tends to be spread out across all ages and abilities, "a school cannot dramatically cut back its expenditures without significantly changing its instructional program."

The dollar drain doesn't affect all schools in the same way. Rural school districts are particularly hard-hit because they have less flexibility. Larger urban school districts may be able to shift students to best utilize their resources. Eureka City Schools dealt with declining enrollment in elementary grades by closing Marshall Elementary and using Marshall facilities for Eureka High School classes.

Rural districts "have school sites that are spread out around an area so that children in distant areas can attend school fairly close to where they live," Frost said. If you close one small rural school, "it may mean they will have to take buses for a long time." When the Southern Humboldt Unified School District decided May 3 to close Miranda Junior High, one of the consequences was that some students from Whitethorn Elementary School will probably have to commute to Redway, almost an hour away.

And then there are school districts like Trinidad with only one facility. "Closing isn't an option," Frost said, because that one school "is who they are. They're small; any loss of even a few students is proportionally a big reduction in the kinds of services they can provide."

The cause of Humboldt's declining childhood population may be as bad as its immediate effect, said Gregg Foster, executive director of the Redwood Region Economic Development Commission.

"Is this a symptom of something? That's what we need to ask ourselves," he said. "If we have fewer young people because the number of families aged 34 to 45 are decreasing, then we might be concerned because people are not moving here or staying here because of jobs."[chart of Percentage of change in population from 1990 to 2000]

Where is the growth?

The number of people under 18 declined in most of the communities studied for this report, but a few towns managed to buck the trend: McKinleyville's youth increased by almost 19 percent between 1990 and 2000 and Fortuna's jumped 23.3 percent.

Those two towns managed to add so many children by growing overall -- and fast. Fortuna, McKinleyville and the Eureka suburbs are Humboldt County's expanding communities, growing at rates of 19 percent, 27 and 29 percent respectively. Why?

"The simple answer is, that's where all the new houses are," said Foster. "Both of them have a lot of developable land," something that the city of Eureka does not. "Arcata -- both as a practical matter because of lack of space and as a matter of policy -- limiting its growth. McKinleyville and Fortuna are not."

But double-digit growth does not necessarily mean parallel increases in new jobs, Foster added. He said there were probably some new jobs in both communities but that the majority of the growth had come because "there are a lot more commuters" sleeping in the two towns and travelling to Arcata or Eureka to work.

McKinleyville, in fact, has become a bedroom community, said Jill Geist, (in photo below) a member of the board of directors of the McKinleyville Community Services District. "In the '60s and '70s, we had several working ranches. We had a strong agricultural base with heavy flower production. There's been a shift away from that base," she said.

[photo of Jill Geist]What McKinleyville has instead of jobs is livable space, she said.

"There's still affordable housing. We have adequate schools. There's a perception that because we are a bedroom community with a nice downtown center, a beautiful viewshed and less congestion, we are more of a family environment."

The influx of people those amenities are attracting is presenting the community with some serious challenges, Geist said.

Some are concrete, like trying to increase the capacity of the wastewater treatment system. The McKinleyville plant has yet to become illegal, said Geist, whose day job is with Arcata's Environmental Services Department. But, she warned, its capacity is limited. A treatment marsh like that in Arcata has been suggested, but Geist said that it would still not solve all of McKinleyville's problems.

"I don't know what the solution is," she said.

Equally challenging is the question of how to provide McKinleyville with adequate police protection. As an unincorporated community, McKinleyville is not a city but simply part of the county. That means its residents are the responsibility of the understaffed Humboldt County Sheriff Department.

"We are given one and a half deputies for all of the 5th District," Geist said, an area which encompasses almost the entire northern half of Humboldt County. Neighborhoods get hit by vandals and petty thieves regularly. McKinleyville would have to incorporate as a city in order to provide itself a police force, Geist said.

There are other reasons for a community growing as fast as McKinleyville to incorporate, she said.

"We don't have a vehicle by which the community can express its concerns," she said, and a city government would provide one. "It would go a long, long way toward letting McKinleyville decide its future," she said.

But it's an expensive proposition. Geist pointed out that Arcata's budget was more than 10 times that of the community services district's for the last year. The revenues that could be gathered from a community that serves mostly as a residential neighborhood wouldn't support incorporation, she said. The explosive growth in McKinleyville may have created a policing problem, but it is not going to solve it any time soon.

"If the community wants to incorporate, they can't do it as a bedroom community; they have to have more than retail," she said. "How do you do that? I think that's part of the struggle for the county in general."

Growth is certainly a question for Fortuna. Fortuna is less purely a bedroom community for Arcata and Eureka than McKinleyville. With strong roots and current connections to the timber and agricultural industries, Fortuna is mostly a working town, said Mayor Phil Nyberg.

The good news is that many of the problems facing McKinleyville have been or are being dealt with by city government in Fortuna. The police "have done an excellent job with crime," Nyberg said. The city has been sued over its sewage treatment plant by the organization Riverwatch, but he said the situation is under control. "And we have an excellent road system," Nyberg said.

But the economic basis that pays for all the amenities of city government may become a lot less stable in the near future. Eel River Sawmills, one of the two biggest employers for Fortuna, has declared it will close its doors soon. As of press time, the mill had managed to purchase logs to keep it in operation for the time being, but its future is far from certain [see this week's In the News section].

"We're aware there may be a squeeze in those areas," Nyberg said. "That's one of the reasons we are conservative in our city budgets. It could reduce the growth rate."

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Fortuna is Eureka. Humboldt County's largest city shrank by 897 people. Leading the way out of the city were whites; 2,289 fewer people classified themselves as Caucasian in Eureka's 2000 census as had a decade before.

But they may not have moved very far. The unincorporated suburban communities surrounding Eureka -- Cutten, Humboldt Hill, Myrtletown and Bayview -- grew 29 percent.

"A certain class of people likes to live in Cutten," said Eureka City Councilman Jack McKellar. He said upper-middle class people were leaving for the suburbs because "they don't have any homeless shelters or drug abuse shelters there."

"I think it's a choice of a suburban rather than an urban lifestyle," said Eureka Mayor Nancy Flemming. She said that drug treatment facilities and halfway houses have actually helped to improve neighborhoods in Eureka and were not the problem.

But the people leaving the city for its suburbs were mostly young professionals with children, she said, and it would be hard to attract them away from the quiet and affordability of suburban life. "Young families who can afford to live in a rural area will do that."

The key to keeping Eureka's core alive is to embrace its city character and promote an "urban lifestyle" as desirable, she said.

"You will see a different group moving in" to replace the families, Flemming said. Young professionals before they have their families and young retirees will flock to an attractive urban environment precisely because it is urban.

"We have really focused on creating an arts and cultural district in Old Town that has around the clock activities," she said. "It is our responsibility to make this a livable city."

We're a growing community[chart of Percentage of change in Hispanic population from 1990 to 2000]

Humboldt County's distinctly rural character has brought people north for a century, fleeing the populous cities to the south. For no group was this more true over the last decade than Latinos.

Humboldt still lags far behind the state in the percentage of people who identity themselves as Latino -- just 6.5 percent vs. more than a third for the state as a whole. But Humboldt far outstripped the state in the rate of growth. The local Latino population grew at a rate of 65 percent since 1990, compared to 42 percent across the state.

And this growth in the Latino community -- also called Hispanic, or Chicano, or la Raza, depending on who you talk to -- is real. Consider this: Over the last 10 years, Latinos became Humboldt County's largest minority group, surpassing Native Americans. Small towns like Fortuna and Rio Dell are now more than 10 percent Latino.

"A lot of people from Latin America are farmers, so they like that kind of work, and they come from places rich in natural resources, so the forest is attractive to them," said Santiago Cruz (in photo below), publisher of the Spanish language El Heraldo newspaper.

[photo of Cruz]Cruz moved here from Mexico with his wife, a native Eurekan, in the late '80s [See "Building a Bridge," Journal cover story, Dec. 16, 1999]. His home in central Mexico, San Luis Potosi, was rural in character, so it made sense for him to come to a rural part of California, he said. The small town life agrees with many aspects of Latin American culture: It is family centered, friendly, simple and connected to the land.

"A lot of people are coming up here from the big cities because they want a place to raise their families," Cruz added.

And the Humboldt County vision for the economic future meshes with Latino culture. "I think the `Prosperity' plan [the county's economic development document] is appealing to us because it promotes the well-being of the community without changing some of the small-town atmosphere and friendliness of people. Without staying apart from technology, we still prefer a slower pace of life," he said.

The increased Latino presence has for the most part been accepted by Humboldt County residents. Cruz said Humboldters were by and large "very educated and business-minded people who understand the value of the presence of immigrants. ... Most of us are willing to sacrifice to succeed in business. Some of the main industries -- agriculture, dairies, manufacturing, fisheries, timber -- they hire a lot of Hispanics. Due to that, we are welcome."

Cruz said Latinos now need to integrate themselves into management and business ownership. "We have been part of the work force and the next step will be to be integrated into the Humboldt County economy. We have had restaurants for years but we want to diversify.

"And businesses are beginning to perceive a market in the Latino population," Cruz said. The Bayshore Mall has a specific policy to demonstrate Latinos are welcome, including allowing them to hold a cultural festival there every year.

To help further Latinos' economic integration, Cruz has set up a program where a certified public accountant of Mexican descent will help business owners with bookkeeping and taxpayers with tax returns. He said the Humboldt County economy loses every year when immigrants who do not understand the system fail to file tax returns. Their refunds never get sent and therefore never get spent at local merchants. "The local economy will grow if immigrants get their refunds," he said.

[photo of Rosalinda Larios]There are some growing pains associated with the burgeoning Latino population, said Rosalinda Larios (in photo at right), a Humboldt State University student and Chicano activist. Larios said that while she's never been confronted by direct, explicit racism, there have been subtle instances.

"When my boyfriend and I go to the supermarket at night to buy beer we're followed down the aisle by a security guard," she said. "I've been told to speak English because we're in America."

Larios said the most important thing is that people in Humboldt County change their mentality about her ethnic group. She said Latinos aren't just visitors or outsiders; they are in Humboldt County to stay.

"We are a growing community and we deserve respect. If anything, what's going on now should serve as an eye-opener to the white people that there are other people," she said. "This place isn't only for white people. It's beautiful out here and should be open for all."


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