Love Redding – Or Leave it?

I hate feeling like a traitor when I visit another city, and when I compare it to where I live, Redding looks like some sad little turd of a town.

old turd town

So it was last weekend when I visited a friend who lives in an adorable downtown San Jose apartment. I was immediately smitten by downtown San Jose’s charm, cleanliness, safety and the plethora of retail offerings: restaurants, bakeries, cool bars, music venues and theaters – all open at night. I kept asking my friend – who grew up in Redding –  “Where are the transients?”

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My friend assured me there are parts of San Jose that have homeless and street people, but generally speaking, it’s not a problem downtown. Sure enough, in the blocks and blocks – miles – we walked over the course of those two evenings, I saw less than a handful of obvious homeless people.

Downtown San Jose

Downtown San Jose at night.

We walked past racks with nice bikes locked to them and I marveled that anyone would be foolish enough to leave bikes unattended – even locked. In Redding, those locks would be cut and the bikes gone in a flash.

I saw a florist shop with stands of orchids left outside the business, closed for the night, and knew that in Redding, those plants would either be gone before dawn, or thrown to the ground.

Some restaurants offered outdoor seating where patrons enjoyed drinks, food and conversation. Scores of people walked to and from their destinations. They looked untroubled. I saw no visible pepper spray, something recommended for women in particular who visit Redding’s river trails.

Show of hands here: How many of you would feel safe walking – when it’s dark – from North Market (aka Miracle Mile), past Caldwell Park, across the Market Street Bridge, through the downtown “promenade” past the downtown “unSafeway”, across the street to the sidewalk along South City Park fence and end your trip at the Redding Library, where’d you’d sit on a bench and just hang out?

I would. If I were feeling as if my life had no meaning, or if offered $1 million.

Before people get all defensive and throw rotten tomatoes and say I should only write positive stories about Redding; let me remind you that (aside from the fact that I don’t work for the Chamber of Commerce) I’ve been an ambassador for this city all my life.

I’m the first to brag about all the spectacular things Redding has going for it, such as the Sundial Bridge, the Ribbon Bridge, Turtle Bay, the Cascade Theatre, Riverfront Playhouse, Shasta College, two good hospitals, an unrivaled trail system, and yes, the fact that a river runs through our city. (Which reminds me, it’s time for my ongoing pitch for our city’s slogan: Redding, a City of Trails and Bridges.)

In addition to Redding’s attributes, it also has a long history for being known as a hub with spokes that point to such must-see sights as Burney Falls, Mt. Shasta, Lassen Peak, Whiskeytown, Shasta Dam, Castle Crags, Shasta Caverns and Shasta Lake.

In fact, more and more, to mitigate how supremely crappy I feel about Redding’s growing ugliness, I increase my exposure to as many beautiful things as possible: the Sundial Bridge, the river trails, and kayaking at Whiskeytown or Keswick, all the while exclaiming, “This is gorgeous! I am so lucky! I freakin’ LOVE this place!”

Maybe I exclaim too much.

And it’s true that Redding contains many kind, helpful, compassionate people, as my San Francisco Airbnb guests will attest after their bikes were recently stolen off their parked car from my driveway and so many citizens did their best to help locate their missing bikes. (One bike was recovered by RPD, a testimony to our police department.)

Yes, I understand that every city has its warts and unsavory sides, but lately, poor Redding seems all warts, minus a best side.

I’m sick of the state of Redding proper – or should I say improper. For decades my biggest complaint about Redding was it had no heart – no downtown. Now that’s the least of my worries about Redding, because not only do we still not have a functioning downtown (for God’s sake, somebody put Market Street back), but the few brave, amazing businesses that are downtown are plagued by crime and vandalism.

Speaking of which, I’m sick that I know of a place called “hell hole” in Library Park, a place so named by nearby shop owners because of the nearly unimaginable degree of filth and grossness that exists and takes place there.

I’m sick of living in a city where our train depot – cleaned up some years back by good citizens – is closed because of vandalism, which means that if you or your loved one needs to arrive or depart from Amtrak’s Redding station at 0-dark-30, you will have no depot for shelter. Rots of ruck, folks.

I’m sick of living in a city that has multiple Facebook pages dedicated solely to the topics of crime and homelessness; not about solutions, but residents’ rants, tips, reports and alerts.

All in all, I’m sick of feeling unsafe in the city I’ve called home since kindergarten. I’m sick of hearing one tale after another about crime – mainly theft – to the point where, in my neighborhood, thieves recently climbed a neighbor’s fence into the back yard and actually cut the locks off four bikes and then ripped them off.  Here in Redding’s Garden Tract, neighbors alert each other about one another’s open garage doors, or delivered packages on porches (before they’re stolen), or creepy people with clunky ankle bracelets who slowly troll the streets on too-small bikes, looking from left to right.

Finally, I’m sick of the phrase, “Well, it is Redding,” as if we shouldn’t set our expectations too high, because we’ll never amount to anything, anyway.

Driving back into Redding Sunday, it was the one of the few times after being away that the sight of Lassen Peak and Mt. Shasta didn’t make my heart swell; make me feel glad to be home.

By the time I’d reached Redding’s city limits along Highway 273, I saw the now-familiar sights of poverty, vandalism, and mental illness. Street people hauled their belongings in black garbage bags or pushed their possessions in shopping carts. I passed a car on 273 that was going about 30 mph, and when I looked to see the driver, I saw a skeletal-thin woman, her mouth sunken from missing teeth.

Solutions? There are many.

Build mental health/substance abuse facilities to rival the size of jails.

Bring some kind of production work here – pottery, recycled glass tables, hemp rope, I don’t care what. After all, the last time I checked, Stillwater Business Park was still a multi-million-dollar ghost town with plenty of room for industry. The goal would be to teach people a living-wage skill, and be the kind of place where any high school graduate (who wasn’t choosing college) could work and earn enough money to live a decent life.  (Like Kimberly Clark Paper Company was for guys way back when I was in high school).

Another solution, albeit perhaps a Pollyanna one, is an idea my sister and I envisioned called Good Works. We imagined a huge hunk of land in the city center that would provide ways for even those with the seemingly fewest skills to be rewarded for being productive, to the point where they could methodically climb out of the pit of poverty, despair and feelings of uselessness. Good Works would have rules, but it would also offer food, housing and opportunities galore. They could grow gardens and fruit trees, raise chickens, braid rag rugs, make bricks, bake bread and refinish furniture. The list is endless. The public could enjoy and support the fruits of those people’s labors by buying those finished products, and show appreciation to the creators of those goods.

There are a million small, meaningful ways to introduce God’s most downtrodden, tortured souls to the joys of purpose and accomplishment. There are a million ways to turn on its head our current “helping” model where we treat the down-and-out like dumb animals; outsiders to whom we toss food, clothes and even housing, with no expectation of participation or ownership or partnership. How superior we are when we treat people that way, and how inferior, dependent and resentful those people become. It’s no wonder that people who have no reason to get up in the morning become addicted and check out mentally. It helps dull the pain of an unfulfilled life in human beings who surely were born to be better and do better.

I’ve said – and have heard many of you say – that it’s time to take back our town.

I’m all for that. Count me in.

I just hope Redding isn’t so far gone that there’s no bringing it back.


Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded A News Cafe in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain holds a Bachelor's Degree in journalism from CSU, Chico. She's an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She's been featured and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Slate. Bloomberg News and on CNN, KQED and KPFA. She lives in Redding, California.

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