Saturday, November 24, 2018

Paradise, California: A working class community forgotten

Chico is my home. Although I was raised in Southern California, I have spent every holiday in Chico since I was a child, I attended college there, and I have lived at my Aunt’s Chico home on numerous occasions. In fact, since both of my parents moved out of Southern California, my Aunt’s house in Chico is the only “childhood home” still in my family. So, like anyone who calls Chico home, I will tell you that our town is pretty special. It’s large enough to have the amenities we need, but still possesses a ton of small-town charm—from the historical Victorian homes to the way the downtown street names spell C-H-I-C-O. Big Chico Creek runs through the University, fills the recreational One-Mile swimming pool, and continues to Upper Bidwell Park's deep swimming holes and beautiful hiking spots. Every Thursday there is an unrivaled farmer’s market with live music and an amount of gourmet food trucks that Food Network wouldn’t believe.

Travel directly east of Chico, only a few miles up Skyway Road, and you are instantly transported to a place that looks like a perfectly idyllic set for any Christmas movie. Native sprawling maple and pine trees line the sloping hill where this town sits. Quaint and quirky mom-and-pop shops and classic diners are common and large chain stores absent. Some of the friendliest people and best views in all of Butte County are found here. It’s calm and a little sleepy—but only because people are taking in the surrounding beauty. Everyone drives a little slower in Paradise. But this place no longer exists.

In a few short hours, the so-called Camp Fire wiped out Paradise, leveling roughly 13,000 homes and killing at least 84 people (as of this post, 700 are still reported missing). I have many close friends who are among the thousands of Paradise residents who lost their homes and businesses, and I feel personally shaken by this tragedy. As someone who has spent a lot of time in Paradise, it is unfathomable to me that this beautiful town has been virtually erased from the earth. But my sadness of losing this place I enjoyed visiting is nothing compared to the grief Paradise’s former residents are feeling—former residents who I have always considered to be primarily white-working-class.

I am speaking from personal experience and observation when I make this statement, but as the related blog, What does the Camp Fire and its aftermath reveal about white privilege? points out, the population of Paradise depicted in media coverage area does appear to be primarily white. The US Census Bureau also reports that the town's median income is only $48,831 compared to $67,169 for California as a whole.

During all the time I have spent in Paradise at friend’s houses, restaurants, yoga studios, coffee shops and the like, mostly everyone I encountered was white skinned and appeared to be working-class status based on appearance, mannerisms, and career (if I was privy to such information). Residents I knew worked jobs in retail sales, customer service, or construction and lived rather modestly, which was the norm in Paradise. The houses in Paradise were often old and small with signs of wear when compared to Chico homes and the mostly local restaurants and businesses in Paradise fit the same bill. I never saw extravagant cars driving down Pentz road, mostly only pickup trucks and dated sedans. And although the town was home to a large number of retirees, it was never considered an affluent place. In fact, the retirees who chose Paradise were often on fixed incomes.

So, hearing of the 27,000 residents who lost their homes and were displaced as a result, I worry whether they have the means to get back on their feet. One former resident—a friend of mine whom I will not name—lost his home and all of his belongings in the Camp Fire. As a restaurant manager, he is solidly working-class. He and his wife are now staying with family in Chico while awaiting assessment from their insurance company. They currently face unforeseen expenses as they attempt to replace basic necessities with little savings. Prior to the fire they lived paycheck to paycheck and they don't have a nest egg to help them bounce back or rebuild.

Others are not as fortunate to have family to house them. While driving through rainy Chico on Thanksgiving Day, I witnessed hundreds of tents on the side of the road, cars filled with people’s belongings, and campers in parking lots. None of these people are 'homeless'—they are families, home owners, renters, and business owners who lost their houses and have nowhere else to go. The 'tent-cities' seen throughout Chico are evidence of how devastating the Camp Fire has been for this working-class community. I do not recall seeing similar 'tent cities' after the fires in Napa, Sonoma, or even the more recent Woolsey fire in Southern California.

Something that struck me as revealing was the media coverage following the Camp Fire. Shortly after the fire in Paradise started, other fires broke out in the Southern California communities of Thousand Oaks and Malibu. It then seemed as though the news coverage turned its focus much more towards the Southern California fires—which were threatening upper-class communities and many celebrities’ homes. Obviously any fire that threatens homes and lives is one that warrants media response. I question, however, why more attention was given to the potential losses of Kim Kardashian’s, George Clooney’s, and Courtney Jenner’s homes than was given to the homes of working-class Paradise residents who may never afford to rebuild.

Particularly, I was notified of news stories all over social media of the loss of Hollywood sets like the 'western town' used to film HBO’s west world and the 'Bachelor Mansion,' a family home used frequently by the Bachelor/Bachelorette ABC franchise. But I found no stories regarding the loss of 'Debbie’s,' a family owned diner which served the best biscuits and gravy in Butte County, of 'Positve-I,' an aerial yoga studio committed to community, or of 'Juice and Java' a 25-year-old coffee shop that introduced Northern California to 'Norcal Nitro Coffee'. I am certain that ABC and HBO will easily rebuild their sets, but it is unlikely that Butte County will ever see these businesses again.

And Paradise wasn’t only forgotten by the media. On Twitter and Facebook, Hillary Clinton posted a photograph—which I recognize to be from Chico—along with this comment:
Southern California. As of November 19, these were the statistics from the Northern California Camp Fire, and I am certain that photo was taken at the “tent-city” outside of Walmart I recently visited in Chico. Yet, Hillary uses this information to ask her millions of followers to make donations to Southern California wildfire relief.

Also showing a disinterest to this tragedy last week was President Trump. After shockingly blaming California for the fire, Trump visited Paradise and toured the ruins of the formerly beautiful town. Yet in an official White House statement, the President called it "Pleasure," Twice. He never apologized for his error. In fact, after his visit Trump did not post a single tweet regarding the fire or its aftermath—which is shocking considering how much time he apparently has to tweet.

I also find it appalling that the administration released only a choppy 4-minute video titled “Remarks on Northern California Wildfire Disaster” from Paradise and did not once mention the town’s name or what has been lost. However, the administration released a 17-minute “Statement on the Malibu Fires” where Trump forgets Paradise’s name and states with great confidence that:
We are in Malibu, a certain section of Malibu that was lovely. You don’t get much better than this.
In the video, he seems (almost) concerned with what was affected by the Malibu fire. This is interesting since Paradise was home to many white-working-class voters Trump appeals to while Malibu is home to many celebrities who fervently oppose him.

Why did Malibu get this much attention with only three lives lost, but Paradise seems almost forgotten? Malibu is one of the richest cities in America and will clearly be able to rebuild. Celebrities could even afford to hire private firefighters to protect their Southern California homes. Conversely, Paradise residents are living in packed shelters and tents in a Walmart parking lot. Malibu will survive, but I seriously doubt this working-class community and former residents will ever be the same.


  1. Thanks so much for this heart-felt and very moving post. As my post a few days ago on this blog and another on the Legal Ruralism blog last week suggest, I have also been grieving Paradise. Yet I have done so with a far less personal connection than you, L Nicole. I have read pretty much everything I could get my hands on about the Camp Fire and its survivors. I have donated to relief efforts. I've contacted all of my friends, including former students, with relatives in Paradise.
    Thus, I was stunned this weekend when a relative visiting from Southern California said, "oh, Paradise, that's near us, in Malibu, right"? I literally wanted to scream that a resident of Southern California was so ill-informed about the total destruction of a small city that was home to nearly 30,000 residents. And they weren't just any residents--they included so many in the precariat, so many who barely had a toe-hold on economic stability, on a little slice of the American Dream. And now that has slipped away and, as you suggest, L. Nicole, it won't be easily regained or rebuilt.

  2. Thank you so much for the insight into this crisis that occurred to the city of Paradise. I believe you are correct in your assessment that many if not a vast majority of Paradise former residents will not be able to rebuild after the destruction that occurred there. I recently read an article discussing some of the people that have been affected and their next steps. Many of those who have been displaced sought out temporary shelter in Chico, Yuba City, and all the way down to Sacramento. Most of these areas have no vacancies remaining in single family homes, hotels, or motels. The situation is worsened because, as you discussed here, many of those residents are low on the socioeconomic scale and were already scraping by in Paradise. The cities of Chico, Yuba City, and Sacramento are all large increases in living costs after already a devastating blow to their livelihoods. The article suggests that many will be forced to leave California all together since they cannot afford these other communities. It is disheartening that the media and executive government have failed to recognize the significant tragedy and the seriousness of the aftereffects of the Camp fire. Many good working class people are disregarded and largely left to their own devices by this administration and government.

  3. I am horrified to hear from L. Nicole and from Professor Pruitt of the extent to which people think that the tragedy in Paradise is occurring in Southern California. Being located in Northern California myself, the effects of the fire have been far too immediate (hearing from friends whose families have been effected, being invited to join in fundraising efforts, seeing the smoke) to be confused about where the fire is, and I had not heard about the confusion. I appreciate all of the insights on the way that class (both financial means and the notoriety and fame of wealth) has effected the response to the fires. I wonder if urbanormativity- Paradise is far more rural than Malibu - also effected the response.

    It seems that, at least in this instance, class was a stronger factor in the response than race. The whiteness of the residents of Paradise does not seem to have garnered them much extra sympathy. Instead, prejudices against class and rurality seem to have made the residents of Paradise forgotten in the midst of their own crisis.

  4. As an update to this post, on December 24th Monday Night Football, the NFL showed photos of high school football players and erroneously commented that they were from Paradise High School. The players were, in fact, from Mckinleyville or "Mack" High. A local DJ pointed this out via twitter here,
    And to this date, Hillary Clinton has not corrected her post despite numerous requests from me and comments from others.

    But on a positive note, the media accurately reported that the Paradise Adventist Academy's girls volleyball team received donations of around $16,000 and new uniforms during a meet last week. (read it here: So, there might be some hope still.