Not many people know where Allensworth, CA is. Of all the people I asked in Fresno only one had heard of it. Allensworth is a small town about 30 miles north of Bakersfield that according to the last census is home to 471 people. The town leadership says its closer to 800 because of seasonal farm workers but the census didn’t bother or care to count them.
There are two Allensworths. The first can be found in Colonel Allensworth State Park, which memorializes the town founded in 1908 by Colonel Allen Allensworth, a black man. It was founded as the Tuskegee of the West and meant to be a town for African Americans run by and for African Americans. By 1910, it was being heralded across the country as an improbable success. It had a functional school, general stores, a church, and all the other indications of a thriving community. Many of the men in the town were employed by the railroad company while others worked the verdant fields in the otherwise dry desert brown Tulare County Its success was apparently too much to bear for the white farmers in surrounding towns, though. That the rail line was diverted and irrigation water refused was no accident. Both went to service and advance white owned farms nearby. Problems were further exacerbated when elevated levels of arsenic were found in the water in the 1960s. More and more residents moved away and the town fell into disrepair. In 1976 it became a California State Park making the town and its residents a part of history.
Barely a few miles up the road from the park exists modern-day Allensworth. You would be forgiven if upon arrival you thought the town and its 800 residents had been forgotten to history as well. The homes are primarily single or doublewide trailers planted haphazardly on sun-hardened lots. There are holes where walls and roofs should be and barely an AC unit in sight to help manage the 115-degree heat in the summer. “This isn’t supposed to exist in America” many of us say. It’s dusty and uncomfortable.
A group of us came to Allensworth on an environmental justice tour to learn the history of Allensworth and to see where things stand now. It’s not great. We gathered at the elementary school to hear from local advocates and university researchers to be told the myriad problems that trouble the town. The arsenic is still in the water and so too are elecvated levels of lead and chromium II. Residents haven’t been able to drink their water for years yet they are still charged for it. There aren’t many jobs in Allensworth and the ones that are there don’t pay well. Many don’t have working septic systems and rely on outhouses to do their business. There’s no natural gas either so it’s not uncommon to see folks cooking their meals outside over wood or coal fires. Propane is the fuel of choice for those who can afford it.
Professors, researchers and non-profit leaders enumerated the problems in Allensworth to our small group including solutions that they hoped to install. The problem was that there was no money for the solutions. One researcher told us that with $10k they could fund potentially revolutionary research that would extract arsenic from the water supply, which would have far-reaching application for communities around the world.
San Francisco is barely 4 hours away from Allensworth. In one of the world’s richest cities, 10k could be dropped at a bar on a Tuesday night without second thought. In Allensworth 10k is an impossible amount of money. The annual per capita income is $8,413. Median household income is $29,091. A venture capitalist could sneeze and solve half of the town’s troubles.
American history is a tired record of repeated injustices perpetuated towards non-white people. When Allensworth was founded it was 97% black. Now it’s 97% Latino which may or may not account for migrant laborers. The much maligned, alleged job-stealing Latino workers are certainly not living high off the hog. The mishmash of dirt and paved roads that make up the town betray as much. Parts of Allensworth look like a shantytown. There are a few houses that demonstrate wealth is to be found in Allensworth but their relative opulence makes the surrounding poverty so much more pronounced and painful. It’s a reminder that wealth can and should be possible in a place like this but due to systems beyond the control of the community it simply isn’t.
According to a 2016 report, the Central Valley generates more than $21 billion in revenue (though Chinese growers are biting into these profits), which obviously doesn’t make it back to the communities of farmers who harvest the crop. There are more than a handful of farm owners who see the lion share of the profits and have encouraged short-term investments from Wall Street types who want to cash in on the dividends almonds supply.
Problem is that almonds demand incredible amounts of water to produce. For instance, it takes an entire gallon of water to produce a single almond. That’s a shocking amount of water anywhere and is especially shocking in bone-dry Tulare County. It was reported by the SF Weekly one farmer in particular, Stewart Resnick, used more than 400,000 acre-feet of water to grow his mixture of almonds, pistachios, citrus, and other crop which represented two thirds the annual consumption of Los Angeles.
Despite all the water pumped into Tulare and its surrounding counties there is still little for the farm workers who live there. In a small community owned plot, locals have an experimental community garden in the works. Among other things, the garden grows leafy vegetables, watermelons, and okra. All crops are grown above ground to avoid contamination from the arsenic rich soil. Problem is that there aren’t good reliable water sources for homes and even less for their gardens. Large plastic water cisterns were given to the community to help irrigate their crops yet they aren’t wholly functional and making them so presents another obstacle in a queue of already too many.
Like every environmental justices issue, Allensworth is the product of choice. The choice systems and the individuals who create those systems to preferentializes the rich at the expense of the poor; that are willing to utilize racist policies to disembowel a community because of their skin color. Systems that make land and water management decisions that create short-term economic gains that jeopardize the land and community alike. That refuse to pay a living wage, provide benefits, or social services and then wonder why the people struggle.
If things don’t change, the Central Valley’s farming days are numbered. If it weren’t for extensive and expensive irrigation infrastructure nothing would be able to grow. The sources of that water, the Sierra Nevadas, with its ancient Sequoias and water tables, no longer see the same rainfall as they once did. Nor is the snowpack as voluminous or long lasting as it once was. At some point the water there will dry up and so too will the Central Valley. For those outside the Valley it will be a sad footnote along with so many others. But for those in the Valley and the Valley itself it is the end of a story and a reminder of the devastating results of the hubris of men. The soil is rich there and the growing season is abnormally long but both these can be wiped away by shortsighted greed and a fundamental ignorance of what eco-systems need in order to be healthy.
Residents call Allensworth “the town that refuses to die.” Despite the exhausting number of problems the town faces its residents remain proud and hopeful. Some wonder why the residents don’t just pack up and move. But to where? The poverty that haunts Allensworth isn’t dissimilar to the hourly wage-worker in Fresno, Bakersfield, or San Francisco. Nor would their departure signal a change to the environmental degradation in the Central Valley. No problem has ever been solved by running away from it. There are solutions to be had that empower communities and allow them to be self-sustaining but that would require systemic changes that gives more money and power back to the workers, and implementing ecologically minded practices that do no exhaust the land or the people who work it. They are changes that need to be made and fast otherwise the problems will grow to a magnitude we as a society are unable to address.