Could Baker City’s soul survive a Redmondesque expansion?

By Jayson Jacoby September 20, 2010 10:41 am

“Bend” is the favorite four-letter epithet uttered by people who fear Baker City might soon succumb to the creeping suburbanism that has inflicted its architectural and commercial banality on so much of this country.

But I spent the night in Redmond earlier this summer, and it occurred to me that that city, rather than the budding metropolis that is Bend, perhaps offers the more compelling comparison.

There is, it seems to me, a widespread fallacy that not so long ago Bend and Baker City were akin to twins.

In fact, Baker hasn’t bested Bend since the 1920 Census.

That year, Baker’s population was 7,729, Bend’s 5,415.

A decade later Bend had gone ahead — 8,848 to 7,858 — and the Central Oregon city has widened its lead every decade since.

Redmond, though, is the classic late-bloomer.

As recently as 1970 (I realize this hardly qualifies as recent, but it happens to be the year I was born and so I’m inclined to downplay the significance of that span) Redmond was a mere stripling of 3,721 inhabitants.

That same year Baker boasted 9,354.

(Well, maybe they didn’t boast, but that’s the number the Census Bureau settled on. At least the state still put up population signs at the city limits back then.)

Not until 2000 did Redmond, fueled by the unprecedented expansion of Bend, just 15 miles to the south, surge past Baker, 13,481 to 9,860.

Today the signs at Redmond’s city limits read 25,800.

We got into town around supper time. As is my custom, I went out for a walk in the twilight.

It was plenty light enough, though, to make a thorough examination of the small section of the city I covered.

And if the sections I saw during my five-mile stroll resemble even superficially what Baker City is apt to look like, should we also suffer sudden corpulence, then I fear the change would not be altogether for the better.

To be fair, I know nothing of urban planning.

Also my sense of aesthetics is, well, undeveloped.

(My yard decor includes a concrete duck painted in fluorescent yellow and green.)

But I know what pleases my eye, and I saw rather little which did so in the portions of Redmond I hiked through.

This is atypical for me.

I quite enjoy walking in towns which I have never before visited or, as with Redmond, which I have in the main only driven through on my way to someplace else.

Rarely have I been disappointed.

In towns as disparate and as distant as Enumclaw, Wash., Idaho Falls, Idaho, Minden, Nev., and Panguitch, Utah — to name just four — I have ambled through neighborhoods which I could imagine moving to, and being happy to live in.

It’s not that I never felt that way while I was walking about Redmond.

I just didn’t feel it very often.

Maybe I picked the wrong part of the city.

Most of the homes I passed are relatively new, based on the slender trees in the yards and the pristine sidewalks.

And since I have an affinity for the classic lines of old bungalows and Victorians I tend to look with a jaundiced eye at the simplistic conformity the predominates in much modern construction.

Yet even accounting for the brevity of my walk, I was struck as well by what seemed to me an overall sense of shoddiness.

I’m not talking about dandelion-dominated lawns, or rusted pickups with lift kits and bald tires, or siding with peeling paint, although I saw each of those things.

You can find all of that in any city, including Baker City.

And none of it bothers me particularly.

If people don’t want to paint their houses or fertilize their lawns it’s all the same to me.

That’s why they call it private property.

What I’m getting about, rather, is my feeling that what I saw during my walk round Redmond was not so much a community as a collection of houses with similar addresses.

This is, I concede, an assessment based on the slimmest of evidence.

And I don’t mean to impugn Redmond.

As a place to live it has much to recommend.

I particularly enjoyed the paved path that runs through Dry Canyon. That’s a slot cleaving the basalt rimrock which is one of the defining characteristics of Central Oregon’s topography.

Redmond also can brag of its fine climate, one even sunnier than Baker’s, and less frigid. Redmond’s panorama of the Cascade volcanoes, ranging more than 100 miles from Mount Hood to Bachelor Butte, is unsurpassed.

The numbers alone tell the tale — a city isn’t likely to double its population in a decade, after all, if its residents are frequently unsettled, or worse, by fierce storms, or if they have nothing more grandiose to gaze at than a couple of hillocks.

Baker City’s future is no more certain than any other town’s, of course, but there is at least one obvious factor which argues strongly against the notion that a Redmondesque expansion is probable, much less imminent.

There’s no Bend 15 miles to our south.

What is 15 miles to our south is Dooley Mountain. And I don’t foresee any significant population growth there. Unless it’s deer or elk. Hereford’s not much farther away but it, too, seems quite capable of thwarting the Wal-Mart/McDonald’s offensive which has crushed so many other suburban Maginot Lines over the past few decades.

Whether Baker City could survive such an onslaught is, I think, two questions rather than one.

The engineers say the city’s circulatory system of water and sewer pipes probably could handle 5,000 more people and their associated faucets and drains, and perhaps twice that many.

I’m not so comfortable, though, that the city’s soul, a less tangible thing which does not easily submit to the planners’ formulas and equations, would come through equally unscathed.

I just hope I’m still able to get around on my feet a few decades from now to see how things turned out.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.