‘Thermaghetto’ or ‘Thermagardens’?

Thermalito couple working to revitalize their hard-hit community via ‘sustainable capitalism.’

Thermalito resident Rachelle Parker stands near a fig tree in the garden of her 10th Street home. She and her partner, Mark Brackett, are working to improve the state of their economically hard-hit community.

Thermalito resident Rachelle Parker stands near a fig tree in the garden of her 10th Street home. She and her partner, Mark Brackett, are working to improve the state of their economically hard-hit community.

Photo By Christine G.K. LaPado

Rachelle Parker lives in the unincorporated Oroville community of Thermalito, on the west side of the Feather River. She lives in a small, renovated house next door to a vacant lot overgrown with dry weeds and near another property featuring an abandoned house surrounded with piles of junk left there after the tenants were forced out. Their landlord had suffered a foreclosure, one of many recently in the area.

Down the street and around the corner from the home Parker shares with her life-partner, construction worker Mark Brackett, sits the Billy Bob Market, which bears a sign boasting the availability of liquor and lottery tickets.

It’s places like the Billy Bob—as well as the numerous boarded-up buildings, abandoned empty lots, uninhabited and decaying but relatively new subdivisions, rundown mobile homes and a reputation for crime and drug abuse—that give Parker’s community the unflattering nickname “Thermaghetto.”

Parker and Brackett are working to change that. If things go according to their vision, “Thermaghetto” will one day become “Thermagardens.”

Brackett and Parker have invited Dr. John E. Ikerd, professor emeritus of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri, Columbia, to talk June 26 at the Thermalito Grange Hall on ways to revitalize their beleaguered but beloved community. Ikerd is a prolific writer of books such as Sustainable Capitalism: A Matter of Common Sense and Crisis and Opportunity: Sustainability in American Agriculture, and is widely known as a public speaker on the subject of sustainable (or ecological) capitalism.

Brackett and Parker contacted Ikerd via his website (http://web.missouri.edu/~ikerdj/), asking if he would consider coming to speak in Thermalito. He said yes, asking only for travel expenses and a place to stay.

Ikerd’s cutting-edge presentation is the kind of thing one would expect to find at the likes of Chico State’s annual sustainability conference. “I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard that,” said Parker, sitting at her kitchen table. “The only reason it’s not happening at Chico State is because I live here. This is my community. If John speaks on the university campus, they’ll never come here.”

Parker wants people from Chico and the surrounding area to come to Thermalito to see for themselves the promise that lies amid the visible decline—and acres of affordable, farmable land—of the community she calls home.

“And I need to get the word out,” she added, “that there are intelligent, hard-working people in Thermalito who are working to change the landscape.” Literally.

Parker is a 53-year-old Bay Area native. She moved to Oroville (where she had spent summers and Christmases as a child visiting her grandparents) seven years ago after first losing her receptionist job and then being priced out of the rental market in Berkeley while trying to survive on temp work.

Currently finishing her training to become a medical transcriber, Parker previously worked as a marketer for the city of Oroville before meeting Brackett and moving five years ago into the Thermalito home they have revitalized by, among other things, painting it a fresh brick-red with sage-green trim and planting numerous fruit trees on the property. Parker knows her neighbors, and regularly engages in food-swapping/sharing with them after shopping at the farmers’ market or harvesting her figs and nectarines.

Parker took this reporter on a tour of Thermalito to point out the many problem areas patchworked in among functioning family homes and ranchettes. Most notable—besides the general neglect of weed-filled properties “waiting to go up in flames,” as Parker put it, lack of small businesses, and speeding drivers in big pick-ups coming up alarmingly on our rear bumper—was the existence of two subdivisions built during the recent real-estate boom but abandoned when the economy collapsed before anyone had moved in.

One was surrounded by a chain-link fence in an unsuccessful attempt to keep possible squatters away from the buildings, some of which had boards over the windows. Another had its infrastructure in place—new paved roadway, sidewalks, street lights—but only one house (uninhabited) stood in the forlorn-looking area.

“The last time I was here, I found a condom and a crack pipe,” Parker said. “And children walk by here on their way to school.”

“You need to rebuild the economy from the inside out, not just depend on outside investors,” John Ikerd said during a recent phone interview from his Missouri home. “A community, as a living organism, needs to be selective about what it brings in from the outside.”

Ikerd is an advocate of multi-farm CSAs, such as Iowa’s Grown Locally and the Oklahoma Food Cooperative, in which different types of small-farming operations (of produce, as well as meat, dairy, honey, etc.) are “organized … around [the idea of] local foods for local customers.”

A community in a downward spiral, said Ikerd, is “affect[ed] economically, socially and ethically.” But engaging in ongoing cooperative farming and distributing arrangements contributes to a community’s well-being, both economically and socially, as well as health-wise.

“You could jump-start [a struggling local economy] on a really good local food system,” Ikerd said. “Low-priced land—I know there are young people all over looking for cheap farmland. It could turn the economy around.”

At one point on our drive, Parker stopped to buy a basket of strawberries at a fruit stand. “Now that’s what I’d like to see more of,” she said, referring to the thriving berry farm. “What we don’t want is more subdivisions. We want to attract more people whose very life depends on the stewardship of the land. … And we want to teach the children. If the children don’t see the adults … taking responsibility for their community, they won’t learn how to do it, either.”