Joe Mathews: California’s shabby borders should be nice front doors

A luxury home overlooks Lake Tahoe from the north shore near Incline Village, Nev. Joe Mathews says that many border areas are nicer on the other side of California.
A luxury home overlooks Lake Tahoe from the north shore near Incline Village, Nev. Joe Mathews says that many border areas are nicer on the other side of California. Sacramento Bee file

When you cross from Oregon into California on Interstate 5, you will not be greeted by any welcoming party or grand gate.

The first sign of California civilization is the giant All Star Liquors store in tiny Hilt. And if you enter California from Oregon along Highway 101, you’ll get the same greeting: All Star Liquors’ other outlet, in Smith River.

The store’s slogan? “The Party Starts Here.” Except, at California’s borders, the party starts slowly.

Over the past year, I’ve made a point of exploring California’s four land borders, with Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, and Mexico. What I’ve seen again and again would deflate the proudest Californian. Ours is consistently the shabbier side of the border.

The juxtaposition is most jarring along our southern border with Mexico. Tijuana, one of the great urban success stories of North America, is dynamic and fast-paced. On the California side, the San Ysidro section of San Diego is squalid, with a particularly dismal McDonald’s.

Farther east, Calexico, population 39,000, is dwarfed by the cross-border cosmopolitan sophistication of 700,000-strong Mexicali, with its restaurants, theater and university.

California’s neighboring states also offer more welcoming border regions than ours.

Along the Arizona border, Lake Havasu City, with the London Bridge, outshines the settlements on the California side of the Colorado River. Further south, Yuma, population 91,000, sits across from not very much at all.

Along the far northern coast, Brookings in Oregon is more prosperous than beautiful, but poor, Crescent City. Inland, Ashland, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is far lovelier than Siskiyou County, which shows up in California newspapers mostly as the unofficial headquarters of a secession movement.

Along Interstate 15, the lights of Vegas outshine anything in the California border desert. Up in Tahoe, the streets on the California side of the lake are noticeably rougher than the Nevada thoroughfares. And no place on the lake gleams like Nevada’s Incline Village, a haven for Californians avoiding Golden State taxes.

California’s unwelcoming Mexican border can be blamed on the U.S. government, which is held hostage by the political obsession with border security. Walking from California into Mexico takes less than five minutes. But I routinely encounter three-hour waits to cross back.

California has a reputation for regulation and big government, but at our borders, we’re the side that seems ungoverned. Needles, which borders Arizona (and is near Nevada), is one of the bleakest places I’ve encountered in the state. Trains rumble through at all hours, and trash litters the streets. The first business I encountered crossing into town from Arizona was a medical marijuana dispensary.

That’s typical. On the borders, California businesses often profit from our permissiveness.

The Golden State has long been distinguished by some of the nation’s lowest taxes on beer, wine, and distilled spirits – a legacy of the liquor lobby’s might that dates back to the famous power broker Artie Samish, the self-proclaimed “Secret Boss of California” in the early 20th century. The locations of All Star Liquors, just on the California side of the Oregon border, appear designed to capitalize on these facts.

Online, it promises: “You don’t need to drive any further into California to find the best prices, best selection, and the friendliest staff this side of the Mississippi!” That’s not exactly an endorsement of the Golden State, but it’s hardly surprising.

Californians treat our borders like backwaters, even though millions of people enter through them. We could do better by our border communities, and by our state, if we thought of them as front doors.

Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.