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The Worst City in America? Tiny Yuba City Replies to Rand McNally: 'Kiss My Buttes!'

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The peach and almond trees are just beginning to bloom along Route 99, and wild mustard is turning the meadows along the gentle curve of the Feather River a vibrant yellow. But folks, there’s trouble, yes trouble, right here in Yuba City. The area has been called the Peach Bowl, thanks to the luscious crop that grows in nearby groves, but to hear Rand McNally tell it, life in the Sacramento Valley town of 20,400 souls isn’t so sweet. The map-makers’ 1985 edition of the Places Rated Almanac ranked Yuba City 329th in its listing of America’s livable metropolitan areas. That’s not only rock bottom but also, according to the citizens who live there, downright wrong. “I was more or less outraged,” says Mayor Charles Pappageorge, 34, a grain merchant now serving his second term as the town’s part-time chief executive. “I couldn’t sleep that whole first night.”

Neither could the other people in Yuba City, and they soon let Rand McNally know what they thought of its rating. “Rand McNally Kiss My Atlas” read one reply on buttons and bumper stickers. The Chamber of Commerce printed up T-shirts with the message, “I survived Yuba City & loved it.” The town’s “worst” rating has galvanized Yubans into a wounded boosterism, prompting nearly everyone to ask, “Why didn’t they come here and see for themselves?”

According to Rand McNally spokeswoman Ann Cloos, authors Richard Boyer and David Savageau didn’t visit the cities they rated in order “to make the almanac unbiased.” Boyer is a mystery writer living in Asheville, N.C. (ranked 36th), and Savageau is a personal relocation consultant based in Gloucester, Mass. (56th). They relied heavily on government statistics in nine categories: climate and terrain, housing, health care and environment, crime, transportation, education, the arts, recreation and economics. Their method produced some surprising results: Pittsburgh came in No. 1. In Yuba City’s case, their calculators apparently churned out some half-truths.

For starters, Yuba City qualifies as a metropolitan area only if you include all 100,000 people in surrounding Sutter and Yuba counties, which are primarily agricultural. The almanac downgraded the area for the lack of public transportation and an Amtrak station, but it has both. The city ranked 323rd in health care and environment, but there is a hospice service that visits the ailing in their homes, and the medical center of the University of California, Davis is a 15-minute ambulance-helicopter ride away. The town rated 255th for crime, but Police Chief Roy Harmon says, “They’re mostly things like breaking into a garage and stealing a chain saw. We don’t have the street muggings or the violence.” A 308th ranking in education? Says Superintendent of Schools Andros Karperos, “If you compare SAT scores, we knock their socks off.”

As for recreation, which the almanac said rated only 299th, residents point to some of the best fishing—striped bass, salmon and steelhead—and bird hunting around. “People come from all over the world to fish in the Yuba River,” says Harmon. “The shad fight you right up ’til you get them in the net. They rated us down because we don’t have an interstate highway or a major airport. I’m not sure the people here want that. I can drive two and a half hours and be in San Francisco and get my taste of the big city. If I want snow skiing, it’s two hours to the Sierras. If you want to gamble and live the fast life, we’re three hours from Reno.” Nobody brags much about the weather (“Last summer was a bitch,” says Mayor Pappageorge of the 110°F heat) or the mosquitoes that breed in nearby rice farms. But as city problems go, they’ll take ’em.

Pappageorge, who wants to attract light industry to the town, has begun to see a positive side to Yuba City’s notoriety. “I think the Rand McNally thing is fantastic as far as PR is concerned,” he says. “Now we can tell people our one great asset: We are centrally located to everything, without the liabilities.” By rating it the worst, Rand McNally seems to have done Yuba City a backhanded favor: They’ve finally put it on the map.