Having lived in the orbit of Chico since I was a child, it’s a place I always took for granted. Many people I knew sang the praises of Chico, as though it were someplace really special, but I experienced too much of the city’s darker side to share the sentiment. Truthfully, I never wanted to live here. It never felt like home to me. And yet Chico is probably the one place in the world that has most shaped my personality, where I can honestly lay claim to “roots”. Four of my closest relatives are buried here, and most of the rest are living here. Moving to Chico was not a choice, but a surrender to reality. I sincerely hope this move will be our last, but am making no plans or promises.
Chico is an ecclectic place, a university town with multiple personalities. Around one corner there is a car plastered with liberal bumper stickers; just two blocks away is a garage with a large Confederate flag; and downtown you will find a veritable circus of tattoos and body piercings. The progressivist element is prominent, ’tis true, but it is not dominant. Despite Chico’s visible extremes, the city is surprisingly full of salt-of-the-earth, ordinary people with traditional sensibilities. I’ve been so impressed with the quality of clean-cut, hard-working young men employed by the contractors we’ve hired that I almost find it surreal. We live in an old, quiet neighborhood full of real families, many of whom parade in front of our house pushing strollers or riding bicycles in the evenings. The pastor of the Lutheran church (LCMS) across the street made a call within days of our moving in, and delivered a quilt for us made by some of the ladies of the church. Chico has to be one of the friendliest cities on earth. I have to say that Chicoans wave every bit as often as do the people in the surrounding countryside.
Chico’s crown jewel has always been Bidwell Park – the third largest city park in the country at over 3,600 acres – which served as the Sherwood Forest during the 1938 filming of “The Adventures of Robin Hood”. We live just three blocks from the park which has retained its stunning Eden-like character.
According the U.S. Census, Chico boasts the largest percentage of native Californians – 70.3 percent – of all California cities surveyed. That speaks well for a university town.
For me, the most interesting thing about Chico is the legacy of the city’s founder, General John Bidwell, and his wife Annie. Chico’s elevated cultural reputation stems directly from the legacy of this brilliant and energetic pioneer. Bidwell was a convert to his wife’s austere form of Presbyterianism. His broad Christian sensibility prompted him to donate one city block to every Christian denomination represented in the city, including the Catholic Church. During part of his journey west, Bidwell travelled with the legendary Fr. Pierre-Jean DeSmet, whom he praised in his memoirs and called “the saintliest man I have ever known”. Bidwell’s grant of land for a teacher’s college set the stage for conversion to a state university campus. Bidwell was, by all accounts, a principled and upright man who defended the Indians and the Chinese when it was a political kiss of death in California to do so. His biographers have said that they tried desperately, as journalists, to find some “dirt” on the man, but came up with nothing.