California's Central Valley is a distinctive place. It is a place of flat ground and extreme weather. It is a place of fruits, nuts, grains and dairy products, yet it's also a place of extensive suburban sprawl. It's a place with some of the worst air pollution in the country, but, when the sky is clear, a place with stunning mountain views. It's a place of recent immigrants and extreme poverty, and of fourth and fifth generation landowners.

And the Central Valley is a place of small towns, many dating to the 19th century and laid out on a grid that straddles the railroad. The classic valley town has a business district along a primary thoroughfare, handsome public buildings that often front on a public square or park, and leafy residential neighborhoods just off downtown. Frequently, there's a sign or arch stretching across the Main Street at the entrance to the downtown � often with a corny saying. The high school might be right downtown. There is always a strong connection to agriculture.

Many Central Valley cities are struggling, and plenty of the downtowns are badly neglected, even abandoned. But there are some downtowns that are gems � centers of community and commerce that reflect a true sense of the valley's distinctive place. Central Valley sprawl has not yet obliterated the great downtowns that were created more than a hundred years ago, and in many cases they are coming back.


Editor's Note: Our presentation of the best small-city downtowns in the Central Valley kicks off our "Best Small Downtowns" series. Over the next year, we'll roll out a series of "bests" of California's cities smaller than 75,000 people, of which there are about 365.


We list our favorite small Central Valley downtowns here, but first a few caveats: Even though they have first-rate downtowns, Chico and Visalia don't appear on this list because the cities have more than 75,000 people. You also won't find Davis on this list, because we consider Davis a college town that happens to be in the valley. Watch for Davis to rate highly on our future rundown of college towns.

The best small-city Central Valley downtowns:

1. Woodland. Unlike downtowns in similar sized cities, downtown Woodland never died � not even when County Fair Mall opened at the southern edge of Woodland during the mid-1980s. Restaurants, watering holes, small professional service businesses and offices helped keep Main Street as the center of town. In the heart of downtown sits the City Hall, a 19th Century valley classic that was rebuilt during the Depression. The residential neighborhoods between East and West streets are filled with tall trees and well-maintained houses of Victorian, Tudor and craftsman design. But the jewel is the Woodland Opera House, a national historic landmark and, since the 1970s, a state park. The brick opera house was closed for 76 years before it reopened in 1989 and today provides a gorgeous setting for live theater. And both before and after the show, you'll find people on the sidewalks of downtown Woodland.

2. Hanford. Especially in smaller cities, downtowns often thrive if they are the county seat. In the old days, county seats were usually the regional center of commerce and culture, leaving behind a legacy of both architecture and activity. That's what makes Hanford a great downtown. Hanford has only 50,000 people, (it's the county seat of extremely poor Kings County), and it's not on the freeway. Yet the downtown goes on for blocks, stretching from the old commercial core � which also features an opera house � to the governmental core that revolves around a town square that contains the old Kings County Courthouse. The 1896 courthouse is now used as an office building; the 1898 jail is now a restaurant. To the north is the new courthouse � architecturally pretty similar. Just to the west of the old courthouse is the 1929 Hanford Fox Theater, which now features live musical acts. Except for Visalia � similar in that it's an old county seat off the freeway � Hanford is the best downtown in the San Joaquin Valley.

3. Lodi. When Woolworth and JC Penney closed their stores in downtown Lodi during the mid-1990s, the district appeared on the edge of collapse. Instead, the redevelopment agency, merchants and property owners invested in wide sidewalks, cobble-covered streets, a new parking structure, a cinema, a refurbished train station (which now serves as a busy bus station) and events such as a regular farmers' market and street fairs. Nowadays, downtown Lodi's restaurants, movie house, shops and 100-year-old buildings provide a destination for locals and people from outside the area. A kid-oriented science museum is scheduled to open soon. There is even interest in residential development.

Getting close:

- Red Bluff. It's often not a good sign when a downtown becomes known for its antique and second-hand stores. But in Red Bluff it's not necessarily a bad thing. The antique stores do decent business and attract people to downtown's coffee houses, bars and restaurants, some of which have been around for decades. A new plaza is under construction on Main Street. But it's architecture that helps set apart what is otherwise a fairly ordinary downtown. The county courthouse, the gothic Sacred Heart Church and the century-old Herbert Kraft Free Library (now a home d�cor store) would be landmarks in nearly any city. The close-in residential neighborhoods have some glorious Victorian and craftsman homes. Still, there's a feeling that downtown, including some historic structures, could use substantial new investment. A better connection to the adjacent Sacramento River would help, too.

- Dinuba. The water tower that looms over downtown Dinuba screams "valley town." Thanks in part to the high school at one end of downtown, and a vocational center several blocks away, downtown is a fairly busy place. A six-screen cinema and bowling alley, separated by a plaza and all fairly new, help generate activity after hours and reflect a willingness to invest in the place that is clearly the center of town.

Others of note:

- Turlock. The leafy downtown is fairly small for a city of 70,000, but it offers some interesting eateries, architecture and a good park. It's tough to compete for downtown-type activities with the nearby behemoth Modesto, which has put enormous effort into downtown redevelopment. Nevertheless Turlock has some excellent urban fabric, deriving in part from a diagonal street grid that creates a flatiron-building-style site at a critical spot.

- Winters. There's not much in this tiny Yolo County town (population about 7,000) that isn't "downtown." The Palms Playhouse is a great performing arts house. The delightful Buckhorn Steakhouse is located on the "100% corner," at Main and Railroad. The small-town funky atmosphere � with just a touch of sophistication � is one of the reasons bicyclists stop on way their way from Sacramento to Lake Berryessa.

- Delano. Here's a good example of how the outside observer's expectations and cultural background plays a role in assessing a place. Located along Highway 99 in Kern County, Delano has an extensive downtown. Unlike Hanford or Visalia, Delano has never been a county seat or a center of commerce or culture, and it's unlikely to become one anytime soon. But you can't deny that downtown Delano is functional. Like a lot of older L.A. suburbs that have a Mexican flavor, Delano pulses with businesses catering to the local market � Latino families with modest incomes. Delano ain't pretty, but it's awfully tough to find a for rent sign. So it works for the locals. And what's so bad about that?

Woe is them (for now):

- Marysville. The story of this city's downtown is mostly a tale of demographics. Marysville is the county seat in what has long been one of the poorest counties (Yuba) in the state, and downtown reflects the state of the community. The five-story beaux arts Hotel Marysville closed more than 20 years ago and sits as a boarded-up and burned-out landmark at downtown's most visible intersection. There are plans to refurbish it into housing or a genuine hotel, but there have been plans for years. There were also plans for a multi-screen cinema, but that development never happened either. Still, there are far fewer vacancies in downtown buildings these days, a handful of coffee houses, restaurants and other businesses seem to thrive, and there's even a new bookstore. The city is trying to create a better link between downtown and adjacent Ellis Lake, located in a classic valley park. While the "catalytic" project has never materialized, the little successes are starting to add up.

- The CP&DR Staff