Postwar Modesto – 1946 to Present

Modesto experienced rapid growth in the decades after World War II. Modesto’s population of about 16,000 residents in 1940 rose to more than 36,000 by 1960. New housing construction was stimulated by the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (also known as the “G.I. Bill”), which provided many benefits to war veterans including low-cost mortgages and business loans. These loans resulted in massive residential and commercial development and caused the spread of new development far beyond
the city limits, mostly to the north, but also to the east and south, as large numbers of people were now able to afford a single family house. By 1970, Modesto was home to nearly 62,000 people.

Once again, the Modesto Reds baseball team was organized, this time in 1946, as a Class C team in the California League. By 1948, the team had affiliated with the major league St. Louis Browns. A series of affiliations followed. In 1975, the team was renamed the A’s to coincide with its affiliation with the
Oakland Athletics. The team was again renamed in 2005 as the Modesto Nuts when it affiliated with the Colorado Rockies. In 1963, the team was regraded as single A and has been A+ since 1990.

The G.I. Bill and prosperity that followed the end of World War II ushered in a period of youthful exuberance. Automobile ownership increased to higher levels than before the war resulting in falling train ridership and prompting Congress to eliminate the requirement of railroads to run passenger trains,
which further stimulated automobile ownership. In the late 1950s and 1960s, children of World War II veterans followed a growing pastime of “cruising” up and down city streets to demonstrate possession of a driver license and access to a car. George Lucas memorialized cruising in his movie “American
Graffiti.” He was present for the local premier of the film at the Briggsmore Theater on November 21, 1973. Drive-in restaurants similar to “Mel’s Drive-In” depicted in the film were popular hangouts for teenagers of that period.

Businesses followed their customers toward the edges of the city, converting residential streets, such as McHenry Avenue, into commercial streets and drawing businesses and customers away from downtown. McHenry Village, which opened at the north edge of Modesto in 1953, was typical.

Several city and county government facilities were replaced in the late 1950s and early 1960s, including the Modesto City Hall, Modesto Police and Communications facility, Stanislaus County Courthouse, and Stanislaus County Jail. The post-war boom was a period of investment in modern facilities and architecture. The construction of State Route 99 as a freeway in 1965 (begun in 1955) divided Modesto’s downtown and facilitated the further spread of development away from downtown. Thriving commercial areas along the former Golden State Highway near the Tuolumne River were converted to automobile salvage and wrecking yards.

Beginning in the 1960s, the 2,000-acre Beard Industrial District—owned by the Beard family, which also owns and operates Modesto & Empire Traction railroad—east of downtown along the north side of the Tuolumne River became the area’s largest industrial area. Modesto & Empire Traction’s connections to both the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad and Union Pacific Railroad (formerly the Southern Pacific Railroad) positioned Beard properties to take advantage of both interregional railroads.

The draining away of economic activity from downtown that had begun following World War II had become so severe by the 1970s, that efforts were made to revitalize downtown that were similar to efforts elsewhere in the country. Older buildings were demolished to make way for new buildings, including the Stanislaus County Library (1971), the former offices of Stanislaus County (1976), and many parking lots. Redevelopment efforts were formalized in the middle 1980s with the establishment of Modesto’s Redevelopment Agency. Projects funded in part or full through the Redevelopment Agency included the construction of a downtown hotel and convention complex at 9th and K Streets (1988) and the expansion of government offices. Despite these efforts, the city continued to expand outward, with the 83-acre Vintage Faire mall (1977) almost four miles from downtown. Several businesses that had been located in downtown moved to the new mall.

By 1980, Modesto had grown to 107,000 residents. The rapid pace of growth concerned Modestans, who elected Peggy Mensinger mayor in 1978 on a slow growth platform. Mensinger worked to refocus development on downtown and on infill development.

Modesto’s arts community continued to thrive with several performing groups and events, although it seems a smaller proportion of the community participates in such events than did in past decades, when Modesto was much smaller. Frank Mancini’s Modesto Symphony Orchestra performs regularly and the volunteer Modesto Band (known as “MoBand”) gives free summer concerts in the Mancini Bowl at Graceada Park. Modesto Performing Arts was founded in 1967 by Modesto High School drama teacher Paul Tischer and the Townsend Opera Players has entertained audiences since 1982. Several dance studios continue to teach Modestans how to cut a rug and the Central West Ballet (1987) performs throughout the year. The new Gallo Center for the Arts, funded by generous gifts from members of the Gallo family and the public, opened in 2007 with two theaters totaling almost 1,700 seats on the former site of Crocker Bank.

Sources

  • American-Rails.com December 27, 2016
  • Bare, Colleen Stanley. Modesto Then and Now, McHenry Museum Press, 1999.
  • historicmodesto.com
  • Elias, Sol P. Stories of Stanislaus. Modesto, CA 1924.
  • JRP Historical Consulting Services. “Caltrans Historic Bridge Inventory Update: Concrete Arch Bridges.” Prepared for State of California, Department of Transportation, Environmental Program. April 2004.
  • JRP Historical Consulting Services. “Historical Resources Evaluation Report, Seventh Street Bridge Project.” Prepared for Stanislaus County Department of Public Works, Environmental Impact Statement.
    February 2015.
  • JRP Historical Consulting Services. “General Plan Master EIR, Section 8, Disturbance of Archaeological/Historical Sites.” Prepared for City of Modesto, Community & Economic Development Department, General Plan Amendment, 2014.
  • Purplerow.com for information about baseball in Modesto.
  • Wikipedia.org for information on various events and individuals.