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Davis, California

Friday, April 12, 2024

Davis finds knack for novelty

Often associated with bikes, big red buses and cows, Davis was once claimed to be America’s Weirdest City in the satirical Weekly World News.

The town is home to peculiar urban legends, like historic potholes and Ted the Titan, and distinctive sites like the famous toad tunnel and Baggins End.

The concept of a toad tunnel first sprang about when the city was in the process of building an overpass by Pole Line Road in 1994.

“Helping the toads to find a happy little habitat was the intention,” said John McNerney, the wildlife resource specialist of the City of Davis. “The main idea is that they would encounter earthen berm.”

Community members such as Julie Partansky, who later became the mayor of Davis, were concerned that toads would be inevitably mashed in the process of their hippity-hopping across the overpass.

After much deliberation, Partanksy convinced the Davis City Council to build an approximately 220-foot long corridor tunnel with an 18-inch diameter of corrugated steel pipe.

According to McNerney, the core area detention basin was home to at least two different species of amphibians, the Western Toad and the Pacific Tailed Frog.

“Although [the Western Toad] was not threatened or endangered, there was a general concern about the global decline of amphibians,” McNerney said.

Word of the tunnel spread shortly after it was built, and it eventually appeared on “The Daily Show” in 1999. Though “The Daily Show” claimed that the project cost $20,000, McNerney said it was $2,000, and not a substantial amount of taxpayer money.

He also, however, recalled that some people in the community doubted the effectiveness of the tunnel and whether it would actually work.

Over time, McNerney has sampled the local ponds for larval surveys, but found no sign of Western Toad larvae.

“Several years after [the tunnel was built], we saw the Western Toad fall below previous levels,” McNerney said.

Though the cause of decline in the species has not been explicitly determined, a vast portion of hibernation habitat has been removed due to land conversion by Second Street.

In spite of the fact that the species population has faltered, McNerney said he believes that the community has kept the “spirit of the toads’” alive.

“The city wanted to cater to toads and there was just a lot of hope that they would find their way,” McNerney said.

On the eastern terminus of the tunnel by the South Davis post office, a little toad village has been set up in honor of the creatures.

Camera footage of the tunnel from “The Daily Show” did not reveal any signs of toads or frogs hopping through.

During the segment, correspondent Stephen Colbert even interviewed Partansky and Davis Enterprise columnist, Bob Dunning, about the significance of the tunnel.

“I called her [Partansky] ‘Julie from Mars’ in my column, but eventually we became friends,” Dunning said.

Along with her love of toads and frogs and her strong proposal for the tunnel, Partansky brought about awareness of the city’s potholes to the general public.

She argued that the plan to pave the alleyways between downtown Davis homes may possibly “disturb or destroy historic artifacts” due to the fact that the alleyways were built with the original neighborhoods.

Initially, her words were misunderstood in an interview, causing Davis to be considered a strange place where potholes are categorized as endangered species. Hence, the “historic potholes” myth that ensued for years to come.

“Julie was not on the council at that point or involved in politics. Few people knew about her,” Dunning said. “But it shot her like a rocket into the public sphere and the next thing you know, she’s running for City Council — and winning. The second time she ran she got the most votes of anyone and became mayor.”

Though many groundbreaking ideas that received national attention were attributed to Partansky and City Council, innovative research and discoveries also occurred on campus.

Through his invention of the “square tomato” in the 1960s, Gordie “Jack” Hanna, professor of agronomy, is thought to have revolutionized agriculture.

Roger Chetelat, tomato geneticist and director of C.M. Rick Tomato Genetics Resource Center, believes the name “square tomato” is a bit of a misnomer in that it is more blocky than square, though he does agree that the particular tomato was extremely vital at the time.

“Essentially the industry would have disappeared if not for the tomato,” Chetelat said.

As the Bracero Program that contracted laborers from Mexico to the U.S. slowly came to a halt, the drastic decrease in the number of workers severely impacted the tomato industry.

In anticipation of the industry’s eventual collapse, Hanna began to breed firmer tomatoes that could withstand machine harvesting.

Using a 14-inch drop test to rate the firmness of the tomato, Hanna eventually succeeded in breeding the specific tomato that could resist damage. Now, all that was needed was some kind of machine that could both effectively and efficiently harvest them.

So Hanna collaborated with UC Davis agricultural engineer, Coby Lorenzen, who invented a mechanical harvester that could pick rows upon rows of tomatoes.

Nowadays, loads of the “square tomato” are transported to local grading stations and canneries where they are concentrated into pastes, sauces and juices.

Not too far from where Hanna conducted his research lies Baggins End, or The Domes, which is currently home to 26 students.

Established in 1972, the cooperative living community of 14 polyurethane-insulated fiberglass domes continues to promote sustainability, organic agriculture and environmental education.

Evangeline Zhang, a third-year double major in managerial economics and psychology, discovered The Domes on her way to the Student Farm during her first year.

Intrigued by the unique structures, she researched The Domes and eventually made a living contract.

“I started coming to the community dinner and really enjoyed the food-sharing and free-talk culture,” Zhang said. “I felt like people in The Domes were more comfortable with spontaneous interaction and building relationships, compared to other housing or campus environments in which people don’t really hang out with strangers much unless there is a reason.”

In the summer of 2011, Student Housing was in the process of bulldozing The Domes.

In response to the potential threat of removal, a student-led coalition created the Save the Domes campaign.

The campaign formulated a five-year plan that consists of affordable ways to restore The Domes and ensure its availability for future students.

Students like Zhang argued that throughout 40 years, many generations of students participated in the building of a community that has contributed to the rich history of the University.

“The Domes have been an abundant resource of inspiration and warmth for me,” Zhang said.

The campaign was successful in stopping the demolition from occurring and fortunately, students can continue to call Baggins End their home.

Around the same time that The Domes were built, the UC Davis Botanical Conservatory was developed as a vast plant collection which currently holds over 3,000 different species.

One of the most popular plants at the conservatory, the titan arum or corpse flower, can grow to massive heights of nearly 10 feet, and has become another typical Davis landmark.

Known for its strong, rotting odor, the first corpse flower to bloom on campus in 2003 was named Ted the Titan after Chancellor Ted Hullar. According to curator Ernesto Sandoval, the flower received the name because some considered Hullar to be “a stinky chancellor.”

“They are relatively rare in the wild and around the world, but with all the fascination and hype built up about them over the last 20 years, a fair number of botanical collections with tropical conditions in the U.S. have them,” Sandoval said.

After receiving a handful of corpse flower seeds as a donation and discovering the potential of the plant in 1995, the conservatory provided other botanical gardens with the same batch of seeds.

“As tropical plants that develop an underground storage stem known as a corm, these plants pretty much take care of themselves if given tropical temperatures and humidity and sufficient watering,” Sandoval said. “For something so strange, you’d think they take a lot of specialized care but the truth is they are large plants and once they germinate from the thumb-sized seed, you really have to mess up the environmental parameters to hurt them.”

Soon enough the donated corpse flower seeds from the conservatory appeared all over the state of California as they bloomed at Cal State Fullerton, The Huntington Art Galleries and Botanical Gardens, Chico State, UC Berkeley and a high school in Sacramento.

Though it may not seem inherently apparent, Davis is filled with hidden gems that continue to preserve the quirkiness of the city. Looking beyond the rows of bikes, there just may be another uncommon marvel.



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