Modesto’s Graphics Drive: A visual reminder of a graphic past

by Lee Davis, Founder, Modesto Design Collective (MO.DE)

Many cities have celebrated design and iconic designers by renaming streets, squares and parks. Barcelona has the Plaça Gaudí. Rio de Janeiro has Estrada Roberto Burle Marx. New York has Fashion Avenue and Oscar de la Renta Boulevard. Imagine my excitement the first time I came upon Graphics Drive in Modesto. How cool that we also have a street that celebrates design! Well, sort of.

Graphics Drive is an industrial street that extends north from Kansas Avenue, runs parallel with Highway 99, then angles north to Woodland Avenue. Until 1986, it was known as Barium Road, deriving its name from Barium Products Ltd., the chemical manufacturing company located there in the 1930s that processed material compounds used in greases, lubrications and mining materials. The plant was purchased several times, ultimately merging in 1948 with Food Machinery and Chemical Corporation (FMC). FMC processed chemicals used in television picture tubes and safety flares at the site until closing in 1984.

While FMC filed an impressive number of patents at the site, these innovations also represent a dark era in Modesto’s design history. From the 1950s to 1970s, a liquid residue from FMC’s processing operations was discharged to unlined evaporation ponds alongside the western portion of the site. In 1961, soil in and around the site was excavated to construct the right-of-way for Highway 99 and placed in three soil stockpiles. The stockpiles are currently fenced in and covered with grass and vegetation. According to the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, barium, arsenic, petroleum and other chemicals pollute the site. FMC continues to treat tainted soil and water at the site today.

In August 1986, the Board of Supervisors and Modesto City Council voted to change the name of Barium Road to Graphics Drive. A City of Modesto memorandum explained their motivation: “It is thought by some that the existing name may be creating a negative impression which hinders the sale and reuse of the former FMC site.” The Graphics Drive name was suggested by the owner of packaging firm Fisher Graphics (now Container Graphics Corporation), located on the street. Fisher Graphics itself played an important role in Modesto’s design history. In the 1980s, several local graphic designers got their start there. One local designer recalls in an October 2002 Modesto Bee article that “We called [Fisher Graphics] a ‘graphics boot camp,’” where young, aspiring graphic designers learned the trade before moving on to establish their own practices.

Graphics Drive is an important monument to Modesto’s design history. The street has been a place of industrial innovation and invention since the 1930s and a starting point for local graphic designers. However, Modesto’s decision to rename the street was a purely cosmetic one, intended to conceal a dark history rather than to celebrate a bright one. The $153 that the city spent on two Graphics Drive street signs in 1986 can’t erase the contaminated ground beneath them. But hopefully they’ll remind us that design is about solving problems not about covering them up.