“No hotels?” I said. “You’re saying Fremont, California — a city of 240,000 people — doesn’t have a single hotel?”
“Yep.” Rich was struggling to find us lodgings in the metropolis rated "the happiest city in America" by a recent poll. “The closest hotels are outside the city limits in nearby Newark.”
Eventually we found one place listed in Fremont: the All-Suites Islander Motel. A glance at their Yelp page was an eye-opener. “Worst place I ever stayed rather sleep in my car than here ever again. The carpet was dirty dog pee stains every where smelled like a boys locker room mixed with dog. Cockroaches everywhere beds old out dated, super uncomfortable bedding and linen dirty. Worst place ever. Trap house! Stay away, unless u want to bring home roaches and bed bugs.” One guest wrote, “Helpful hint #1 carry some sort of weapon if you decide to venture out for a late night ice run.” Good to know!
We stayed at a cookie-cutter corporate hotel in Newark.
Bright and early on our first Fremont morning, we stopped at the Country Way diner and found bottomless cups of coffee and a hostess who called Rich “hon." Our waitress, Cindy, hadn’t heard about the poll but didn’t seem surprised at Fremont’s happiness rating. “We have good neighborhoods, good weather, it’s clean, good for kids, and it’s safe.” What’s not to like?
To walk off the eggs and home fries, we strolled down Fremont Boulevard, a broad thoroughfare lined with diners and store fronts — about the closest thing this centerless city has to a downtown. Passing the old railway station, Uncle Joe’s Liquors, an Afghan market, and an Indian wedding photographer, we fetched up at the Holy Spirit Catholic church.
On a Sunday morning we were surprised to find the 1886 landmark church locked. Wandering around to the back we discovered 200 people attending an open air mass.
“Do you smell that?” Rich whispered.
My nose stuffy with allergies, I didn’t at first. “What, incense?”
We slipped away from the service and followed our sniffers around the parish hall to find The Holy Spirit Filipino Society making pancit bihon (stir-fried rice noodles), lumpia (spring rolls), and sweet-salty grilled chicken (recipes below). It was too soon after the hash browns to think of lunch, but we chatted with the cooks, who laughingly agreed Fremont was a happy place to live and invited us to return later. We did and it was the best food of the entire trip — and quite a bargain at $5 for a shared meal.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect on our next stop, The Museum of Local History, but I soon discovered it was a sweet treasure trove, lovingly assembled and carefully labeled by countless volunteers over the past 60+ years. I marveled at the bones of a mastodon discovered by the Boy Paleontologists in the 1940s. An old movie camera paid tribute to the days when Charlie Chaplin made 14 films there, including The Tramp. It was a bit disconcerting to discover many objects — dial telephones, adding machines, floppy-disc computers — I’d once owned myself. I felt like a relic!
Our guide, Stuart, "really knew his onions," as they said back in the 1920s. I asked him about the Harvey Ranch, which my friend Bill wrote about in a comment on my last post. “In 1970 I met Margo Harvey, a lovely lady and big time farmer whose vegetable crops were planted on 100s of acres in Fremont. She told me about how Fremont also had the best vegetable stand run by a sweet old fellow right at the edge of her property. After buying from him, every day, for over 20 years, one morning, at 4am, she discovered him picking all his produce from her fields. When confronted by her, he acknowledged he had been doing this all his life and had no inventory cost. She wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry.”
Stuart knew all about the Harvey house, which is still standing in what's now Harvey Community Park. Rich and I arrived there to find young Asian men playing cricket in the field where the sweet old fellow used to steal Margo’s produce. The rest of Harvey Farm is suburban housing.
Wherever we went in the city, we asked everybody we encountered whether they agreed Fremont was a particularly happy city. Every single one of them said yes — until we stopped for frozen custard at Rita’s.
“I hate this place,” a woman in the parking lot snarled. “I can’t wait to get out of here.”
Stunned at her vehemence, Rich naturally wondered if she was staying at the All-Suites Islander Motel. “Are you from out of town?” he asked.
“I’m from Monterey. I’ve never been here before; I’m just passing through. I’ve been here ten minutes and I’m ready to leave.”
Rich did not stand in her way.
Our last stop was the 450-acre Fremont Central Park, built around the lovely Lake Elizabeth. “Online someone called it ‘Lake Liz.’ Is that a common nickname?” I asked my sister-in-law Deb, who once worked in Fremont. “I’ve only been there a few times,” she said. “I wouldn’t presume to call her that on such a brief acquaintance.”
Of course, it's not all sweetness and light, even here in the happiest city's prettiest park. A display about earthquakes reminds us just how unstable life can be, a point that's underscored by the homeless encampments nearby and the parched earth of California's long drought.
I sat at a picnic table looking out over the tranquil water of Lake Elizabeth, surrounded by local families who, at a guess, could trace their ancestry back to just about every corner of Asia, Central and South America, Europe, the Caribbean, and beyond. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, handing around Tupperware containers of food, tossing balls for dogs, bouncing babies on their knees. And I began to see why this place was considered so happy.
Fremont, stitched together out of several older towns, seemed devoted to one modest goal: being a family-friendly community for people far from home. It doesn’t strive for glamour or hipster chic, attempt to lure tourists away from San Francisco, or harbor dreams of becoming the next Silicon Valley. I’ve read that modest expectations are one reason for the high happiness ratings of Nordic countries. Where Americans are constantly exhorted to strive for exceptional achievements and be dissatisfied with anything less, the Scandinavians’ goal is a comfortable work-life balance. They just want to come home at the end of the day feeling satisfied with what they have. Perhaps that’s what Fremont offers its citizens. No wonder they’re happy.
So what was the ghastly All-Suites Islander doing in the midst of so much contentment? Re-checking Yelp, I discovered the Islander isn’t technically in Fremont but in neighboring Hayward. Whew! Fremont can hold up its head again.
Clearly there’s no perfect way to quantify happiness; no doubt other cities deserve the crown as much or more. But all in all, I’d say Fremont is doing OK. And in these troubled times, meeting even that modest expectation makes the city truly exceptional.
Do you know the way to San Jose?
Or why it's America's 5th happiest city?
Just a half-hour drive south from Fremont but a world apart in character, San Jose, the unofficial capital of Silicon Valley, rates high in happiness and off-the-charts in terms of wealth. But we all know money doesn't buy happiness, right? What's San Jose doing with all its newfound riches? Surprising things. Learn San Jose's secrets in my next post.
Wondering how 182 US cities were chosen and rated for happiness? See the methodology here.
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AND HERE ARE THOSE MOUTHWATERING FILIPINO RECIPES I MENTIONED
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
As we journey through the pandemic together, my blog provides a regular supply of survival tips, comfort food recipes, and the wry humor we all need to lighten our hearts on dark days.
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