Downtown Merced is ready for her close-up

Downtown Merced is making a dramatic comeback and LGBTQ is helping to lead the way. With a population of nearly 90,000, the central California city’s downtown was once its crown jewel. Now, he appears to be well on his way to reclaiming some of his past glory.

Earlier this month I traveled to Merced on Amtrak from San Francisco. The fare was only $31 round trip including the Amtrak shuttle bus from 555 Mission Street which connects the train to Emeryville station. It would take a little over two hours to ride in good traffic. My trip only lasted 3.5 hours including the bus ride. Merced has the closest Amtrak station to Yosemite National Park, and the YARTS (Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System) bus runs regularly from downtown Merced to Yosemite for $22 round trip. The trip takes about 2.5 hours. It takes about 1h30 drive.

Beyond being a gateway to Yosemite, Merced is a destination in itself. The Hyatt JdV boutique brand takes over the historic city center Hotel El Capitan and, after three years of renovation and construction, it finally opened last year. On the same block, the company also purchased and refurbished the Mainz Theater and proximity Hotel Tiogawhich is now an upscale apartment building.

The grand reopening of El Capitan on March 31, 2021 set the stage for the rebirth of downtown Merced. With 114 rooms, the El Capitan is Merced’s largest and most upscale hotel. With rates starting at $139, the hotel offers luxury for the price of a budget hotel in the Bay Area. El Capitan charges no resort fees, has free Wi-Fi, and even free valet parking.

The driving force and director of the project is Robin Donovan, who moved from the Bay Area to Merced with his wife in January 2019 to help oversee the project, hiring 140 employees. She previously managed JdV hotels in the Bay Area. As a testament to her management skills, some of the employees followed her from the Bay Area.

Hyatt also hired Kim Garner, a direct ally, from UC Merced, where she worked in the Chancellor’s Office, to oversee its community outreach, and through her work, the company strongly supports the city’s LGBTQ community. The Merced Pride Center operates out of a hall in the city’s arts center a short walk from the hotel.

The Mainzer Theater includes a monthly drag show that draws large LGBTQ audiences on the second Thursday of the month. The can’t-miss show is hosted by Kat Zambrano, a transgender woman who is Advocacy Director for the LGBTQIA+/2S Collaboration based in Modesto in Central California.

Merced’s pride center opened just six months ago in January. The center is a hall of the Multicultural Arts Center at Merced, but what it lacks in space it more than makes up for in spirit. The center hosts a number of in-person and Zoom support groups, providing a lifeline for those feeling isolated.

“We have a lot of young people coming to us and logging into our online support groups, and they have their cameras turned off, they’re usually muted during the chat because they don’t want members of their household know they need that kind of support,” Jennifer McQueen, the center’s executive director, told the Bay Area Reporter.

Big differences
McQueen moved to Merced with his wife and three children from Southern California in 2018 and quickly noticed a cultural difference in the central part of the state.

“Honestly, it slapped me in the face, the differences, the cultural differences,” McQueen said. “You really forget there’s this huge chunk of rural central California that isn’t San Francisco and it isn’t LA. You might as well pull it out and stick it in the Midwest.”

McQueen and Garner fought back tears as McQueen spoke of his appreciation for Garner and the company’s support to help rally support from other companies.

“And Kim [Garner], honest to God, was the very first member of the community to come forward and shamelessly say “yes, we will support you, we will be there for you”. We are on board. No questions asked,” McQueen said.

Center volunteer and U.S. Marine veteran Eric Olson-Diehl told BAR he moved to Merced with his husband and two children and decided to get involved with the center to help support his gay son who has now 19 and in the military, as well as other members of the LGBTQ community. But he said one of the most popular gatherings is the 40+ coffee group.

“We have a core group of at least 10 people who meet every two weeks for coffee,” Olson-Diehl said.

Merced’s Multicultural Arts Centeralso known as The MAC, celebrates Pride from June 15 to July 24 with an exhibition titled “Out Loud: Celebrating the Colors of the LGBTQI+ Arts Showcase,” highlighting works by LGBTQ artists and LGBTQ imagery.

Merced does not have a Pride Parade, but there is a Pride Festival, which this year takes place on Saturday, September 17. The festival will take place in the heart of downtown at Bob Hart Square. This year Merced City Council approved the deployment of the Pride Flag for the month of June and agreed to put it permanently on the calendar to be flown each June for Pride Month.

Pride got off to a strong start last month with the Merced Queer International Film Festival screening 135 films in seven theaters over four days, McQueen said. It was the festival’s first year, but organizers say it will be an annual event.

The iconic Merced Theater Tower can be seen from nearby Highway 99 and is one of the city’s most iconic buildings. After a number of renovations and remakes, it now hosts live shows and second-run and classic films. The interior wall facade of the theater is designed to look like a Spanish village. A spotlight illuminates the ceiling with simulated moving clouds, giving the impression of being in an amphitheater.

The Merced Courthouse Museum is another of the city’s landmarks. The building dates from 1875 and served as a courthouse for 100 years. It is now a valuable museum with artifacts from the early days of the city when it was first put on the map by the railroad. The iconic cupola is closed to the public, but don’t forget to notice the three statues atop the building of the Roman goddess Justitia. Prolific San Francisco-based architect AA Bennett designed the building but didn’t put the traditional blindfold on the goddess because he didn’t believe justice was blind.

The Tioga Hotel reopened two years ago in the heart of the city center as a luxury apartment building. The iconic name and sign have been restored, bringing the building back to its peak when it opened in 1928, just a year before the onset of the Great Depression.

The Mainzer Theater is a cafe and theater where you can enjoy a live dinner show or just grab a casual bite to eat anytime.

Lake Yosemite is about seven miles from downtown. The scenic reservoir is open for picnics and fishing and includes a swimming beach. Admission is $6 per car.

Lake Yosemite is next to UC Merced, the newest campus in the UC system. It opened in 2005 with less than 1,000 students and currently has nearly 10,000 enrolled. Expansion plans call for the university to eventually accommodate 25,000 students.

Applegate Park and Zoo is about a mile from downtown and features a turquoise field hockey pitch sponsored by the San Jose Sharks. You will notice a statue of a teenager holding the hand of a little boy in the park. Unfortunately the plaque explaining the statue was stolen in April, but the boys are Steven Stayner and Timmy White. Stayner was kidnapped by Kenneth Parnell in 1972 when he was 7 years old, but when Parnell kidnapped little Timmy White, this time using a teenager as an accomplice, Stayner saved the boy and himself. Stayner was killed in a motorcycle accident when he was just 24 in 1989. His brother, Cary Stayner, was convicted in 2002 of murdering four people in Yosemite Park in 1999.

Good food
Central California has a reputation as a fast-food paradise, but there are plenty of moderate and upscale dining options, as well as a booming wine industry.

The Rainbird Restaurant, part of El Capitan, is famous for its $85 five-course tasting menu and is Merced’s fine-dining option. Native Son is a casual coffee shop offering light meals indoors and outdoors. The restaurant’s Rainbow Pride cookies are prominently displayed next to the cash register. When not in the middle of a show, the Mainzer serves unapologetic comfort food and has a loyal following for its Saturday and Sunday brunch.

Beautiful Luna is another longtime favorite restaurant in Merced. Giancaro DiTullio and his wife, Anaid Martinez-DiTullio, bought the restaurant last year and remodeled the space without changing the character of the restaurant, which holds memories for generations of residents. DiTullio told BAR he and his wife decided to buy the restaurant after seeing the Hyatt’s investment downtown.

Ranch Vista, on the outskirts of Merced, is a popular stopover for visitors en route to or from Yosemite. The tasting room is part of a bucolic farmhouse where you can reconnect with nature while tasting great Central California wine.

The Courthouse Museum in downtown Merced is a landmark of the city. Photo: Ed Walsh

The Tioga is a newly renovated apartment building in Merced. Photo: Ed Walsh

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David H. Henry