.Why Is Fremont So Happy?

Muggy weather on a weekday afternoon in Fremont can’t keep residents from enjoying their city. Under an oppressive sun, Umesh Velayudhan strolls slowly down a path at the popular Centerville Community Park. For him, it’s no surprise that Fremont has topped the list of “America’s Happiest Cities” for the fifth consecutive year.

“It’s very nice,” Velayudhan says. “I love the community here.”

Each year, personal finance company Wallethub conducts a study comparing quality of life in cities across America. According to company analyst Cassandra Happe, the rankings published in February were determined by evaluating 182 of the country’s largest cities based on “indicators of happiness” spanning three categories: emotional and physical wellbeing, income and employment, and community and environment. 

Pooling from sources like the U.S. Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics, Wallethub weighs metrics like depression rates, income growth, adequate sleep rates, sports participation and community engagement to form a comprehensive report. With the most recent report, Fremont’s five-year winning streak has the Bay Area buzzing.

RISING Mayor Lily Mei joined hospital exec Kimberly Hartz at the opening of the region’s newest trauma center—at Fremont’s Washington Hospital. Photo by Dan Pulcrano

“With our vibrant community, exceptional quality of life and abundant opportunities, Fremont has earned its reputation as a beacon of happiness and wellbeing,” Fremont Mayor Lily Mei says.

But Fremont is a happy city in a country with declining happiness. The UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network ranked America 23rd on a list of the world’s 25 happiest countries, citing loneliness and concerns about political leadership as contributors to people’s dissatisfaction.

“The city actively promotes health and wellness by providing access to top-notch healthcare facilities, promoting healthy lifestyles and investing in recreational spaces,” Mei says.

Golden State Rules

Seemingly, there’s something about living in the Golden State that makes people happier than most. Fremont shares the spotlight with three other California cities in the top 10 (San Jose, 3rd place, Irvine, 5th place, and San Francisco, 7th place). The other two Bay Area cities on the list made the top 30 (Oakland, 26th, and Santa Rosa, 29th). A total of 29 out of 182 cities on the list are in California, making it the state with the most cities to be ranked. The unhappiest city is Detroit, Michigan.

A statistical snapshot provides insight into Fremont’s appeal. The South Bay suburb (average July 1, 2024 home price, according to Zillow: $1.6 million) soars in multiple categories, ranking first in lowest divorce rates and third in lowest depression rates among the cities studied. Additionally, Wallethub reports that Fremont boasts the highest share of households with an income that exceeds $75,000, one of the main data points that pushed the city over its runner-up contender, Overland Park, Kansas. But Happe emphasizes that money isn’t the main factor that contributes to satisfaction, citing the United States’ place at 15th in the World Happiness Report despite being amongst the richest countries. Rather, Happe pointed to the city’s mental health data and ample parkland per capita.

“These elements create a positive environment that fosters well-being beyond financial stability.”

The new rankings come as Fremont recently also topped the list on Wallethub’s “25 Best Places to Raise a Family” list. Happe explains those rankings were particularly difficult to determine, as affordable cost of living must be balanced with factors like educational opportunities and safety.

Origin Story

Fremont sits on Ohlone land, one of the Bay Area’s main Indigenous tribes. According to the municipal website, Spanish settlers first arrived in 1797, establishing Mission San Jose. In 1846, American explorer John Charles Fremont, the city’s namesake, mapped out a trail through Mission Pass, providing American settlers access to the South Eastern Bay Area.

Fremont was a brilliant and daring explorer whose missions charted America’s expansion into the western states. He opposed slavery; during a short stint as a U.S. cabinet secretary, he issued a short-lived emancipation order which some historians believe inspired President Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation. Those historic acts would not assure Fremont naming rights by contemporary standards, however, as he was also ruthless in battles against Native Americans, leading heavily armed battalions to slaughter Indigenous resisters to America’s westward expansion.

MIXED LEGACY The city is named after John Charles Fremont, whose record is tarnished by involvement in Native American genocide

Settlers continued to establish townships in the early 17th and 18th centuries, and by 1956, under the supervision of councilmember Wally Pond, five townships—Centerville, Mission San Jose, Niles, Irvington and Warm Springs—together joined to form the official city of Fremont.

Today, Fremont is known as one of the Bay Area’s tech hubs. From 1984 to 1992, it was the site of a plant established by Steve Jobs to manufacture early Macintosh computers. By 1999, more than 700 high-tech companies had opened headquarters and production facilities in the city. 

In 2010, Tesla established a Fremont manufacturing plant at a former General Motors plant, built in 1962, which later became home to the Toyota-GM co-venture NUMMI. Tesla is now the city’s largest manufacturer and employer.

In line with their hosting of the eco-friendly automobile brand, Fremont has been a star on the environmental stage in other ways. The city came in 4th on Wallethub’s 2022 “Greenest Cities in America” list, and in 2017 had hit a milestone of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25%. Some other honorable Wallethub rankings Fremont has earned are #4 in Best Cities for Women in 2023 and #14 in Healthiest Cities in 2021.

Building Community

Riding out the heat wave on his bicycle near the Fremont BART station, former Oakland resident William Davenport says he moved to Fremont to escape the crime. In 2020, a report found Fremont’s crime per 100,000 residents was 168.7, lagging significantly behind Oakland’s rates of 691.6. The same report from City Data found Fremont to have one of the lowest crime rates for cities its size in the Bay Area.

“It feels safe, like home away from home,” Davenport says.

But moving south has presented challenges. Despite a sense of community being one of the factors that helped Fremont top the list, Davenport says that’s the one aspect he feels is lacking. As an African American man, he says he struggles to find the community he found in Oakland. City Data reports Oakland’s Black population is 20%, while Fremont’s is just 2.3%. So while he says he is generally happy, he still still wants more from the city.

“It’s a tight-knit community but hard to find people who look like me,” Davenport says.

Uber driver Sayed Zaida has been in Fremont for six years and says he is happy there. Originally from Lahore, Pakistan, he enjoys the shift to a less-polluted city. He also appreciates the large South Asian community and the businesses that come from it. The Asian population in Fremont is 63%, according to City Data.

“As a South Asian person I have a lot of food options here, a good place for our community,” Zaida says.

Like Davenport, Zaida mentions his gripes with the city. He is concerned about the ever-growing homeless population, a phenomenon that’s rippled through the Bay Area. According to the city’s administration, Fremont’s homeless population increased by 69% from 2019 to 2022. In response, the city launched a Homeless Response Plan that includes strategies to prevent homelessness, connect people to shelter and mitigate the impact of homelessness on the community.

Those who crave a bustling big-city feel may also not feel as happy in Fremont. In a post on the city’s subreddit, a now-deleted user claims they are leaving Fremont, calling it “boring, lame, and pointless.” With a population of 225,000, it’s no dwarf city, but “lack of things to do” has been a common sentiment, especially among younger residents.

Report Card

In tandem with the “Happiest City” ranking this year is another Wallethub honorable mention for the city. In March, Fremont topped Wallethub’s list of “Best Places to Raise a Family.” One of the city’s strengths that continues to attract people is its highly ranked school system. 2023 Niche rankings show that Fremont Unified School District (FUSD) scored 2nd out of 17 for “Districts with the Best Teachers in Alameda County,” 18th out of 98 for “Districts with the Best Teachers in the San Francisco Bay Area,” 78th out of 680 for “Districts with the Best Teachers in California,” and 729th out of 11,466 for “Districts with the Best Teachers in America.” Some other notable rankings included “Best School Districts in America” and “Best School Districts in California,” both earning the school slots in the 85th percentile.

With rankings like these, it’s unsurprising that the youth are thriving. Reading and math proficiency rates soar at 77% and 69% respectively, and the average ACT composite score is 32. For comparison, the state average ACT score is 26.5, and English and math proficiency rates are respectively 47% and 33%. FUSD also boasts a 92% graduation rate, compared to the state’s rate of 84.7%.

FUSD outgoing superintendent CJ Cammack attributes this success to the city’s sense of community, saying parents, teachers and staff all work together to ensure academic success of their students. The district provides resources like family engagement workshops and multicultural events to support students and families as they navigate their children’s educational journey.

“The Fremont community has a strong tradition of supporting our schools and students, and our district’s consistent record of fostering student success and academic achievement is part of the reason families choose to live in Fremont,” Cammack says.

Recipe for Success

Over on Washington Boulevard, Patty Salas-Maciel brings a slice of Mexico to the city. Cantaritos Restaurant and Bar is a popular Mexican cuisine restaurant Maciel started with her husband nine years ago. The pair took over the space when the previous owner developed Lyme’s Disease, refinancing their home to be able to afford the cost. They still face some of the hefty financial costs of doing business in Fremont, but to them, it’s worth it.

“I love the community, we have a large clientele of people who say this space feels like home,” Maciel says.

According to USA.com data, Fremont’s Hispanic population is around 14%, with 78% of them Mexican. Maciel said one of the joys she gets to experience is people from diverse backgrounds enjoying her food. To her, it’s a reminder of the city’s diversity and intercultural appreciation.

STATEMENT PIECE ‘Unity,’ a statue at the edge of Central Park, in the heart of Fremont Photo by Samantha Campos

“I think of Fremont as a melting pot,” Maciel says. “I remember when we first started, I got surprised when other races were coming in and I was like ‘wow they like Mexican food.’”

Just like the community has poured into her business, Maciel says she values making customers feel welcome and at home. Food at Cantaritos is made fresh and from scratch; tomatoes and chilis are roasted in-house, and nothing comes frozen.

“People tell me it reminds them of their grandma’s,” Maciel says.

Fridays and Saturdays are their busiest days, and people often have to call in for reservations to get their Mexican culinary fix. Sometimes, she is still in awe of the continuous support she’s received from the community and the fandom she has built. She’s glad she can be a part of Fremont’s happiness by contributing authentic, hearty Mexican dinners.

“Sometimes me and my kids look around, like, ‘Is this our place?’” Maciel says. “It’s shocking, we have so much support and it feels good.”

One of the most evident displays of happiness in the city can be found in its parks. The largest park, 450=plus-acre Central Park, offers expansive views of Lake Elizabeth, along with facilities for picnics, parties and recreational activities.

Summer days can bring oppressive heat, but evenings are much cooler as the sun sets behind the Mission Peak Hills. By 6pm, the park is bustling, with cyclists and rollerbladers cruising down the winding pathways. Whether in a stroller or using a walking cane, everyone seems to find joy as they bask in all the park has to offer.

Ohlone College student Elizabeth Prewitt sits on a bench overlooking Lake Elizabeth as she embraces her dog seated beside her. Prewitt acknowledges some of the city’s challenges, namely the homelessness crisis that many residents say is getting worse.

“Maybe it’s the happiest for the people who can afford it,” Prewitt says.

Still, Prewitt appreciates where Fremont has excelled. According to a city report, homelessness is now down 21% from 2022, numbers that show the city is ahead of others in Alameda County. As a young person she admits that the suburban atmosphere can feel “sleepy” at times. But it’s days by the lake with her dog that remind her of what the city has to offer: a melting pot of people and cultures enjoying life in a very happy city.

IDAHO BOUND Publisher Bill Marshak retired last month.

Happy Stance

Retiring publisher asks Metro to continue Fremont’s local weekly 

When it comes to Fremont’s reputation as America’s happiest city, William Marshak can provide  perspective.

When Marshak and his wife, Sharon, who is originally from Milpitas, relocated to the city, the couple struggled to find activities. Together, the two founded a monthly newsletter that featured upcoming events.

By 2002, that modest newsletter had blossomed into what is now the weekly Tri-City Voice

Recently, the Marshaks made plans to retire while also ensuring a future for the broadsheet newspaper. In June, their company, What’s Happening Inc. (WHI), joined forces with the San Jose-based Weeklys publishing group, of which Metro is the flagship.

Marshak says people enjoy the paper’s commitment to shining a positive light on the city, as opposed to bogging down readers with only crime stories. “People love Tri-City Voice. It’s become a big part of the community and we are very proud of that,” Marshak said.

The paper also serves the nearby cities of Hayward, Newark, Union City, Milpitas and Sunol, but the central focus remains on Fremont.

One of the key aspects of the city that the paper highlights is its diversity, which Marshak believes contributes to its happiness. According to Fremont’s government website, just under 50% of residents are foreign born and 62.9% speak a language other than English at home. With over half of residents being from various Asian countries and pockets of Latin, Black and Middle Eastern communities, the city offers a mosaic of cultural experiences ranging from authentic ethnic eats to places of worship.

Marshak said one of his philosophies when starting Tri-City Voice was to explore this diversity and help people see it as an opportunity to celebrate differences. He believes that the key to diffusing animosity between communities is to help them see the beauty of other cultures. Tri-City Voice won the “Media of the Year” award by the Indo-American Community Federation, as well as recognition from Princeton University Library for its coverage on African-American communities.

“We wanted to make sure people in our community could see each other as people: to see that maybe someone dressed differently or spoke a different language, but not to be afraid of that,” he said.

As he approached retirement last week, Marshak grappled with the bittersweet feelings of leaving Fremont to live with his family in Idaho. The financial limitations of retiree life force him to reconsider living in Fremont; a Payscale report finds that the cost of living there is 77% higher than the national average. As sad as he is to depart from America’s Happiest City, he is grateful for the opportunity he had to work there and call it home.

“If my kids were here, I would definitely be staying,” he says.


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