by Tom Sims
Tom Sims covers the Tower District, Downtown Fresno, and Old Town Clovis in his monthly column Strolling the Town.
We feel these are three areas in this Valley that are filled with history, culture and interesting stories. So join us each month as Tom goes Strolling!
There’s a dirty little sixteen letter word floating around the streets. Sixteen divided by four makes four 4-letter words. It is “re-gentrification.”
Lots of people bristle at the word and the concept and there are class struggles that grow up around it. Those struggles may or may not be necessary or valid and there are well intentioned people with mixed motives on both sides, but I am not a sociologist in this particular hat. I am a stroller out for a stroll on a Sunday afternoon on the Fulton Mall in Fresno. City Council has done its business and now I am doing mine – strolling.
It was meant to be just a walk until I thought I’d start asking the questions. “What do you think about opening this mall to traffic?”
“I think it will help,” said a delightful young lady I’ll call Cindy, whom I met at the CVS pharmacy. “It’s not so good right now.”
She might have been referring to the congregation of homeless people who park their carts outside the door and sometimes ask for money. I do not know for sure. Most of them do not ask, but folks from the suburbs expect them to and avoid eye contact. They are very present and present in force. Yet, they do not show force. They just are present.
Everyone has to be somewhere. Nevertheless, Cindy had clearly had some not so pleasant experiences. I walked about a half block and turned around to take a picture of the scene.
A man yelled at me. “Hey, do you like taking pictures of guys?”
So, I went back and talked to him. He was homeless. When I explained what I was doing, he warmed up to me when I asked his opinion about opening the mall to cars. He was happy to express himself.
I call him Jay. “I don’t like it. Why do they need to do it? Why do we want more cars? We want more trees. The people from that hotel over there. What is it? Mat … mat … Matson Towers. That’s right. They come over here on Sundays in their wheelchairs. They come from the Hotel California too – old people. What will happen to them?”
Mary walks over from the park bench to chime in with more animation in her voice and large arm movements. “What about the squirrels? This is a nice place on Sunday. You can come and sit in peace. People enjoy the chairs. The seniors come. If they open it to cars, there will be speeding and shooting. Why do they need to do that? Tell me! Why?” She was agitated. ”This is peaceful now.” Mary wants some peace and she gets it on a park bench, feeding the squirrels, outside the pharmacy. “Why?” She was insistent as if I were an authority on the matter.
“Well, I don’t know for sure, but I think folks think it will bring more business, “I responded with a non-committal tone. “I thought I’d ask around and see what others thought on a Sunday afternoon.”
“You ask them. The farm workers come here on Sundays to shop. What about them?”
I could talk to Mary all day. She growled, but her eyes twinkled. Yet, I had to move on.
“I’ll ask,” I said.
So, I started strolling and, at first, I saw a lot of squirrels and not too many people as I passed the CVS and a County building. I kept walking toward downtown and I began to see some folks enjoying the day. The benches were inviting. The statues drew my attention; the squirrels seemed oblivious to the controversy.
Hank was supervising his kids at various stations along the way. They were aged 3 and 4 and riding their bikes and stopping at various play areas to explore and ride some more. Would Hank continue to bring his children to this mall after the cars came?
“Probably not, although there are not that many places to go.”
I asked if he lived nearby and he said he did. So I asked if he had supported opening the mall to traffic.
“With mixed feelings, yes,” he said. It was not his first option. It did not seem to be anyone’s first option, but there just did not seem to be many Hanks with kids on that section of the mall. Shops and eating places were closed all around the “Social Services sector” of the walk.
There was that area with which I was quite familiar. Many times I had transported children in foster care to the visitation room hosted by CPS to see their parents. Many times I had waited outside in the park-like setting and observed the brokenness of people caught up in that system. That did not happen on Sunday afternoons. During the week, that area was filled with people. But for the ‘clients” of the “the system,” the mall had sometimes been a place outside of the sterile environment inside the waiting room where bad news was pasted on every wall.
I crossed the street and observed a Spanish speaking vendor. “Do you speak English?”
“No sir,” he replied, but then, understood my question.
“Will the cars help your business or hurt it?”
“I don’t know sir,” he said clearly, “Maybe it will hurt.” Then, he shook his head.
The more I walked, the more people I saw, groups of people, families together, people on bikes and skateboards, young people, old people, children, all enjoying a spring Sunday in the city “park.” They ride the buses in. Many do. Others park somewhere and walk. The shops and department stores with unfamiliar names to me were open and making sales.
Stores with Spanish names were doing business. Mom and pop restaurants selling lunch food were doing what they do.
A fellow was playing his guitar. No one was standing around, but he played on and graciously granted my request for a picture. He remains anonymous, but he will probably be there Sunday. He’s pretty good. Everyone was sort of anonymous Sunday including the young lady in the clothing store who said it had been a very good day. Her English was quite limited, so I moved on. There were three guys working in a Chinese restaurant. The place was full. I asked what they thought about the cars. They thought it would change things, but they liked things the way they were.
Walking back I saw the building with the three proposals for the mall redevelopment. Option three had been partially removed. The display had been neglected, the deed had been done. There was nothing more to promote and Sundays did not seem to matter. I had been like Hank, reluctantly in favor, standing with my friends to revive the Mall at night and during the day, seeing no other option, and with mixed feelings, because I believe in cities having walking space as well as commercially viable downtowns.
Sunday afternoons had not really been a topic of much discussion. The preacher’s voice resounded from the free speech area and at least one person seemed to be in the “congregation” of listeners.
Gentrification is “the transformation of a working-class or vacant area of the central city to a middle class residential and/or commercial use” (Lees, Loretta, Tom Slater, and Elvin K. Wyly. Gentrification. New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2008.) What usually happens is that rents go up, which is good news for those who own or aspire to develop property and bad news for those who cannot afford the new rents and then the character of the community changes. Some people are eased out of the picture and others are brought in. Proponents of the opening of the Fulton Mall say that the process will bring back the original look and feel of the architecture, restore the historical sites, revive commerce, turn on the night lights and protect the art and trees. Most every concern that anyone raises is addressed in a FAQ on a web site which is now all but obsolete. No one disputes that things will change.
I thought about posting all the links to all the arguments for and against the opening, referring to the history of the mall and cross-referencing my observations with sociological studies, but this is a stroll and only a stroll – except, I get some of my best ideas walking.
I walked past Dwight Lowe, something of a celebrity in town. Dwight is in his late fifties and has been in several articles. You’d know him – late fifties, no shirt, white gloves, white bow tie, buff and getting buffer as he works out, inspiring passers-by to get and stay fit. Dwight has been the subject of several articles, but most reporters fail to mention that he is an author, poet and playwright. I told him I would not forget. He told me that his was “a Ministry of Kindness.” That’s the name. It is sometimes, “Ministry of Fitness,” but kindness is his passion now and Dwight’s take on the issue of cars is that he will keep on doing what he is doing no matter what happens to the mall. I’ve seen him on street corners encouraging people, so I believe him.
I made my way back toward CVS. Several new, optimistic, positive business places were closed, but definitely in business and ready for night life. It was about 5:30 p.m. The Sunday afternoon shops were closing. The street vendors were packing it in. Jay was sitting on the sidewalk in front of the CVS. I said, “They are going to do this thing you know. It is up to us to try to make sure they do it in such a way as to keep it friendly for Sundays.” Jay just shrugged and shook his head in a defeated sort of way.
Fresno is different. It has an energy and optimism not often found in other cities. It has creative people who think outside the box and can invent wrap-around solutions. Here is a challenge. Go ahead and gentrify or re-gentrify, but make all the people part of the landed gentry. Lift the people with the real estate. Make room for the farm workers, for Jay, Cindy, Mary, Hank and his kids, for Dwight, and the night life people too. Make room for the squirrels. Figure out how to do it. Protect the businesses in place and help them to be successful. Bring in new business. Elevate the art. Restore and renovate, Make Fulton Mall a meeting place for people and cultures – and get the busses rolling to it! Maybe even close it to traffic on beautiful Sunday afternoons, or at least enough for Hank’s kids to have a place to ride their bikes and for Hank to have a place to sit.