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!
Recently, local religious congregations were treated to the following announcement from a local group of religious communities called “Faith in Community:”
“Do you believe that every life in our beloved city of Fresno matters? As people of faith, we know that all people are created in the image of God and that every life has inherent worth and dignity. We are facing some immense challenges – we have the nation’s highest concentration of poverty, second-highest metropolitan poverty level overall in the country, a 20 year difference in the life expectancy between Southwest and Northeast Fresno, and 8 of California’s 10 riskiest, most toxic neighborhoods.”
“We also know that as people of faith we have a moral and spiritual imperative to care for those who suffer and that, as Dr. King said, ‘whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.'”
“It is because of that we believe now is the time for a new, prophetic vision of Fresno that honors the worth and dignity of ALL – regardless of what side of Shaw Ave. we reside, the color of our skin, or the primary language that we speak.”
When I stroll through downtown Fresno and the Tower, I am exploring part of a wider territory that is interconnected in geography and urban concerns: the inner core of the city.
The General Plan of the city has been adopted and “in-fill” is the city’s commitment: namely, fill in the open spaces in the city, develop the core, and create a city that is centered in its center where all people enjoy a high quality of life and the respect of all the people.
The challenges faced in Fresno’s core are complex and many. Payday lenders congregate in the poorest communities and propagate predatory business practices. Until recently, that went unchecked by zoning laws. Some communities have five times as many non-bar liquor outlets as food stores. It is easier to get a beer than a fresh tomato. Public transportation is a challenge. Sidewalks are absent in some neighborhoods. How the police react with neighbors can be different in one side of the city from another.
These are realities and sprawl, investment strategies, and institutional racism are factors. There are neighborhoods in Fresno where the quality of life can be measured, in part, by the reality that life expectancy is lower than in the northern, newer, and wealthier neighborhoods.
There is a great deal of attention given to development of the Tower and Downtown areas, but they also suffer from some of these issues and are effected by what goes on around them. The Lowell district has citizens who are deeply committed to community engagement and business development.
As I stroll around these areas and report of cool, exotic businesses, quirky cultural expressiveness, and delightful places to eat, I realize that these arise out of the drive of some creative and committed people to care about the city’s core and to create pockets of culture in a sea of poverty.
The same people who drive these shops and artistic offerings are often working for healthcare of all people, are walking high risk neighborhoods with the Night Walk movement, showing up at Planning Commission and City Council meetings to advocate for Bus Rapid Transit, and developing a climate for business growth and entrepreneurship that lifts all the residents of the city.
It is not always in the perceived short term interest of investors, developers, and politicians to turn a focus toward the core. The conflicts around recent issues have amplified former Mayor Alan Autry’s observation that Fresno is a “tale of two cities.”
Forces that are highly resourced are generally capable of making their voices heard. However, in recent days, the voices of the Tower, Downtown, Lowell, and the West Side have learned to speak loudly and clearly as well. And they are committed to continuing to do so.
Hopefully, they can win the hearts and minds of decision makers and investors so that all will see that one just Fresno is what is best of the interests of all.
It is a renaissance of justice and urban engagement that could bring Fresno into a bright future that resembles the 21st century and creates an environment that makes us one city and one people, seamlessly related, one to the other.
It requires investment of resources, but sometimes that is really about how resources that are being spent and will be spent are allocated. It requires looking at zoning ordinances and implementation of the General Plan. It requires citizens to agitate and congregate.
That is what happened on May 31 at Fresno City College as hundreds gathered to seek a new vision for the city. Free buses brought many of the people who congregated under the theme of the convocation: “One Just, Healthy Fresno: Equality and Dignity for Everyone in Every Place.”
Sponsored by Faith in Community (Website: www.faithinfresno.org, Facebook Page: www.facebook.com/FaithInCommunity), the goal was to launch a new prophetic vision for Fresno.
According to the organization, “Faith in Community is a coalition of faith institutions working towards a more just, compassionate, equitable, and thriving city of Fresno.”
Faith in Community (FIC) embraces certain values that are published on their web page:
• Transformation is not only called for, but possible
• People should have a say in the decisions that shape their lives
• Ordinary people know best what their families and communities need
• When people have power they can protect the things that are important to their families and their communities
• We value the racial, ethnic, religious and cultural diversity that has shaped this Valley
• Government can play a vital role in improving society, but civic leaders and community organizations need to claim the power to shape policy and hold public officials accountable.
The day was successful and the follow-up is being developed as I type. Community groups, religious organizations, and civic leaders are being rallied to make a difference and work for the transformation of the city from the core and outward so that all of the people of the great city of Fresno can share in its essential dignity and blessings.
Quotes from the Day:
Pastor Natalie Chamberlain – “It was an awe-inspiring event … We are an interesting mix of folks”
Highlights of the year 2013 in FIC: