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!
The first definition of a stroll at Dictionary.Com was not adequate for my purposes this weekend, “… to walk leisurely as inclination directs; ramble; saunter; take a walk …”
So, I took the second, “to wander or rove from place to place; roam …” That is because I walked a bit and drove a bit. It was just supposed to be a stroll, mostly by car, down a “forgotten” corridor of Fresno. I was going to mark and note some beautiful sites along the way where beauty is often overlooked.
I was going to start just north of downtown and go along Fresno Street and some on Blackstone and take some pictures.
It is a forgotten corridor. Some, but not most of it is in no redevelopment district. It is not downtown. It is not the Tower district. It is not even Lowell, though the journey begins there.
The corridor is not new. It is just longer now with more neglected, underrated, and overlooked spaces. In 1887, for street rail service was initiated in Fresno. The Fresno Street Railroad Co., Fresno Railroad Co. and the Fresno, Belmont and Yosemite Railroad began servicing the city’s citizens carrying passengers in horse or mule-drawn trolley cars around the city.
I walked out of Fresno Regional Medical Center with the assignment before me and started snapping pictures of flowers, buildings, and skylines. I was thinking that I was observing a lovely city from a perspective not often appreciated.
We tend to overlook the beauty around us and go for something exotic or recognized. I was seeing through a new lens what I often take for granted during my many visits to the hospital.
It was dusk and I decided to drive down and around Fresno Street, veering through neighborhoods here and there and taking as many pictures as I could.
Terry’s House looks like an old home with a history. In fact, it is quite new and was built to provide a place for families from out of town whose loved ones are hospitalized with serious illness.
The hospital owns several very old buildings and an old church. One of the most historic buildings on the vast campus is the triangular structure which was once the city’s Fire Alarm Station from 1917. It is located at 2945 Fresno Street and was designed by W. D. Coates & H. B. Traver, Architects in the Renaissance Revival style. This is one of the only buildings in Fresno designed to fit on a triangular lot.
I drove on past the stately old Brix Mansion, built in 1911. Herman H. Brix, an oil magnate and land speculator said, in 1909 that he’d build the finest residence in the city. It was finished in 1911 and he died in 1915.
I decided to keep driving and a vision unfolded. I took a few pictures of houses that looked like forgotten treasures. I was looking for neighborhoods with cul-de-sacs and tree lined streets, for elegant lighting and for creatively simple buildings that invited a second glance. They were everywhere.
What I was not thinking about wasn’t how I was traveling along the path of forgotten promises and abandoned vision.
The old general plan, dating back to the creative work of Victor David Gruen, (1903 – 1980) advocated the prioritizing of pedestrians over cars in urban cores. At the same time, he was designing indoor as well as outdoor pedestrian malls. In the late 60s, his company commissioned a short film to document Fresno’s groundbreaking urban renewal campaign of the 1960s, which led to the construction of the Fulton Mall. Fresno, with some impressive color footage, was held up as a national model for solving the “urban crisis” of the post-war era by Lady Bird Johnson, as part of her national beautification campaign as she encouraged Americans to “plant a tree, a shrub, or a bush.”
Fresno adopted Gruen’s philosophy and more.
Some have sought to give Gruen credit for modern malls. He rejected that. In a speech in London in 1978, Gruen said that shopping mall developments had “bastardized” his ideas and he declared, “I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard developments.”
Sprawl became the order of the day and the city kept moving north as Fashion Faire Mall was developed and the city fathers and planners declared that to be the northern limit as empty lots were left along the Blackstone and Fresno St., corridors and truly lovely buildings were neglected.
A few blocks away from downtown, one passes the intersection of Belmont and Fresno St. There, one encounters a corner of neglect with some intrinsic beauty in a two story brick structure, shops, and the Fellowship Baptist Church..
The northeast corner hosts one of the most photographical of our urban anomalies – Donuts, Burgers, and Chinese food in one fast food restaurant. I have actually stopped for a donut and I will not be covering that event in my healthy eating column.
I passed parks, Manchester, Granny’s, University, and Cary along the route to Fashion Faire.
Granny’s Park is an interesting story. Tucked away between Highway 41 and Blackstone to the east and west and Dakota and Ashlan to the south and north is a forgotten neighborhood that was once called, Amber Way.
In the Amber Way apartments, there lived a man named Ernie Burton with his elderly mother, Granny. Ernie had friends in the fire department and police department and a long-term investment in the neighborhood and the kids. Next to his apartment complex was a huge empty lot that dope dealers used and where needles were scattered on the ground.
Ernie committed himself to keeping the lot clean, getting it taken over by the city, and developed into a park.He also organized a periodic gathering of neighborhood kids called “The Amber Way Tigers.”
In all the years they had activities with Fresno Police Department Sergeant Dennis Ball and others, Ernie bragged that there were no fights and no disruptions. He was able to gather more resources, positive press, television coverage, and political presence than most any community group in the city.
One day, he arranged for his mother, Granny, to be baptized in that lot by Fresno Sherriff’s Department Chaplain Doug Lanier.
Eventually, the lot became a park and became host to a youth science center. It was named, “Granny’s Park.”
The Granny’s Science Workshop is open on Tuesday through Friday 2:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.; Saturday 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. For information please call (559) 621-6718.
There are lots of stories in the corridor between Fresno Street and Blackstone, on the way from downtown to Fashion Faire on Shaw.
Located in Cary Park, 4750 N. Fresno Street, Fresno, CA, a six acre plot of land, are skate ramps, baseball diamonds, and some very interesting adult sport clubs.
No longer visible is the ghost of Zapp’s Park, which was a major water attraction in its day near Blackstone and Olive. The closest attraction to it now is Susan B. Anthony Elementary School.
Fresno has some real issues with discovering the beauty that exists in the core, not just from downtown to Shaw, but spreading out in all directions. With 2500 abandoned buildings, half owned by one company, and thousands of homeless children, a city’s values come into question.
If the core is not given attention, a great resource is wasted.
Look at some of these abandoned buildings from the core with new eyes. All have real potential. All are on tree lined streets. There is not one neighborhood in Fresno that is so old and dilapidated that it is without hope.
There are forgotten corridors and there is a neglected core, but there is no lack of potential.
Most of these neighborhoods have not been entirely abandoned, but there is a danger of such encroachment.
Recently, Faith in Community, an organization of faith leaders working together for social justice, has taken on the project of influencing city policy for addressing the empty building issue. A community forum is scheduled for next weekend.
Many organizations such as Building Healthy Communities are advocating along with them for a stronger commitment to a city General Plan that honors these forgotten corridors and encouragement of policies that promote development from the inside out.
A stroll down any of these will bring a vision of delight. Take a driving and walking stroll and see what I mean.
You may be as charmed as I was.