by Tom Sims
I was doing one of my strolls through the Tower District the other day. Keep in mind, I do not live, work, or do much business there. I am no expert. I am a casual and enthusiastic admirer. I am also a hunter-gatherer, looking for fruits and seeds to glean transferable knowledge. I was strolling and observing. My mind went back to my first impressions. Please, do not throw tomatoes. I am being honest.
Tacky. Unimpressive. Is that what they are going on about? Where’s the Tower? Do you mean that pole on top of that theater? Do they still use that?
As we used to say, “It just goes to show you.”
The thirties were not, in my opinion, America’s greatest hour for architecture. Art Deco is an acquired taste and so is the Tower District. It is quickly acquired. There is a formula:
Park your car; get out; walk around.
Suddenly, you are in a mellower, kinder, gentler Berkeley or Haight-Ashbury where there are no political expectations or implications required. It is artsy, but the art is emerging. It is old school, but also new school. It is sophisticated, but not overly so. It is prideful, but not “snooty.” It is counter-cultural, but still grounded. It has a sense of place and surroundings.
That is why it cannot be contained, and that is the bouncing off place for this reflection.
The best histories have already been written. For instance, here is a great summary from a real estate site:
“The primary attraction in the District is the Tower Theater. Designed by famed Los Angeles architect S. Charles Lee, the tower itself was crafted in the spirit of the 1939 World’s Fair. Surrounded by an assortment of architecturally unique commercial buildings, the theater underwent a significant restoration in 1991 and was presented with the California Preservation Foundation Award for Outstanding Achievement in Restoration.”
If you want more of that, here is another great site: Fresno’s Historic Tower Theater.
That being noted, there is still something less than impressive about the buildings…until you start strolling. Then, there are the quaint shops, the cute bungalows, and the nuts-and-bolts businesses like laundries and old Piggly-Wiggly style grocery stores, and knickknack shops and PEOPLE.
The “mediation” here is about the mystique and how it can spread. The Tower spirit is the real urban sprawl in Fresno. Downtown is rediscovering and recreating itself in one direction. Manchester on Blackstone is trying, especially with The Manchester Experiment.
But what about neighborhoods with no names and no identities that are in decline, where people walk without strolling, drive without stopping, and live without a sense of community, neighborhood, or place? What of those places? How can a few people help to create a sense of place and build an identity in those pockets of “urbana?” (Note: I am “stealing” the name of this town in Illinois and using it to describe a concept.)
The same day I drove through the Tower recently, I drove around the neighborhood surrounding our church and ministry site, 4141 Ministries. I took some pictures. There are some surprising overlaps in architecture. Our neighborhood has had a number of shootings, high crime, heavy drug usage, and gang infiltration. It also has some really nice clusters, lovely homes, nice people, two schools, and some lovely shops. How can the Tower cast a shadow on us and where do we find a name?
Are we “Manchester East?” After all, we are on the east side of the freeway from Manchester. Why does one building complex call itself “Sussex North?” That is a classy name. Maybe we could use that.
I decided to reflect on some of the things that make the Tower a towering example and impetus for neighborhood building and rebuilding.
Intention-Someone or group decides to make it so. The Tower Theater was intentionally built in 1939. It was intentionally revived in the 90s. Various businesses moved in intentionally and began to set the mood of the hood.
Centerpiece–Part of the genius of the Tower is that there is an identifiable centerpiece. It could be a corner or a park or a building. But something or some cluster of things must stand out.
Places to Walk–There must be some comfort level that invites people to park their cars and walk around. Neighborhoods are for neighbors who are walking around and interacting.
Places to Sit–There must also be, as there are in the Tower, benches, cafes, and other places to stop and sit. When you sit, you can visit. You can relax. You can feel at home.
Things to See–People walk and sit where they can watch and see. Even if it is a sign board with fliers advertising community events and visits, it catches the eye. Much will catch the eye in the Tower.
Invitation–Something invites people into the spirit of the Tower. It says, “If you feel out of place, no problem, you are at home.” Every little quirk of a neighborhood is a statement of permission to be as quirky as you need to be.
Collaboration–As a community develops, emerging leaders, business owners, and citizens start “groups,” collaboratives, and coalitions to create events and champion causes. There is much of that in the Tower.
Fun and Color–Fun and color go together. Color advertises fun. Even when I thought the Tower was tacky, something told me that it was fun.
Coffee–It is a personal preference. There is a lot of coffee and tea in the Tower.
The Arts–Neighborhoods and communities develop around many themes, but there is always an element of artistic expression weaving its way through the fabric of the neighborhood.
A Unifying Theme–This is the hard one and this is something that I sense the Tower is defining and redefining. If you can get a unifying theme, you might find a NAME. Or…perhaps the NAME comes first and then the theme. I don’t know. To paraphrase a popular theological movement: “If you can name it, you can claim it.”
These are passing and incomplete observations. Since the Tower calls itself “The Tower,” I am going to assume an invitation to look, learn, and apply contextually. So, here is the deal. I have a neighborhood with no name, sprawling in four directions from our corner and ministry center near Fresno St. and Ashland Ave. Since both words refer to the ash tree, we might be on to something. Our littler pocket of place needs to be a neighborhood inhabited by community? Are any of you available to observe, dialogue, and make suggestions? What do we name it and how can we build it? I humbly suggest that our Kings River Life community lend me a hand. Comment below or on our Facebook page.
More of Tom’s articles on the Tower, among other topics, can be found here.