Fresno
May 22, 2012 9:13 AM   Subscribe

Fresno was a mistake from the beginning, a story by Michael Thomsen. Part of N+1 magazine City by City series.
posted by growabrain (52 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 


Fresno was a mistake from the beginning.

This is obvious to anyone who has ever been there.
posted by elsietheeel at 9:47 AM on May 22, 2012 [19 favorites]


Since I've recently become interested in the whole "new urbanist" movement, I would love to read more about the various attempts to revitalize downtown. It's plain to anyone who's wandered around down there that it hasn't really worked. I'd blame the fact that the courthouse is right on that commons (some family law issues are the only reason I've ever hung out in the downtown), but the area is too large to blame solely on that.

It seems like downtown has 3 decades of people trying to bring people back there, and failing, and though the urban planners speak of walkable downtowns and all of those things, and whenever I head down there everything remotely interesting (and for Fresno that's a small list) is out in the burbs.
posted by straw at 10:12 AM on May 22, 2012


Over 30 years ago, I spent the longest year of my life working at a radio station 40 miles south of Fresno (and primarily serving the Fresno Media Market). I just thanked my lucky stars I wasn't any closer. Anything negative you can say about the entire region I will automatically agree with. It exists only to let the residents of every other failed community in California say "Well, at least we're not in Fresno." Interstate Highway 5 was constructed specifically to bypass Fresno. And this is a major tourist attraction in Fresno - an artificial cave built by a Sicilian immigrant to get out of the heat. When someone who left Sicily is dissing you, you are not a pleasant place to live.
posted by oneswellfoop at 10:12 AM on May 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


I was born and raised in Bakersfield, a slightly healthier city two hours south of Fresno, but much of this rings true. I always saw Bakersfield (and Fresno) as places where the conservative dream had come true. Unlimited urban sprawl, cheap, often illegal labor, no environmental regulations to speak of (Bakersfield still doesn't have a recycling program -- most people just throw their cans, etc. in the trash), low taxes.

And they're a mess. Terrible crime rates, terrible pollution (Bakersfield has the worst air quality in the nation), high poverty rates. This, despite being located in the the richest agricultural and oil producing area in the nation.

Have you heard the saying, "As goes California, so goes the nation?" Fresno and Bakersfield are the dark mirror of that optimistic saying.
posted by Palquito at 10:14 AM on May 22, 2012 [13 favorites]




I lived in Fresno between the ages of 8 and 9 (the early 90s). Less than 18 months in total. We lived in a shitty little pink house in a shitty part of town, some of our neighbors were very, very poor. My dad was a supply sergeant in the Army, so we weren't incredibly well off but we never lacked for the necessities, thanks to free military healthcare and other military advantages. But it's the closest I've lived to poverty in my very lucky life, and I certainly witnessed a lot of desperation and awfulness while we were there.

As I said it was a really shitty part of town. There was a Safeway about a block away that got robbed once a week, no joke. I remember one time going to the nearby K-Mart and having to step around human feces in the middle of the store aisle. This also happened occasionally on my walk to school...having to sidestep a massive steaming pile of human waste on the sidewalk is pretty surreal.

The family that lived two doors down from us had three kids all within my age or younger. Their dad was in and out of jail constantly. I remember their house reeked of cigarettes, and it seemed like the blinds were always drawn and the lights were always burned out...an interior bathed in the perpetual twilight of despair.

Those kids looked like they hadn't had a bath in months. Or a hot meal. Somehow they always showed up on our doorstep around dinner time. Sometimes we invited them in for dinner, but not always. Their backyard was an industrial hazard, debris everywhere. There was a pile of cinder blocks which one of the kids (a girl about 5 years old, I think) sometimes used as a toilet.

I would play outside in front of the house in the summer, and I remember on more than one occasion, in the full light of day, drunken men wandering over to talk to me. If dad was there it was always a little tense as he tried to maneuver them away from the property without causing a scene.

There was a reported rapist lurking in our neighborhood, or at least that's what I remember overhearing my parents talking about one night, right before my dad left for a 6 week training in Virginia. In the summer it was so hot, and we didn't have AC in our little house, so we slept with all the windows open. I remember every night during those 6 weeks my dad was gone, trying to fall asleep, completely in fear that this shadowy rapist would climb through my window and rape my mom and I would be powerless to stop it.

It wasn't all horrible, and we even keep in contact with one or two families from that time, but I tend to agree that Fresno, at least for our family, was a mistake.
posted by Doleful Creature at 10:16 AM on May 22, 2012 [8 favorites]


Fresno was the first city I ever saw. I was about six years old at the time. We drove north on the 99 Highway, past the airplane that was stuck nose down in the roof of a tavern, past the drive-n movie screen, then crossed over the tracks and under an archway. We could see the city for miles. I thought the road was going to run into the tallest building in the world, which of course it didn't. The road bent to the left and took us right in among buildings that seemed to me at the time like canyon walls. The PG&E building was the tallest building in town. A few years later a uniformed elevator operator took me and a couple of my nephews to its top floor, where we looked out the porthole-shaped windows at the city sprawl, an amazing 360-degree view. I was so surprised to notice so many trees.

We lived on the westside, near Roeding Park. We boys often walked to the downtown area on Fulton Street to go to the movies. The White Theater was best on Saturdays, with two features and 22 (count 'em) cartoons, all for eleven cents each. We financed our day by picking up soda bottles along the way and selling them at gas stations, and had enough change left over for a carton of Milk Duds each. See, after you eat the candy, you can blow through the box and make a terrific sqeual. When we walked home, we usually stopped by the Sunshine Bakery, near the vent above the small irrigation canal, so we could drink in the aroma of baking bread.

Sometimes we biked all the way over to Blackstone Avenue, to visit a gun store called "The Muzzle Loader." They let kids roam the huge display room, in which literally hundreds of war surplus rifles were laid out on any of a few dozen counters, and pistols were kept in glass cases. Italian, Japanese, British, Australian rifles (stamped with a kangaroo on the breech) from all the wars--we are able to handle them. Several machine guns were mounted on pedestals, and some tables held a fascinating variety of bayonets. I can still smell in my memory, almost can still feel on my hands, cosmoline from the wooden stocks, and I can remember the indulgent smiles of the proprietors, who let barefoot kids wearing cut-off jeans wander among their stores.

Most of the time we roamed Roeding Park. It was ours, day or night.

Fresno was indeed a smallish farming town in the 1950's, and it wasn't a bad place for a boy to live.
posted by mule98J at 10:22 AM on May 22, 2012 [17 favorites]


but Fresno gave us Brian Kenney Fresno, so it can't be all bad.
posted by aspo at 10:29 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


The entire San Joaquin Valley was a mistake from the beginning.
posted by blucevalo at 10:31 AM on May 22, 2012


Paging Ardiril to this thread...
posted by Melismata at 10:48 AM on May 22, 2012


The entire San Joaquin Valley was a mistake from the beginning.

Eh, parts of the Cretaceous were pretty amazing actually. The Holocene is really when the problems started.
posted by Big_B at 10:52 AM on May 22, 2012 [11 favorites]


Fifty miles east of Fresno is the most beautiful wilderness in the world.
posted by bukvich at 10:57 AM on May 22, 2012 [6 favorites]


The Fresno Chamber of Commerce is currently having a contest to promote their fine city.

First prize:
a weekend in Fresno
Second prize: a week in Fresno
posted by porn in the woods at 10:57 AM on May 22, 2012 [14 favorites]


. . . designing America’s first indoor malls in Detroit and Edina, Wisconsin.

Last time I checked, Southdale is in Edina, Minnesota. I know to a Californian, we're flyover country, but jeez.
posted by Ickster at 11:03 AM on May 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


The Holocene is really when the problems started.

Those goddamn giant sloths got what they deserved!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 11:04 AM on May 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


The best way to imagine Fresno is to recall the airport from the Langoliers movie. The city sucks the soul out of everyone.
posted by Ardiril at 11:05 AM on May 22, 2012


mule98J: "Fresno was indeed a smallish farming town in the 1950's, and it wasn't a bad place for a boy to live."

My grandparents moved from Kansas to Fresno in the late '30s, and built a little house on the edge of some peach and almond orchards. I used to visit them as a child, in the '50s and '60s, and it was like paradise: their yard was full of exotic flowers, and the house was covered with climbing roses and pyracantha and bougainvillea, and everything smelled delicious.

Fast forward to the late '80s, when my grandparents had to be moved out into nursing homes, and the house had to be sold, and by that time their entire neighborhood was a festering slum, the orchards long since chopped down and replaced by ... well, Doleful Creature has already described it. We ended up practically giving the house away--it was pretty much impossible to sell it. Twenty-five years later the whole thing is still heartbreaking.
posted by Kat Allison at 11:07 AM on May 22, 2012 [6 favorites]


Called my mom, here's the actual street we lived on. The house isn't pink anymore, and the grocery store wasn't a Safeway, it was a Save Mart.

Looking at the google street view the neighborhood looks like it's cleaned up since I lived there!
posted by Doleful Creature at 11:18 AM on May 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Last year, I took Amtrak through the San Joaquin Valley, because I was interested in finding out what was there. I know San Francisco, or LA, or San Diego -- even if you've never been, you have a mental picture, but what was the San Joaquin Valley? I spent the first night in Stockton, then the afternoon in Fresno, then the second night in Bakersfield. Met a few nice people, including the people at the table next to mine at the Basque* restaurant in Bakersfield who were baffled I was in town for sightseeing purposes, and horrified I planned to walk the mile back to my hotel after dark.

So I go back to my hotel room in Bakersfield, and there's a chamber of commerce type magazine; What's Up Bakersfield or the like. I flip through, and I'm idly reading this profile of a woman, a successful entrepreneur with her own salon or bakery or something. Fifteen years earlier, she had been passing through town, visiting with friends, the article describes, and then she caught San Joaquin Valley Fever, and wound up settling down and now she owns her own business. And as I'm reading it, it dawns on me that this "San Joaquin Valley Fever" sounds sort of, but not exactly like "catching the booster spirit" or whatever. Something's a little off.

A quick Google confirms it; the San Joaquin Valley Fever is formally known as Coccidioidomycosis; it's a fungal disease infecting the respiratory tract. The spores grow in the soil in places with conditions like the SJV, and the disease can cause symptoms that are sometimes confused with cancer.

When what sounds like community spirit was once investigated for use by the US Army as a biological weapon, that says something about a place.

*There's a huge Basque population in Bakersfield; similar climate and terrain, good for doing their sheep herding when they came over a few generations ago. Great food, particularly if you like insane quantities, and tongue.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 11:22 AM on May 22, 2012 [14 favorites]


I was born and raised in Bakersfield, a slightly healthier city two hours south of Fresno, but much of this rings true.

Finally all those jokes on 70s/80s era game shows make sense. The hosts would always joke that the boobie prize was "a week in Bakersfield" and I had no idea what that meant.
posted by DU at 11:26 AM on May 22, 2012


Bakersfield gave us Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, so it's okay in my book.
posted by entropicamericana at 11:30 AM on May 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


Bakersfield is the heart of California's country music scene, but for all the bad reasons.
posted by Ardiril at 11:30 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


So, I was watching the local eccentric, Mike Eagles, on TV for a political debate when the question arose of how each candidate would go about improving Fresno's image. Well, Mr. Eagles, with a very thoughtful pause, starts say, "Fresno, ah, Fres NO, should be made into, (long pause), Fres YES!" Now, this would not have been bad except a more sane candidate years later, used the very same line with a more deep seriousness.
posted by jadepearl at 11:39 AM on May 22, 2012


The futile attempts to save the dying carcass of a city are all too familiar across the whole country. The industry, farming, mining or whatever which once sustained has changed or left, the people left behind hold onto the vision of the past and make attempts to reinvigorate the town with some new enterprise or just new spaces. Sometimes it works (Pittsburgh) more often it only delays the decay. The more interesting part of this article is how the author interwove the decay of his parent's relationship with the decay of his town. Poignant.
posted by caddis at 11:40 AM on May 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


But Fresno's economy isn't dying-- they are still the number one agricultural county in the nation, according to wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fresno_County,_California
posted by wuwei at 11:56 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Fresno was all about sprawl. As long as you had a cosy relationship between the developers with the administration/city council of Fresno and Clovis then you really had nothing holding back the development sprawl that runs north. You also had strange commercial engineering such as the local funky street of Olive, where all the used book sellers used to be, driven away by the local land owner who felt that used bookstores was not part of her development vision.

What is interesting about Fresno now, is where the hell does the money come from? I mean, seriously, insanely high unemployment, but definitely a lot of lifestyle action amongst the residents in the northern parts of town. Seriously, is it just a bedroom telecommute town for the Bay Area and Los Angeles?
posted by jadepearl at 11:57 AM on May 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's hard to overlay the strip-city between Bakersfield and Sacramento with the chain of small farming towns that grew up along the railroad. There is no resemblance. I don't imagine that the San Joaquin was ever a paradise after the Old World foreigners arrived. But I do remember great beauty in the western desert, near the coastal mountains. One has to like deserts to appreciate this. I suppose a few thousand acres of garlic has its charms, but I liked sandy arroyos filled with the tracks of small animals, and mysteries in places where the only sound you hear above the blood pulsing in your ears was the wind moving across the landscape. Not so romantic for my folks, older siblings, who worked in the fields, but to a child it was a sort of paradise.

As a teen I went to the Fresno Barn, out on West Shields, I believe. The usual band was Buck Owens and his Buckaroos. Kids were allowed in, but could not use the bar. Everybody danced. I guess that's a housing tract now. By then I discovered the back country of the Sierras, and it was there that I earned a living for several years. Now that I'm old, and too boogered up for back-country traveling, I am glad to have those memories.

I last lived in Clovis in 1989. I live in Oregon now. Fresno is just another metaphorical armpit where a town used to be.
posted by mule98J at 12:03 PM on May 22, 2012 [6 favorites]


Seriously, is it just a bedroom telecommute town for the Bay Area and Los Angeles?

Angelenos would commute from San Francisco before they would commute from Fresno; in fact they would do it just to avoid Fresno. Vice versa for San Franciscans.
posted by blucevalo at 12:23 PM on May 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Wow, so much Fresno hate. I grew up there. My grandparents were farmers who grew raisins for SunMaid and sold dairy products to Danish Creamery. I lived in the suburbs, across the street from my elementary school, which at the time was one of the leading schools in the country. I remember having William Saroyan pointed out to me on the street, and hanging out at Roeding Park (Storyland has just turned 50! Go, Storyland!) All of us kids got dressed up and marched in the Christmas Parade every year, and got to rush home and see ourselves on the local news.

I loved it there and was really, really unhappy for a long time when my family moved to SoCal in the early 1970s. It was a great place to grow up back in the day. And no matter how many people call it an armpit, no, seriously, that's Bakersfield.

And don't make fun of the Underground Gardens, they are supercool.
posted by OolooKitty at 12:23 PM on May 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


Fresno.
That's where you stop for the night before continuing up to Yosemite in the morning, right?
posted by madajb at 12:29 PM on May 22, 2012


That's where you stop for the night before continuing up to Yosemite in the morning, right?

No, that's Merced.
posted by entropicamericana at 12:32 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Fresno is a practical, industrial city. It doesn't exist to amuse you, it exists to furnish the commercial infrastructure, professional services, recreation, etc. that the Central Valley agricultural industry requires. If it's grown big enought to somewhat surplus to that requirement, that weight should be shed.
posted by MattD at 12:34 PM on May 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


The entire San Joaquin Valley was a mistake from the beginning.

From Wikipedia:
"The Central Valley is one of the world's most productive agricultural regions. On less than 1 percent of the total farmland in the United States, the Central Valley produces 8 percent of the nation’s agricultural output by value: 17 billion USD in 2002. Its agricultural productivity relies on irrigation from both surface water diversions and groundwater pumping from wells. About one-sixth of the irrigated land in the U.S. is in the Central Valley."

This sounds like an engineering triumph and a fantastic use of land to me.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 12:35 PM on May 22, 2012


Personally, I enjoyed the year or so we lived in Fresno, as best I remember. However, that was 1960, and I was 5 years old, so what do I know?
posted by pbrim at 12:36 PM on May 22, 2012


Its agricultural productivity relies on irrigation from both surface water diversions and groundwater pumping from wells. About one-sixth of the irrigated land in the U.S. is in the Central Valley."

This sounds like an engineering triumph and a fantastic use of land to me.


And it's totally sustainable too!
posted by entropicamericana at 12:40 PM on May 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Came back to say that Roeding Park was one of my favorite things about Fresno, all things considered. Storyland was awesome!
posted by Doleful Creature at 1:09 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Homeboy Trouble: A quick Google confirms it; the San Joaquin Valley Fever is formally known as Coccidioidomycosis; it's a fungal disease infecting the respiratory tract. The spores grow in the soil in places with conditions like the SJV, and the disease can cause symptoms that are sometimes confused with cancer.

When what sounds like community spirit was once investigated for use by the US Army as a biological weapon, that says something about a place.

*There's a huge Basque population in Bakersfield; similar climate and terrain, good for doing their sheep herding when they came over a few generations ago. Great food, particularly if you like insane quantities, and tongue.


Ahh, you just mentioned one of the best things and one of the worst things about growing up/living in Bakersfield. The best are the Basque restaurants. Seriously, we have some killer Basque restaurants in B-town: Noriega's, Woolgrower's, Pyrenees (the bread, oh God the bread). I grew up thinking that Basque was just another popular ethnic food type, like Mexican or Italian. When I went to college in LA, asking where the good Basque food was just met with blank stares.

Valley fever, on the other hand... nasty stuff. Casual friend of mine disappeared for a year once... we assumed he had moved away. Nope, he had gotten valley fever, been sick for a year and alarmingly close to death. No, you don't really want to catch that "Valley Fever!"
posted by Palquito at 1:30 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Somewhere in a shoebox I have an outline for a novel I've always planned to write: Chicano-Dustbowl remix of Oedipus Rex set in the SJV in the early 1930s.
posted by Doleful Creature at 2:30 PM on May 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


"If it's grown big enought to somewhat surplus to that requirement, that weight should be shed."

That is what has happened over at least the last five years. Blackstone had lost major businesses before 2008, and since then, the blighting has continued up Shaw. Not even the Carrows near the university entrance survived, and they had occupied that site since the mid-80s.
posted by Ardiril at 3:14 PM on May 22, 2012


I was interested to see the author use definite articles in front of freeway designations ("The 5, the 99"). Wikipedia claims Fresno is beyond the thrust of this horrible affectation of our southern bretheren -- perhaps the author picked it up in years after.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 3:30 PM on May 22, 2012


Ogre Lawless, I noticed that too. I definitely call SoCal freeways "the" but I still refer to 99 as, well, 99. I caught the "the" when I moved down here.
posted by OolooKitty at 3:50 PM on May 22, 2012


I got busy in Frisco, fooled around in Fresno,
Got over on your girly 'cuz you know she never says no

posted by porn in the woods at 3:59 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thread needs more Modesto hate.
posted by fleacircus at 6:01 PM on May 22, 2012 [5 favorites]


In North Carolina, the three major metropolitan areas (Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham, and Greensboro-Winston-Salem) are all acquiring population, while cities outside those regions are shrinking, including second-tier cities that were once important to their portion of the state. Is the same thing happening in California?
posted by sonic meat machine at 6:02 PM on May 22, 2012


If you don't get Fresno, you don't get America.
posted by space_cookie at 8:06 PM on May 22, 2012


Fresno's got thirty buildings on the National Register, only one of which is a landfill. So it's more than just sprawl, meth and misery. I like these sorts of psycho-geographies. Thanks for the link, growabrain.
posted by Scram at 11:35 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


wcfields: "Fresno, aka The City Addicted to Crystal Meth [Full Doc on YouTube ]"

Interesting (albeit depressing) video. Thanks much for the link.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 3:09 AM on May 23, 2012


Thanks to the Savvy Girls podcast, I always pronounce Fresno as "Fresbihno". You know, when a Massachusetts girl has to talk about Fresno.
posted by pxe2000 at 4:27 AM on May 23, 2012


And no matter how many people call it an armpit, no, seriously, that's Bakersfield.

I grew up in Stockton and my first college roommate grew up in Bakersfield. We joked that we were from the two armpits of the state.
posted by exogenous at 4:57 AM on May 23, 2012


Having grown up in Bakersfield, I consider it poor form to hate on a city where you've never actually lived (even though I've done it). Bakersfield isn't for everyone, but it has its benefits. It's actually possible to afford a house with a backyard and revel in open space. There's a poignant beauty to be found in open fields with rolling golden hills in the background. When I spent some time overseas at Oxford later on, I craved the spaciousness of my hometown, where the streets were wide and you could walk on the grass.
posted by delight at 1:53 PM on May 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


And where you can eat the air (which is gently perfumed with the smell of steer manure) with a knife and fork.


I kid. I have family in Bakersfield that I visit often and I actually sort of love it there.
posted by elsietheeel at 2:17 PM on May 23, 2012


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