Fresno was a mistake from the beginning.
I was five when we moved there. My dad and I drove from Texas in a rented Ryder truck; we finally pulled off the highway in a dingy business district north of the city’s abandoned downtown. My mom had driven ahead of us and we met her at a Motel 6 beneath sagging power lines and fast food signs that had begun to crack in the harsh central California sun. My dad was starting a job teaching accounting at Fresno State, thinking a midsize farming city would be a good place to settle.
My parents were both born in Denmark. They’d grown up thirty miles apart but didn’t meet until their mid-20s, when they were both graduate students. They were brought up in the strict tradition of Seventh-Day Adventism, an Old Testament sect of Christianity that forbids alcohol, caffeine, jewelry, pork, and observes sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. When they discovered each other at a small religious college on Lake Michigan they found ways to get together as often as possible.
My dad would pick my mom up when she finished a night shift at the school hospital where she was studying to be a nurse. She’d stop by his bachelor apartment with fruit and baked goods on the weekend, and they’d go to the same church groups together, spending hours afterward debating the week’s subject. They married a year after meeting and followed their hunger for novelty, moving from Michigan to Tanzania, then on to Italy, Germany, and—most novel of all—Texas, before deciding it was time to stop and raise my older brother and me. And so we drove to Fresno.
Fresno sits about two thirds of the way down California’s huge Central Valley, which runs almost the entire length of the state, bounded to the west by the coastal ranges and to the east by the Sierra Nevada mountains. This is the most fertile farmland in the United States. The central and nothern parts get plenty of rain, but the southern part, called the San Joaquin Valley, is dry and subject to droughts, though with a few nice months of green in fall and spring. It could not have looked very promising when Fresno first appeared as a small outpost along the San Joaquin River; the expansion of the California Pacific Railroad to Fresno in the 1870s helped, however. And soon enough it became clear that despite the difficulty of the land, the connection to the farming infrastructure being set up to the north, including the railroad, made settling there worthwhile. Dutch and German farmers built irrigation ditches to make the land farmable. They were soon followed by immigrants from Mexico, Armenia, China, and Japan.
The first settlers decided to grow grapes to take advantage of the heat and the quick fruiting cycle. When the first crop of grapes proved too sour for wine, most farmers opted to make raisins: before long Fresno was the raisin capital of the world. It also established itself as the economic hub and northernmost outpost of the San Joaquin Valley, which in addition to raisins produced most of California’s almonds, kiwis, cantaloupe, oranges, and figs. By the 1920s the town had grown to 45,000 and became known as a “mini-San Francisco” for its bustling streets, Victorian homes, and multicultural population. Another pattern also established itself: the area was close enough to Mexico, and close enough to the coast, that cheap migrant labor was always available. Farm owners cycled through laborers as quickly as they could. The bigger farms offered single-room shacks to house their seasonal workers, some of which would later be converted into “Assembly Camps” to imprison Japanese-Americans during World War II.
In 1937 the Federal Government agreed to build Friant Dam, which blocked the upper San Joaquin River. The extra water turned the farming boom into an exponentially accelerating growth cycle. In 2009, agriculture revenue totaled $5.6 billion; Fresno County was one of the most productive areas of farm land in the world. That same year, a study by the Federal Reserve found that, with the sole exception of post-Katrina New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, Fresno had the most concentrated areas of poverty in the United States.
My parents moved us into an apartment complex in northwest Fresno called Cobblestone Village. In the 1980s this was the scaffolded edge of the city, only half a mile from where the suburbs disintegrated at the sandy banks of the San Joaquin. The apartments were surrounded by acres of troweled lots. A wide pit had been dug in one with I-beams and rebar sticking out of the dirt, the foundations of what would become a glassy real estate office.
My mom worked as a home hospice provider to cancer patients in the decrepit old neighborhoods left to rot around downtown. I sometimes went with her when my dad had to teach and none of the neighbors could look after me. Most of the houses had been built during the 1930s and 1940s. They sat on small squares of dead grass with no fences between them. The streets were always empty and dwindled into the dusty farmland abutting the southern end of the city.
Things smelled differently there. Rotting wood and years of piled junk crowded the light out of the windows. Inside each house lived a sad-eyed, slack-skinned person sitting in a wheel chair, plugged into a whirring ventilator. The small plastic tubes looked like bridles anchored against their noses. It was alarming to watch my mother speak kindly and confidentially to these collapsing bodies. The whooshing melodies of her Danish voice seemed strong enough to blow the walls over.
At home her voice lost its volume, became a smaller part of the television racket, my brother’s heartless teasing, and my dad’s disruptive insertions of trivia from the news or whichever new book he’d come across in the academic lounge. My dad was tall and hunched, his head always seemed to be nodding upward with a grin, ready to announce some remarkable discovery. He had a bristly mustache and curly wild hair that grew around his ears to make up for his bald head. Otherwise he was like the male version of my mother, able to roll through any trough of gloom with optimism. They seemed like conjoined beings, the masculine and feminine variants of some eternal life, a Buddha with two faces and a billion arms.
When I finished second grade they announced we were leaving the apartment to move into a house they had just built even further north. The city was expanding and we were trying to keep our dreams out of its reach.
On a map Fresno is amorphous, a conical blob that looks like a piece of bubble gum squashed against a sidewalk. Downtown Fresno sits at the southwestern end of the blob, at the intersection between two freeways. The 99 shoots diagonally northwest, marking the western edge of the city, while the 41—a smaller local freeway—goes straight north and connects with Yosemite ninety miles north. The two freeways form an inverted triangle with downtown sitting at the bottom tip.
The Tower District, a small bohemian neighborhood built around Fresno City College and the eponymous Tower Theater, is just north of downtown. The area thrived in the 30s and 40s with cafes, restaurants, and local nightlife—many of the buildings still stand, though businesses have struggled to keep the bohemian spirit alive as the city sprawls further and further away. Two miles further north is the Old Fig Garden, an aging but opulent quarter of big lots and European-style country homes nestled into old fig orchards. Beyond Fig Garden is Northwest Fresno, full of ranch homes and mini-mansions built in the 70s and 80s—this is where we moved when I was in second grade.
West Fresno is cut off from the rest of the city by the 99. It’s a pockmarked encampment of fast food restaurants and cheap trucker motels formed along the creaking, neon border of the highway. On the east end of the widening triangle of Fresno is Clovis, the white cowboy district. This is where the local chapter of the KKK used to be; they proudly posted flyers for their meetings well into the 90s.
The push northward, away from the historical heart of the city, came with the jolt to the ag business following the Friant Dam project. Those who’d found their wealth in Fresno—mostly the white European settlers—began to build picturesque ranch homes in fig orchards a good distance from downtown. Stores soon followed. The downtown streets that had once been pedestrian-friendly, serviced by electric streetcars, turned into wide traffic gutters to accommodate the growing car culture. Aging industrial buildings and the decaying homes built by Fresno’s early settlers were left to the migrant workers and the working class merchants who sold them cheap imported goods.
The city saw what was happening to it and tried to make it stop. In 1958 the City Council voted on a plan to fight against sprawl with support from the Federal Urban Redevelopment Agency. Victor Gruen, the Austrian architect and urban planner, was hired to draft a blueprint for Fresno that would once again make downtown its heart. Gruen’s architectural firm was on the rise after its early successes designing America’s first indoor malls in Detroit and Minneapolis. Gruen’s proposal for a revitalized downtown was for another mall—but an outdoor one, made possible by Fresno’s comparatively mild winters. The Fulton Mall project planned to convert Fulton Street—downtown’s most congested commuter gutter—into a pedestrian shopping zone.
Gruen’s plan called for new parking garages to be built nearby, a small secondary bus system for short-distance transport, and mixed-income apartment buildings along with a convention center, music hall, and hotels. Gruen hired architect Garrett Eckbo to design the Fulton Mall itself; Eckbo filled the space with modernist fountains and statues that won Fresno national recognition. Fulton Mall was the first outdoor mall in the country. Its emphasis on modern design and public art were applauded. In 1968 a documentary about the Fulton Mall construction was shown at the White House to an audience that included Lady Bird Johnson; it was treated as a model for a wave of revitalization projects around the country.
It seemed almost perfect. And yet it didn’t quite work. A few small shops and restaurants rented space, but with their customers moving further and further from the center, none of the big department stores that had left could be lured back downtown. Meanwhile Fresno’s new renown caused its own problems. In 1968, a New York-based developer called The Macerich Company began appraising land for a private mall, a luxury facility called Fashion Fair, five miles north of downtown on the silken edge of the newest housing developments.
The company made a pitch to JC Penney’s, Gottschalks, and other department stores that still kept their flagship locations downtown while the neighborhood declined. The choice was a simple one: open exciting modern stores in the richest part of the city or wait things out where you are. The Fulton Mall was an important start, but many more steps were still necessary, including the funding and maintenance of new public transportation systems, the management and steady promotion of a new wave of apartment buildings, office space, parking lots, and a new freeway. It had taken six years to build Fulton Mall itself; the planning of the subsequent infrastructure would take another decade or more.
With the federal money for the construction of the Mall gone, the City Council—a majority white and wealthy group—was left to manage the less glamorous parts of Gruen’s plan. By contrast, the Macerich Company offered thousands of new construction jobs and a new round of upper-income housing developments. So the Council agreed to let Macerich break ground on Fashion Fair, making the Fulton Mall project a kind of hood ornament without a car to attach itself to.
The poor families still living downtown—largely black and Mexican—became increasingly isolated. They were joined by new immigrants in the 70s, Hmong refugees who began settling in Fresno during the Vietnam War and the later rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
For all these poor new residents, downtown provided cheap housing and access to manual labor in factories, truck depots, and in the massive farming industry. The property values in downtown and the immediate vicinity continued to fall, school funding diminished on lower property taxes, and the bus lines that once adequately bound together the mini-San Francisco became harder to navigate. A bus trip from downtown to North Fresno could take as long as two hours.
The contractors, carpenters, and masons who might have continued building up downtown were absorbed into the high-end projects around Fashion Fair. When it opened in 1970 the poverty rate in downtown and West Fresno had reached 43%.
Our new house was in “Royal Coach,” one of the most ostentatious developments in Northwest Fresno. It was a little less than a square mile of stucco mansions custom built in a former fig orchard that had been rezoned for residential real estate. Our house was a two-story mansard with a circular driveway, three-car garage, pool, jacuzzi, indoor atrium, and a second floor deck. It was so big there were rooms with no practical use beyond storing furniture. One of our neighbors was a man named John Bonadelle, the largest home developer in Fresno, pugnacious and ruthless; in the late 90s he’d be indicted for multiple counts of bribery, witness tampering, and money laundering, and sent at the age of 80 to jail.
My mom was working three nursing jobs and had bought a used Jaguar to manage the tedious commutes between them all. She worked herself to exhaustion, but the cheap cost of wealthy living in Fresno was its own reward. Our house cost a quarter of what it would have cost in Los Angeles or San Francisco. And nobody could tell a used Jaguar from a new one on the highway. My mother soon developed a stubborn interest in beautiful and expensive things. She was hungry for them and discovered in the tiresome but feasible rhythms of working and commuting that the means to get these things were within her reach. This did not lead to satisfaction but new levels of desire, with orbiting plates and vases and cars and Ellen Tracy jackets.
I wonder if this wasn’t simply a survival instinct, the natural reaction of a lone woman in a house of selfish and emotionally distant men, each in their own way. My quiet and thoughtful brother had become a farting and burping jock with a propensity for womanizing and weekend parties. I had been an irrationally excitable boy, prone to wild swings of joy and unreachable fits of disappointment. Older, I kept the joyful outbursts more and more to myself and showed my mother only the sulking monosyllables of alienation. We all had our needs of one another and those needs started to go unmet.
My dad had become a tenured professor of Accounting. He’d also come up with a scheme to revolutionize the industry with a visual system for quantifying corporate profit, debt, and investment. His miniaturized graphs fit on baseball cards and could instantly show the proportion of a company’s debt to revenue as black and white blobs. He performed minor miracles of craftsmanship around our house. One year he built his own two-story scaffolding and lined the entire ceiling of our massive family room with burnished wood panels that he designed and sawed himself.
These were distractions, complicated but logical problems that, once solved, left behind a satisfying object as evidence. And once their easy isolation was set aside for the day, my brother and I were easier company than my mother. We were a model audience, passively accepting his chatter about the day’s projects and his newest discoveries pulled from Scientific American or National Geographic stories, offering only a head nod or “Cool” in acknowledgement while watching television or waiting for the phone to ring. My mother was not a passive audience. She asked questions back and wanted things that had nothing to do with quantum electro dynamics or anecdotes from Micronesia. She worked more and more.
As I started high school my mom became convinced my dad had ruined her life. They’d married quickly, and for superficial reasons. Two immigrants from the same country, raised in the manacles of an obscure religion, who both had a hunger to build a familial kingdom of their own. It could have been done with anyone. As my brother and I neared adulthood, the fervor of kingdom-building had subsided, and so too the optimistic glow it had brought. My parents had their dream careers, their dream family, and had just built their dream house. There was nothing more to want except each other. But they didn’t like each other.
My mother seems to have figured this out first, and began to scorn my father. A drawer left open in the kitchen was a subconsciously laid trap. The way he smacked his food at dinner was a sadistic screw boring into her psyche. She began reading books like People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil and piecing together the ominous details of my father’s upbringing. His severe parents had cared more about religion and appearance than they did their own children. His business was a time suck that had only created tension with the accounting traditionalists in his department. His work around the house added to the uncontrolled mess that galled my mom. His slouch, eager curiosity, and willingness to go out of his way to help strangers were the dark shadows of his evil upbringing, about which he was perpetually in denial.
I had been in love with my mother as a child, but as I was grew into a teen I started to admire my dad’s inexhaustible cheer and unconventional way of thinking. He never fought back when my mom would lose herself in anger. He would look at her momentarily and then look down. His eyes moved left and right, searching the floor as he listened to himself disassembled. I hated those moments, and would regularly hurl myself in between my parents to beat back my mom’s words. I’d launch my own rickety criticisms of her with no purpose other than to break back the expanding cloud of her rage.
Our fights grew more intense, inversely proportional to my dad’s passivity. I hated our house. It was huge and incapable of muffling the sound of my parents’ unhappiness. I could hear the faint stabs of anger coming from the garage, the kitchen, the bedroom. At night I would hear them through the walls, the cheerful Danish accent now spiteful and cutting. One night I heard my dad answer back. It was done, he told her. He wasn’t going to be treated like trash anymore. A few minutes later I heard the bedroom door open and close. My dad’s footsteps went down the hall, descended the stairs, and stopped with the creak of his office door closing.
The end stage of both poverty and wealth is anarchic conflict. Short-term benefaction of the individual trumps social rule. Lacking bribe money and connections to contractors, a person will find other means to extract wealth from his surroundings. In the years after the Fulton Mall project was strangled by Fashion Fair, gangs began to proliferate in downtown Fresno. The most active of these were the Bulldogs (named for the Fresno State mascot), which had split off from the influential Mexican Nuestra Familia gang and its powerful drug distribution system, and, left without a steady income, became a kind of anarchic, violent presence on the Fresno scene. In recent years police have launched various initiatives to get them under control, with mixed success.
In 2009, a young Republican named Ashley Swearengin became mayor of Fresno (replacing the actor Alan Autry, who had served two terms) and brought with her another plan to revitalize downtown Fresno: the city would declare the Fulton Mall a historic zone. The Mall is currently at less than half capacity and most of its tenants are Hispanic vendors who sell textiles and imports. The majority of vendors opposed the plan as it would place new upkeep requirements on them. Meanwhile the City Council voted 4-2 to move forward with a 238-acre development of another mega shopping center built around a Target in the northwest corner of the city.
Another plan Swearengin pitched the council, with the backing of PBID Partners, a non-profit dedicated to revitalizing downtown, sought to reopen some of the mall to car traffic, citing the fact that more than 170 of the 200 pedestrian malls that had been built around the country in the 60s and 70s had closed. The dream of a bustling pedestrian downtown didn’t seem to have worked out anywhere. Swearengin and PBID filed a grant petition for their plan, worth $2.7 million, but last month a City Council scoring committee rejected the proposal by a 6-5 vote, with several members objecting to the idea of spending more money downtown.
The council also spent more than $3 million investigating a proposal called the Southeast Growth Area plan, which would transform 9,000 acres of unoccupied farmland on the southern outskirts of the city into a planned community with parks, public spaces, water treatment facilities, and the potential to house 120,000 people. It would essentially be a separate city, whose infrastructure and development costs would be paid for by a mix of bank loans, federal guarantees, and taxes collected from Fresno residents. Each successive generation builds their own version of the same basic escape plan, but they can only ever get as far the city limits. Moving them further and further out has not changed the fact that they are still limits, encircling the inescapable.
I remember the last time I saw my parents kiss. I was 12 and caught them standing in the front entryway of our house one Sunday morning. I watched them through the loose foliage in the atrium. My mom wrapped her arms around my dad’s neck and smiled her dimpled smile, entranced by his face. He was smiling too, in his overwhelmed and bashful way. They had been talking about taking a trip somewhere and my mom, her heart still restless in its suburban stall, must have jumped. “Do you mean it?” she asked.
“Yeah, sure,” he said, the idiom sounding like a pantomime with his Danish accent. “Why not?”
They lasted a long time together. They survived for 20 years, raised two sons, and built their own home in a place where a teacher and a nurse could afford a French country mansion. They sold the house after I left for college. But they stayed together, even though the only thing they had left in common was anger, sadness, and fear. They bought a new house, and then an empty lot, and then another house, as if they expected to find in them something other than themselves.