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Laying bare what ails Fresno is a tall task

Byline1

French journalist Christina Chiron headed to downtown Fresno this week to ask the same question asked by an illustrious French writer nearly two centuries ago.

Why does American democracy work the way it does?

Actually, she posed the question (in slightly different form) to me on Tuesday. Figuring it was presumptuous to tell her to read Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” I fumbled for an original answer.

“Go see our Mayor,” I finally blurted to her and her brother, Stanley Chiron.

I wish the Chiron siblings could have joined me during my wanderings on Wednesday. Fresno really is a good testing ground for democratic self-rule in the 21st century.

Let’s begin on Tuesday in the late afternoon.

I had just finished a brief chat with Communications Director Mark Standriff at City Hall. With time to kill, I headed to what used to be Fulton Mall. It’s now Fulton Construction Zone, the six-block stretch well on its way to returning to its glory days as Fulton Street.

I started my trek through the maze of paths and cyclone fencing at Inyo Street, the southern end of Fulton Corridor. As you can tell by my photo (taken Wednesday), what used to be the mall in front of the old Gottschalks building is long gone.

As I got to the Helm Building, I saw a woman with a big camera taking photos of a tree stump. The restoration project is getting rid of a lot of trees, a blessing in my opinion that will open up sight lines in an area full of architectural wonders.

The photographer was Christina Chiron. Stanley Chiron was off to one side, watching his sister at work.

“Who is she shooting for?” I asked Stanley.

Perhaps his English isn’t so good. Or perhaps I should have simply asked the photographer herself. Whatever the reason, Christina was the one to respond.

photo (3)Turns out the Chiron siblings are from Bordeaux, France. Christina is a writer for what she described as a small newspaper. She gave me the paper’s name. I don’t speak French – the name went in one ear and out the other.

Christina said she was in town to do a story on the Sister City relationship between Fresno and Chateauroux, France. Her investigative digging had included an interview with City Council Member Esmeralda Soria.

As I would learn on Wednesday from Terry Cox, Soria’s chief of staff, the Fresno-Chateauroux tie was formalized in January 2016. City Hall held a reception for visiting Chateauroux officials in February. Soria, Cox and other Fresno dignitaries will head to Chateauroux late this month.

Like I said, Christina Chiron is a working reporter. Once she established I wasn’t a panhandler, she did all the asking of questions.

“Why is it so grey and sad?” she said, pointing to the deep-seated dreariness of Fulton Mall and so many storefronts. “Where are the people? Fresno has a population of a half-million. Do they not go outside?”

Christina kept looking around and pointing.

“Why?”

My response: “We’ve been trying to answer that question for more than 50 years.”

I knew I had to give Christina and Stanley something more substantial than that.

“Have you heard of Victor Gruen?” I said.

They hadn’t. But I plowed ahead anyway.

I told the Chrions about this urban architect born in Vienna, Austria in the early days of the 20th century. I said Gruen had made quite a name for himself in America in the first two decades after World War II. I said Fresno’s civic and business leaders during that same period were worried sick about their city’s national stature and economic prospects in a world suddenly become thoroughly connected and hyper-competitive.

I said Gruen came to Fresno in the late 1950s with an idea of turning Fulton Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, into one huge pedestrian mall. I said Gruen promised local leaders he would transform Fulton Street into something resembling a Viennese plaza (Christina smiled big at that notion). I said the idea was that everyone in Fresno would behave as if they were one big happy family while on the mall. I said such a magical mall would attract tourists from far and wide.

I rubbed the thumb of my right hand against my index and middle fingers in that age-old symbol for money.

I said we didn’t have the dough to do everything we wanted to do on the mall. I said the mall we got didn’t work the way Gruen promised. I said hardly anyone made money on the mall.

photo (2)I said City Hall politicians for decades had recognized the mistake of believing Gruen. I said local politics kept City Hall from ripping up the mall and bringing back the street. I said the current mayor – Ashley Swearengin – had the force of will to change things.

Yes, that was quite a load of historical chatter I dumped on the Chirons. I threw a Hail Mary pass in summation, hoping to retrieve my dignity in the eyes of foreign strangers.

“Go see our Mayor – she’s the hero.”

Christina smiled again, only to return to her main theme.

“The stores are closed,” she said. “I don’t see many people. Why?”

Christina said she and her brother were slated to leave town late Wednesday morning. She promised to email me a copy of her story on Fresno, California.

The Chiron siblings and I then went opposite directions.

What if Christina and Stanley had seen what I saw on Wednesday? You know – the journalist’s dream of being an observant fly on the wall. Might that have given them a slightly better sense of what makes Fresno tick in 2016, and how decisions made in the 1950s and 1960s continue to test our capacity for self-rule?

Maybe. Maybe not. Still, my day was interesting.

1.) I dropped by the City Hall office of Michael Flores, one of two independent hearing officers for the city. It is Flores who will hear the appeal of Chris Henry, owner of the huge Summerset Village apartment complex in Central Fresno.

Hundreds of residents at Summerset went days without natural gas service and hot water last November. Many of the residents are from Southeast Asia, their journey to America the direct result of our nation’s divisive, heroic and tragic 15-year involvement in the affairs of Vietnam.

Henry is appealing hundreds of code enforcement violations. He faces hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. Flores’ decision figures to be a trailblazer as City Hall tries to get a handle on the proper level of regulation of housing stock.

Flores said he visited Summerset Village last week for his own education. He said the appeal hearing is May 24.

Such hearings usually are held in a small second-floor conference room at City Hall. Flores said he may ask to have the Summerset hearing transferred to the spacious Council Chamber.

2.) I then dropped by the Administration’s waiting room to visit with Communications Director Standriff. In particular, I wanted to chat with Assistant City Manager Renena Smith.

It’s Smith who decides which code enforcement appeals will be heard by Flores and which will go to the other hearing officer, Ed Johnson.

It wasn’t too long ago that Johnson heard all appeals. Then city officials got angry with Johnson because he seemed to be favoring the appellants more than City Hall. So the City Council did its own version of a “court-packing” scheme by hiring Flores.

According to May’s busy hearing calendar, Flores will preside over all but two of the scheduled appeals. An unhappy Johnson is pretty much left twiddling his thumbs.

I wanted to ask Smith how she decides which appeals to go to the veteran Johnson and which to the newcomer Flores.

Standriff said Smith was too busy to talk on Wednesday. He said she would be available during a break in Thursday’s council meeting.

3.) Standriff did give me a tip – the Mayor at 2 p.m. Wednesday was slated to be among the speakers at a ground-breaking ceremony for a 30-unit apartment complex on Calaveras Avenue in the Lowell Neighborhood on the north edge of Downtown.

The project is actually a rehabilitation of a rundown complex. But the change is so dramatic that it might as well be a whole new deal. The key partners are the Fresno Housing Authority and City Hall.

City Council members last June spent a week fighting among themselves over whether to put city money into the project. Swearengin was pro-project. Council Member Lee Brand was among those who opposed city participation, saying the price tag was too steep for the taxpayer. He later changed his mind and his vote.

Fresno is no different than the rest of America over the last 240 years – politics makes for strange bedfellows.

photo (1)The Calaveras project is pitched as another vital step in the revitalization of an inner-city that has suffered from political and elitist neglect since the 1950s, about the same time Victor Gruen began singing the praises of a downtown pedestrian mall.

More registered voters live in older parts of Fresno than in the newest neighborhoods of North Fresno, where Brand holds court.

Brand is running to succeed the termed-out Swearengin as Fresno’s chief executive. His toughest opponent figures to be Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea, who is Hispanic in a town whose demographics trend heavily in the Hispanic direction.

Much of inner-city Fresno is Hispanic.

“This is a shining example of what the City of Fresno can do,” Brand said Wednesday at the Calaveras project ground-breaking.

Democracy in America, indeed.

4.) I finished the day (or evening) by spending two hours at a meeting of the City’s Housing and Community Development Commission.

The commission is advisory. It makes recommendations to the City Council.

Two items were before the five commissioners.

First, city officials somehow found $3.5 million of unspent federal money designed for development projects in poor neighborhoods. Fresno has a lot of poor neighborhoods. The city in the post-Gruen decades has come to have the highest concentrations of poverty of just about any big city in America.

Needless to say, the Swearengin Administration had no trouble coming up with a list of projects for the $3.5 million. For example, $600,000 is pegged for grants to low and moderate income homeowners so they can fix up their houses. Another $600,000 is to go to in-fill housing of the “affordable” kind.

The commissioners unanimously recommended approval of the Administration’s spending priorities.

Second, planning director Jennifer Clark and housing division manager Joe Trujillo asked the commission to bless what’s called the “Analysis of Impediments,” or “AI.”

This is a nearly 200-page look at how the city is doing when it comes to ensuring that all Fresnans, regardless of background or income, have a fair and honest shot at living in any neighborhood in town.

It all goes back to high concentrations of poverty. It all goes back to the fault lines in Fresno society that city leaders sensed in the 1950s and 1960s. It all goes back to the idealistic belief of Victor Gruen that the scientific management of people is a good thing. It all goes back to that essential question – can American democracy be made to work equally for everyone without crushing individual liberty?

The commission on a 4-1 vote (Barbara Fiske, a Lowell Neighborhood resident, voting no) recommended approval of the AI. The report goes to the City Council on Thursday, then will be kicked up to the feds.

Ashley Werner, a lawyer for Leadership Counsel for Justice & Accountability, expressed the same reservations about the report as Fiske – City Hall hadn’t done nearly enough outreach to disadvantaged neighborhoods.

The commission meeting finished at about 7 p.m. I left City Hall and walked through the Lowell Neighborhood. I saw homeless people settling in for the night. Several times I passed young males, walking alone like me and looking not particularly friendly. But I also saw a Dickey Playground full of young people playing various games and having a good time.

So, Christina and Stanley Chiron, you ask why it is that the heart of Fresno lacks the more obvious charms of life.

Assuming that’s true, I don’t have the answer.

But the heart of Fresno is full of free people and human conflict. That’s the name of the game in a democracy.

Just ask Tocqueville.

George Hostetter
George Hostetter is The Sun’s Fresno Civic contributor – covering the City of Fresno, County of Fresno, and Fresno Council of Governments.

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