Blackstone Avenue might finally get the respect it deserves.
If that miracle happens, the Fresno Historic Preservation Commission should take a bow.
At issue is the possible growth of historic districts in our city. There currently are four such districts. The commissioners at their March meeting identified nine potential districts.
I wrote about the nine proposed districts in CVObserver on April 20. The nine are: The Brick Warehouse/Office Building District; Yosemite Avenue Historic District; Fresno Hitching Post Thematic Historic District; Thematic Survey of Blackstone Avenue; Thematic Survey of Shaw Avenue; Chinatown Historic District; Terrace Gardens; St. John’s Cathedral District; and the Historic Warehouse District.
At their April 23 meeting, the commissioners directed staff to focus its immediate research efforts on five of the nine. Work on the remaining four will be left to an unspecified time in the future.
The five proposed historic districts now front and center on City Hall’s plate are: Yosemite Avenue, Hitching Post, Chinatown, Historic Warehouse and Blackstone. The hard work of figuring out the preservation and development possibilities of these five areas falls on the capable shoulders of Historic Preservation Specialist Laura Van Onna and Assistant Planning Director Dan Zack.
Permit to note that city officials between the March and April meetings slightly tweaked the names of the Blackstone and Shaw projects. In March, they were the Mid-Century Modern Blackstone Avenue district and the Mid-Century Modern Shaw Avenue district. In April, they were the Thematic Survey of Blackstone Avenue and the Thematic Survey of Shaw Avenue.
I don’t know if the change is simply a refinement of language for administrative purposes or a hint that Blackstone and Shaw could turn into something other than historic districts.
I like the term “mid-century modern” as applied to Blackstone and Shaw. I admit to knowing next to nothing about the concept. My assumption, based on brief comments from commissioners in March and April, is that “mid-century modern” refers to distinctive elements of the built environment dating to, say, the middle third of the 20th century.
I was born in 1950. I like stuff from the middle third of the 20th century. I like the notion that Fresno in that era built things along Blackstone and Shaw that still exist and are worth preserving because they speak to posterity in distinctive and even eloquent ways. Elitists too often dismiss development in the quarter-century after World War II as nothing more than incessant urban sprawl. I disagree. The period is a worthy chapter in American excellence.
These sentiments help explain why I was pleased to hear the commissioners on April 23 show considerable interest in the Blackstone project. Then I thought to myself: Why not Shaw Avenue, as well? No commissioner had explained why Blackstone is more deserving for immediate study than Shaw.
So, during the hearing’s public comment period, I respectfully asked the commissioners to opine on the difference. I noted that the typical Fresnan probably intuitively understands why something special from the late 1800s or early 1900s deserves protection but may not understand why, for example, the former site of a restaurant built in 1948 or an office complex built in 1956 might merit the same legal and social respect.
I suggested that making Shaw a priority as well as Blackstone would provide the commission with an invaluable “teachable moment.”
Commissioner Paul Halajian responded:
“I agree,” Halajian said. “I think there is notable architecture along Shaw as well as Blackstone. I might argue that the notable features along Blackstone are older than on Shaw. Shaw, I think came of age in the ‘70s, where Blackstone has a much longer history and has more examples of a broader range of architectural styles than you might find on Shaw. So, that might be a compelling reason.”
An even more compelling reason, Halajian said, is the array of new policy and development forces impacting Blackstone.
There is a nonprofit group here in Fresno that has four local architectural firms that will be putting some very, very intense study into Blackstone. The outcome of that work, hopefully, will be used as a template or a guide or an inspiration, however you want to describe it, for people who think Blackstone is dead and should be forgotten.
“What we want to do is demonstrate how the general plan, combined with the BRT line, can bring about an entirely new urban context on Blackstone that defies what people think is possible. I think that is a daunting task. It’s a compelling task. And had there been the same kind of effort or project along Shaw, I’d probably say, ‘Let’s look at Shaw.’ But because there’s something happening (along Blackstone), and there’s something that’s going to happen, this study will really help our work.”
Imagine that – Blackstone Avenue as a Mother Lode of architectural treasure. I nominate the Sears building at Manchester Center as Fresno’s next historic asset.