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Don't forget it, Jake: Fresno's Chinatown at a crossroads

An Area with a Long History

Chinatown and its history are no strangers to most Fresnans. The railroads in the 19th century made Chinatown just as it made the rest of original Fresno.

Chinatown today is mainly the 16-block area bounded by Fresno Street on the north, G Street on the east, Inyo Street on the south and E Street on the west. Chinatown proper extends further south to Ventura Street, but those blocks are mainly industrial in nature (although the Full Circle Brewing Co. adds some entertainment flavor with its retail venue).

Chinatown’s geographical dilemma is much like the one facing Old Germantown, the tiny neighborhood further south that once was home to Fresno’s hardworking Volga German community.

Mid-20th century progress was such that Old Germantown was turned into an island essentially cut off from civilization by Highway 99, Highway 41 and Golden State Boulevard. Chinatown is similarly isolated by 99, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad tracks and the homelessness industry south of Ventura (Fresno Rescue Mission, Poverello House).

But Chinatown is much bigger than Old Germantown. And, unlike Old Germantown, Chinatown is located in a spot pivotal to Fresno’s future.

Nor is Chinatown a stranger to urban architects and planners. Victor Gruen of Fulton Mall fame joined with Fresno Redevelopment Agency officials in the late 1950s/early 1960s to craft Downtown urban renewal plans that were supposed to reach as far west as Chinatown. That marriage of renowned visionary and local moguls spawned in the coming decades a cottage industry of Chinatown growth blueprints. All were committed to paper at great public expense.

Omachi, whose family roots in Chinatown run deep, watched the plans come and go.

“There are the two reasons we are being disintegrated piece by piece: Lack of political will and lack of (neighborhood) control,” Omachi told me. “There has never been help – an extended hand of friendship – that had staying power.”

The 60 years since the Gruen experiment have confirmed one point: City Hall has no idea what to do with Chinatown.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the 2035 general plan, the Downtown Neighborhoods Community Plan and the Fulton Corridor Specific Plan, all of them researched, written and approved during Ashley Swearengin’s eight years as mayor.

Mayor Lee Brand, who took office in January, has vowed to implement Swearengin’s many plans.

“Revitalizing our downtown and surrounding neighborhoods has been my highest priority as your Mayor,” Swearengin wrote in the introduction to the Downtown Neighborhoods plan. “… Over time, good planning creates vibrant neighborhoods and supports economic prosperity. In a healthy, well planned neighborhood, quality food, shopping and entertainment options are nearby. Children experience a pleasant and safe walk to school. In fact, crime is less of a problem overall because people know their neighbors and see them every day. In a vibrant neighborhood, property owners invest in their property, keeping living conditions safe and property well-managed and maintained.”

The Mayor’s pep talk was followed by nearly 170 pages of transformative plans for the 11 square miles that are Fresno’s urban core and pretty much constituted the entire city before World War II. The plans dig into “subareas” such as the Jane Addams neighborhoods, the Edison neighborhoods, the Southeast neighborhoods and, of course, Downtown.

The summary of promises for Downtown includes:

  •  Revitalize the Fulton Corridor.
  • Target investment towards the Fulton Corridor and the buildings that front it.
  • Connect the High-Speed Rail Station to Fulton Street with dense, urban, and pedestrian-focused development.
  • Activate existing open spaces such as Courthouse Park and introduce new open spaces.

The summary doesn’t mention Chinatown by name.

Then you have the Fulton Corridor Specific Plan, which runs to 250 pages. This plan deals with heart of Downtown. Chinatown is within the plan’s scope of study.

The Fulton Corridor also has seven subareas: Fulton District, Mural District, Civic Center, South Stadium, Chinatown, Armenian Town/Convention Center and the Divisadero Triangle.

The Fulton District, for example, is to be “transformed into a walkable, mixed use district that is the center of the San Joaquin Valley,” the plan states.

The Armenian Town/Convention Center area is to be connected “to the Fulton Corridor with clear pedestrian linkages and wayfinding signage.”

The Fulton Corridor plan deals at length with the challenges and opportunities of integrating six of the seven subareas into one big, dynamic engine of success.

Chinatown? It’s the redheaded stepchild.

“Infill Chinatown’s many vacant lots with sensitively scaled, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly buildings that accommodate a variety of uses,” is about all the excitement the Fulton Corridor plan can muster for that part of Fresno.

City planners have only bromides for Chinatown because they don’t care about the area’s problems (Omachi and Pearson, among others) or are demoralized by the magnitude of the task of fixing things (me).

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

5 Comments

  1. And where will all of our ‘homeless’ people be along with the rest of the broken window issues? How will these issues be kept out of sight?

  2. The proposed solution to Chinatown about 30 years ago was to condemn it, level it and peddle the vacant land to Ed Kashian to redevelop as a modern commercial area. This idea surfaced after Highway City fought a similar proposal off. The Chinatown folks battled to keep Kashian out. Over the years since, Chinatown has been slowly dying. Quite a few of the older buildings have burned down and the homeless have gradually taken the area over.

  3. I love the free parking in China Town and often go there for a good meal though was saddened when Paris Cafe literally gave up the ghost. I also miss Come & Get It Chicken & Waffles. Give people a reason to go somewhere, and they will go. Wish the city would help small businesses get a foothold in China Town.

  4. I driven through Chinatown yesterday and COULDN’T BELIEVE how decimated and barron it looked. The homeless people took it over smh. I remember going there as a kid. Fish mamasan giving me a toy every time I went into Central Fish. Its very very sad to see the current condition of Chinatown. I’m not really sure if HSR will help it. It will create basically a wall to divide DTF and chinatown.

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