Headed north from southwest Fresno, riders on a "Tale of Two Cities" bus tour across Fresno were asked to keep a couple of questions in mind.
The principal question: What can we do better?
More than 50 tour participants, including Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, watched neighborhoods change from the bus windows throughout the two-hour ride Wednesday that was accompanied by a number of speakers.
The tour was led by Faith in Community, and many community leaders, pastors and politicians were on board.
The tour made a number of stops to contrast challenges facing residents in the southern half of the city with the nicer neighborhoods in the northern half.
Among the stops: the Darling International, Inc. rendering plant, which west Fresno residents have been trying to shut down or move for years; the Lowell district just north of downtown, an impoverished neighborhood that the city has been working to improve; and blighted rental housing.
Andy Levine, executive director for Faith in Community, talked about pay-day lenders and cash-checking establishments in Fresno that "prey on the working poor."
Levine said only 11 of the 68 pay-day loan businesses in Fresno are north of Shaw, with the majority in 22 neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.
An ordinance will soon be put before the City Council to discourage more of these establishments, he said.
As the bus traveled north, Matt Jendian, Fresno State sociology professor, handed out a map of concentrated poverty the city did in 2005 showing the poorest areas in the south, and the wealthiest in the north. Participants talked about how the roads in the north were wider, with more greenery, larger homes, and more professional businesses and retail shops.
Jendian said the key to boosting Fresno's economy is harnessing the "entrepreneurial" spirit not hoping for big companies to come in and save it."
In 2011, there were 47,000 entrepreneurs in Fresno, he said, with the majority single-person shops. If each could grow to even six employees, Fresno's economy would improve, he said.
For a long time, Fresno believed development was the cure for what ails it, Jendian said, but it didn't solve old problems.
Swearengin talked about the problem with that old mentality and highlighted the city's general plan revamp now under way advocating for almost equal investment in old and new neighborhoods.
She encouraged residents and leaders helping to better the city to "stay the course."
"We would not be where we are if not for your work," Swearengin said. "It's really, really important."
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