City Beat

January 16, 2014

A walk along Merced Street

City Beat

George Hostetter has his feet on the ground and his eyes on City Hall

I attended an excellent in-house training session on Wednesday.

On Thursday, I learned the real world is a lot different than a classroom.

The training session focused on the new world of journalism. The Internet and smart phones with video capability are dramatically changing the business.

I am high-tech challenged. I am to learn a new way of story-telling. Video is to be a key part, perhaps even the main part, of that story-telling.

Sounds A-OK to me.

I have a Bee-issued smartphone. With patient instruction from several of my newsroom colleagues, I’ve learned how to start and stop the video function.

The City Council met on Thursday. Things began at 1:30 p.m. so Council Member Oliver Baines could attend a morning meeting of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District board.

The council had a light agenda. I left City Hall about 3:15 p.m. and headed back to the newsroom. As usual, I walked. My smartphone was in my coat pocket.

I have a half-dozen favorite routes for such a walk. This time, I took P Street to Merced Street, then headed west. I figured I’d take Merced to Fulton Mall, then cut over to the Stanislaus Street Bridge.

I stayed on the south side of Merced as I made my way toward Van Ness Avenue. I got to the southeast corner of Merced and Van Ness just as the traffic signal turned red. I stopped and waited.

A man next to me was sitting on a bicycle. He looked like he was down on his luck, perhaps homeless. I thought he, too, was waiting for the light to turn green so he could cross Van Ness.

Then the man yelled, “Over here.” I looked at him. He was looking toward the other side of Van Ness. He was yelling at a woman.

You, dear reader, may not be familiar with the geography of this part of downtown. The short stretch of Merced between Van Ness and the alley to the west has two-way traffic separated by a median island. Nothing about this stretch feels right. Parked cars don’t seem to belong. Moving cars seem to get in the way of walkers. Walkers get in the way of cars.

The woman was standing in front of the median island. She had a shopping cart filled to the top. Two dogs were tied to the front of the cart. One of the dogs looked like a pit bull. It was big. The other dog wasn’t as big but looked powerful.

Each dog was tied to the shopping cart by a separate rope. There was about three feet of slack in each rope.

The dogs were being used like oxen. Their job was to pull the cart. The dogs, the cart and the woman began crossing Van Ness in the middle of Merced. There are crosswalks on each side of Merced at Van Ness. But she was in the middle.

The traffic signal in my direction turned green but I didn’t move. I watched the woman. At first, I thought she would acknowledge the man yelling at her and direct her dog-pulled cart toward him.

I was wrong. She stayed in the middle of Merced. She had no way to control the dogs except to yell. She wasn’t a big woman. It obviously required a mighty effort on her part to keep the cart on her desired path.

The dogs seemed inclined to veer to the side of Merced. Whenever the dogs drifted to one side or the other, the woman would lean hard on the cart in the opposite direction and shout at the dogs.

I couldn’t understand a word.

I crossed to the west side of Van Ness. The woman passed me, headed east on Merced.

I grabbed my smartphone. Here was my chance to shoot some video that tells a small story about a slice of Fresno society that influences so much local public policy.

My plan: Ask the woman what she’s thinking.

I had to retrace my steps. By this time, the traffic light is red. I had to wait. I could see the woman heading east, right in the middle of the street. She’s going fast, thanks to the dogs.

Eastbound and westbound cars on Merced are giving her a wide berth. The man on the bicycle is following her. He’s staying on the side of the street. She’s ignoring him.

I run to catch up. I try a couple of times to shoot video. She’s flying down the asphalt.

She crosses L Street without too much trouble. The cross traffic at this intersection has stop signs.

The cross traffic at M Street doesn’t have stop signs. This is the intersection with the County Jail annex on the southwest corner. The woman zips across M.

I finally catch up to the woman as she crosses N Street, near Memorial Auditorium. The dogs insist on veering to Merced’s south side, forcing the woman to stop and get them under control.

This is my opportunity to get some video.

“Hello,” I say. “Why are you in the middle of the street?”

It’s obvious by the way I’m hold the smartphone that I’m taking some sort of photo of her.

I did not understand much of what she said. But I did understand two points: “Don’t take my picture.” “You’re invading my privacy.”

She got angry. I stopped recording. I did not want her to let those dogs loose. I didn’t know what the man on the bicycle might do.

She regained control of the dogs. I left her in the middle of Merced, heading at a smart clip toward O Street.

I shot four clips of video: 13 seconds, eight seconds, 30 seconds, three seconds. The 30-second clip, showing her at Merced and N, makes the most sense.

I had several thoughts as I resumed my journey to the newsroom.

* Privacy counts. But I’m not sure a person has a right to privacy when she’s guiding a dog-pulled shopping cart down the middle of a busy public street in the downtown of California’s fifth largest city at 3:30 on a Thursday afternoon.

* I passed a fair number of pedestrians on Merced as I tried to catch up to the woman. A fair number of cars on Merced passed her. Other than the man on the bicycle, I was the only person to show the slightest interest in what she was doing. It was as if everyone else thought: “No big deal — this is Fresno.”

* Wednesday’s in-house training session included a video of a Detroit newspaper reporter who’s an expert on video journalism. He is the modern day storyteller — exactly the kind my boss wants me to become. This Detroit video expert tells marvelous stories in which he compares abandoned buildings of today with their glory days of the early 20th century. He tells marvelous stories about rehabilitated fish and turtle habitat.

But if video is destined to replace print in journalism’s story-telling (as everyone tells me), and a big city reporter’s story-telling charge is to honestly record reality as it unfolds, then it might be wise for the next in-house “new journalism” training session to focus less on Hollywood-style camera angles and more on how to get the video story when video and the video reporter are the enemy.

Some of the best video stories about Fresno will be some of the most dangerous.


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About George Hostetter


George Hostetter, a Fresno Bee reporter since 1987, knows Fresno and the trappings of its government from the top of his hat to the tip of his shoes, which he wears out with round trips between the office and City Hall. Twitter: @georgehostetter. Email George at or call him at 559-441-6272.

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