This week, summer officially ended. I’m happy to report mine was a good one: I traveled to northern Italy to give a lecture and visited the East Coast to see family. But during these wonderful trips and at many other moments during my summer, I was haunted by something happening in Fresno.
You see, while strolling through beautiful places marked “area pedonale” – pedestrian area – in Italian cities as large as Milan and as small as Brescia, I couldn’t help thinking about how our own beautiful area pedonale, the Fulton Mall, was being destroyed.
Picturing that cultural crime also disrupted my reverie after I took the free bus from the Boston airport to a downtown subway stop. One stop later, I emerged to walk to my hotel. To my surprise, I found myself in an extensive and lively pedestrian-only shopping area of streets that clearly had once been paved for cars rather than people.
Some of this area was still being renovated and not every storefront was rented, but the wise city leaders knew that by allowing tourists to get there at no charge and providing staffed visitor-information booths in a millennial and family-friendly car-free zone, they were stimulating downtown economic growth.
In between these trips, I was with my parents in Los Angeles, sharing their evening ritual of watching the PBS news while eating dinner. One of the program’s segments that night described the revitalization of downtown Cleveland.
Fortunately, it was time to clear the table, because I just couldn’t sit still listening to the cheerful and upbeat Cleveland business leader describe the projects increasing pedestrian access in his city. I felt anguish knowing that the destruction of Fresno’s unique, midcentury-modern open-air art museum was taking place just as cities across America were enthusiastically boosting their “walkability” scores.
It was harder than I anticipated to return to Fresno. Once back, I realized I had to really confront and let it sink in that the world-class, site-specific, work of art in itself Fulton Mall had been broken into bits and trashed.
It is an act, in my view, of legalized vandalism authorized by the craven ambition and timidity of local politicians who implement just about everything on wealthy developers’ wish lists on a regular basis.
Of course, I expect developers to have dollar signs in their eyes, but I’d truly rather have my City Council members taking cues from smart and well-informed profit-seekers instead of small-minded and backward dummies who don’t know what’s going on outside their offices in ugly business plazas. But as the saying goes, don’t just mourn, organize and here’s what we the people need to do.
First of all, we must insist upon the return of our communal treasure, the mall’s art collection, to public view on Fulton as those who purchased and installed the art intended. Yes, I know it’s part of the plan, but do I really have to explain why there’s no reason to trust Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s crew not to dispose of the art by carelessness, sale or moving it to north Fresno locations?
Second, we must insist that a park of equal size and beauty be thoughtfully designed and created downtown to replace the open space lost to the largely working-class Latino residents of the area – and to diverse downtown workers – by bulldozing the mall.
That project also provides an opportunity for the supposed non-conservatives on the Fresno City Council to demonstrate leadership and clean up the reputations they damaged by voting against their constituents’ interests to curry favor with Fresno’s powerful elites.
Without additional park projects, Fresno will not climb out of dead last on the ranking of the 50 largest U.S. cities in terms of park access, but at least restoring this downtown park space would mean the gap between 49 and 50 won’t increase (how humiliating!).
Third, when the art is returned to Fulton, it may be more vulnerable to theft or vandalism because it’s obviously easier to commit those crimes when jumping out of a car and speeding away than while on foot. If that should happen to even one artwork, the response must never be to remove the art but to restore the mall as pedestrian-only.
Oh, and by the way, politicians, I’d think twice about having your name on a plaque at the site of a demolished park and local gem. Increasingly, folks now and in the future will undoubtedly be shaking their heads in disbelief when viewing it and wonder: “What were those asphalt-heads thinking?”
Jill Fields is a professor of history at Fresno State and founding coordinator of the Jewish Studies Certificate Program.