Valley Voices

Fresno State: Why not restore an old Fresno theater?

There is no doubt that Fresno State is having an impact on our city and region. President Joseph Castro’s “State of the University” address, delivered Jan. 31, makes that case in economic terms: Fresno State drives the regional economy, with an annual regional economic impact topping $716 million, he said.

For every dollar invested by the state of California, Fresno State returns $7 to the region. The university’s annual spending produces more than $26.2 million in local taxes and nearly $13.6 million in statewide taxes, he said.

But a university’s impact on a region is measured in more than dollars. A university affects its city and region in symbolic ways as well. One such way is by what it builds, where it builds, and how it builds.

A university’s built environment is very much part of its legacy, and the way a university makes spaces and places for itself within the community affects the look, character, and feel of the community, not just the campus proper.

The university has announced that it intends to build a new performing arts center on Shaw Avenue as part of a greater focus on the future of the arts and humanities. The rationale for this new building is that it will “provide a more intimate space than the Save Mart Center.”

If this is the sole purpose of this venue, then the university has before it a grand opportunity to provide such a space while also making good on its promise to work with the community “as one.”

Fresno is full of historic and beautiful theaters that, despite having fallen into disrepair, are the ideal intimate spaces the university seeks for its arts and humanities programs. Rather than build something shiny and new, couldn’t the university partner with the city and with developers to rehabilitate these?

This approach to enhancing the arts and humanities has the potential to restore both the look and feel of the historically neglected neighborhoods in which many of our students live, work, and play. This is a real opportunity for the university, an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to working with the community “as one” in bringing a brighter future to Fresno.

The presidential commission tasked with the consideration of whether or not to build a new structure should have its scope expanded to options beyond building something new; rather, it might also consider how the university might enhance life in our city through the arts and humanities organically.

This includes pointing out ways we might invest in and use the cultural resources our community already has to offer.

In some ways, the hard work some in the community are already doing to revitalize a Fresno that was abandoned in the 1950s and later has created an unprecedented opportunity for the university to prove itself the community player it says it is.

The university can’t disregard its own role in the suburbanization of the city, a process that although not unique to Fresno, has taken a particularly harsh toll on the oft unseen and ignored communities that stayed in the city’s core when more affluent and less racialized residents moved north.

Even though current university leaders aren’t directly to blame for the university’s role in these actions, they do have an opportunity to correct course, an opportunity to revise the university’s legacy.

Rubén Casas is an assistant professor of English at Fresno State. Connect with him at rhouses@gmail.com.

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