If you ask a Fresno resident what Chinatown represents to them, most would describe it as skid row or the slum of West Fresno. Yet, Chinatown is almost as old as Fresno and it’s been a vital part of our city’s history.
Chinatown started in the late 1800s in response to the discriminatory practices of the era. Asian businessmen were forced to leave the community of Friant after an ordinance was passed prohibiting Chinese businesses from operating. Eventually, some moved to Fresno but their success soon caused similar resentment, forcing them to move across the tracks to the area now known as Chinatown. With this move, the tracks also became an official demarcation between the white and nonwhite sectors of the city.
The area grew and prospered through the patronage of the local ethnic communities, attracting a myriad of businesses, medical and professional services, schools and churches. The area grew so rapidly that both sides of the track were eventually connected by a trolley car that would transport patrons to both commercial areas. Chinatown became the hub for various ethnic groups from throughout the Central Valley to obtain critically needed commercial and professional services normally not accessible across the tracks or in small communities. On a darker side, it also developed a reputation for heavy drinking and prostitution, although this never overshadowed its true value to the community.
As a gateway to our country, Chinatown became the first American experience for many immigrants in the Central Valley. Recent arrivals secured housing and support in their own language, attracted to Nihonmachi District, Fagan Alley or China Alley or to the various communities that abut Chinatown such as Japanese town, Russian town, Italian town, German Town, and Armenian Town or the Mexican communities in the area.
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Chinatown offered employment through its businesses and was a central labor terminal for agriculture workers. As early as 3 a.m. people began arriving to Chinatown to catch one of many labor buses that lined its streets. The opportunity for day labor offset the need for homelessness and supplemented the incomes of low-income households. Bus drivers called for workers to travel to as far as Bakersfield, Coalinga, Merced and Los Banos.
Chinatown was a social, friendly and a familial environment, totally contrary to the image held by many residents across the tracks. Although it should be stated that many of them also frequented Chinatown for many of its favored restaurants, entertainment and services, it’s also believed that tunnels crossed to Chinatown giving access to gentlemen callers from across the tracks.
In its prime, Chinatown included the second largest Japanese town in the state. The community had its own hospital, schools, specialty shops, restaurants, and professional services. It erected one of the more unique Buddhist temples in California and its surrounding area once included a Sumo wrestling arena and martial arts, a monastery and an ethnic school for children. Chinatown also housed a Confucius temple and several Protestant churches, including a Spanish Baptist church and a unique Asian Catholic church that served the Chinese community. Annually, the Japanese community celebrated the Ondo festival, attracting thousands of people from throughout California. The Chinese community celebrated Chinese New Year and other festivities, and the Mexican community celebrated Independence Day and Cinco de Mayo. Many of the festivities included elaborate colorful parades and during Christmas, Santa Claus visited many of the establishments in Chinatown, offering gifts and treats to children.
Chinatown was once an intricate part of downtown Fresno. While Chinatown was alive, so was downtown Fresno.
With the slow deterioration of Chinatown, the Fresno Business District followed suit. As we’re aware, the city of Fresno has struggled to maintain the vitality of downtown. Some local merchants believe that this is the result of a piecemeal approach to development. One school of thought holds that successful planning and development of central business districts must involve a regional approach. It’s assumed that one cannot develop without the other; there’s an innate interdependency between the whole and its parts.
In actuality, Chinatown’s current state is as much a part of the city’s indifference as it is with our inability to embrace diversity. At one time, Fresno was known as the most diverse small city in the nation because of the lively ethnic enclaves that surrounded Chinatown. Seventy-five years later, it’s earned the title of the most diverse concentration of poverty in the nation – a notoriety that reveals our inability to connect with our past and to really take hold of our inherent cultural diversity crucial to our future.
For more than 20 years, the Chinatown Revitalization Committee has struggled to get the city to acknowledge the importance of Chinatown. Rather than working with the group and making a commitment to its development as a vital part of our city’s central business district, the city has hastened its demise through neglect, poor planning and by failing to commit adequate resources. As we develop the high-speed rail system, visitors to Fresno will witness the current blight that has engulfed Chinatown, leaving an impression of Fresno’s disdain for its past. As people drive to the central business district off of Highway 99 by exiting on Ventura Avenue, they view the city’s crumbling Chinatown and the numerous homeless people that line both sides of the street. On Fresno Street, which bears the city’s name, tourists witness the blight represented in numerous condemned buildings and vacant lots.
There are many examples of communities in the state that have made a commitment to revitalizing areas that reflect the innate diversity of their populations. These areas have been successful and include early San Diego, San Francisco’s Chinatown and its numerous sectors, Columbia and Old Sacramento. Some areas were designated historic sites and some proclaimed state parks by the Legislature. A similar commitment by our City Council would revitalize Chinatown and give downtown the impetus it desperately needs to attract residents back to the city center. It would also again motivate residents from local communities to visit and attract tourists traveling our highways or riding the rapid rail to stop in Fresno and enjoy our unique bond with our past.
Raul Pickett is a Fresno native and Fresno State graduate. He is retired from the state of California and also served as the CEO for El Futuro Credit Union in Porterville.