Valley Voices

What happens when the last acre is gobbled up?

Orchards line the perimeter of the new Riverstone community in Madera as developer Timothy Jones, left, and project manager Nick Bruno, right, inspect the progress.
Orchards line the perimeter of the new Riverstone community in Madera as developer Timothy Jones, left, and project manager Nick Bruno, right, inspect the progress. ezamora@fresnobee.com

The Fresno-Clovis metropolitan area is grounded in agrarian rootstock. Our small-town sensibilities might seem quaint were it not for our big-city problems. Challenges with housing, crime and water persist.

Unable to temper our physical growth, we’ve succumbed to the California crawl, a squishy, faceless amoeba spreading from neighborhood to neighborhood, linking citizens not so much by common interest but by new roads, sewers and shrinking plots of grass. This is our modern-day serfdom, a place where influence is brokered by a mighty few.

Our region is spread wide, 20 miles in diameter. There is no quick way to drive across town without dodging traffic or the sadness of the disenfranchised living on the streets. Heading to Clovis from my home in northwest Fresno on a recent Saturday, my best bet was to take Barstow Avenue east.

As I fiddled with my car radio, an episode of local talk grabbed my attention. Three men were engaged in conversation that comes easily when you’re king of the hill – or in this case, local movers and shakers. These were the voices of successful businessmen who have created a familiar variety of regional affluence; the kind of prosperity that, once built, transcends a generation or two.

The name-dropping caught my ear, the atta-boys and warm slaps on the back that I could see in my imagination. From the friendly banter, I could tell their social circles periodically overlapped. Easily able to elicit the names of common connections, they spoke of kids they used to baby-sit, neighborhood friends and business associates.

I crossed Cedar Avenue and entered the Fresno State campus as the conversation continued.

I knew the guest behind the microphone to be a very successful homebuilder. He shared that several new subdivisions were in the works, acres of land lined up for transformation. My heart sank.

As he spoke, my car passed the new Jordan Agricultural Research Center. I saw sheep and lambs grazing nearby. I traversed a turnabout and drove eastward through the vast agricultural fields of my alma mater, the school that taught my father and brothers how to be better farmers. A large planting of corn held the promise of summer.

While the neighborhoods of Fresno and Clovis blend into each other, subdivisions in southern Madera County beckon, and Sanger edges closer. Farmland is swallowed as we build outward instead of inward. The core of our city suffers.

Almost 1 million people live in Fresno County. Like most places, folks here tend to congregate with like kind. In bursts of human nature (and mortgage and rental payments), we are checkers on a checkerboard, jumping over each other to land in spaces adjacent to our socioeconomic equals.

Homebuyers flock to the pristine grout of a brand-new shower instead of a 50-year-old shade tree. If you build it, they will come. Yet, I recently spoke to a physician who told me that she lives in the Mayfair District with her young family. Who chooses to live there anymore? Apparently, she does. The central location allows her a short bike ride to work.

I don’t begrudge the success of developers who have built their empires through honest sweat. However, many are trapped in a business model that is dependent on never-ending spread. The real kings and queens of our region are those bold thinkers who are working to refresh tired areas, using their skills to transform old neighborhoods that have been previously corralled by neglect, poverty or crime. A boil can heal best after you lance its core and allow fresh tissue to grow from within.

After I made it to Clovis, I spent a couple of hours browsing the cute shops downtown. I dodged raindrops and bought a pair of $12 earrings.

I headed home via Bullard Avenue, traveling through the north fields of the University Farm Laboratory, an island of possibility encircled by a sea of concrete.

Our Valley dirt serves as a reminder: Nature doesn’t discriminate. Whether you’re wealthy or poor, influential or not, your potential lies everywhere. Success depends upon some good watering and the stability of the ground where you land.

The spring soil grows rich around here. Perhaps a fruit tree is growing in your backyard.

In this town, the earth is an equalizer.

Danielle R. Shapazian is a nurse and writer who lives in Fresno. She can be reached at Danielle.Shapazian@sbcglobal.net.

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