marek-warszawski

Don’t be part of the problem of downtown Fresno. Be part of the change

'It's gorgeous. I love it!' former Fresno mayor Ashley Swearengin says of Fulton Street

Watch and listen as former Fresno mayor Ashley Swearengin describes the dramatic changes to Fulton Street as seen from drone video. After winning the fight to reopen the mall to traffic, proponents like Swearengin are looking forward to big things
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Watch and listen as former Fresno mayor Ashley Swearengin describes the dramatic changes to Fulton Street as seen from drone video. After winning the fight to reopen the mall to traffic, proponents like Swearengin are looking forward to big things

“What are you going to do to make this less ghetto?”

The question quieted a recent Fulton Street walking tour. The nicely dressed, middle-aged Hispanic woman who asked it pointed to a building with faded paint and signs in Spanish. One storefront still housed a business. The others had cardboard covering the windows.

Craig Scharton, interim CEO of the Downtown Fresno Partnership, answered by looking forward, to the return of cars on the street, the expectation of heavier foot traffic and the tenets of free-market capitalism.

That’s fine, but here and now, the woman’s bluntness almost perfectly encapsulates why so many people born, raised and living within the borders of California’s fifth-largest city are so dismissive, if not disdainful, of their own downtown.

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Even as Fulton Street reopens to traffic for the first time 1964, reminders of the Fulton Mall can be seen in many of the dilapidated buildings with vacant storefronts. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

“Downtown Fresno isn’t a safe place to visit.”

“Downtown Fresno is overrun by homeless and thugs.”

“There’s nothing to do downtown, and no reason for me to go.”

“$20 million to open a street no one in north Fresno cares about? What a waste of money.”

“I absolutely, positively refuse to pay to park.”

Did I miss any? Just check the comments section or replies on social media to any of the columns I’ve written these past few months about downtown, especially the ones that didn’t adhere to the above line of thinking.

Why the self-loathing, Fresno? I get that downtown has its negatives and challenges but will never understand the mindset of those who deride the place like a badge of honor.

This attitude is completely baffling to me. Because there’s no such thing as a great, vibrant city without a great, vibrant downtown. Name one.

There’s no such thing as a great, vibrant city without a great, vibrant downtown. Name one.

And, no, North Fresno Guy, River Park is not a replacement for downtown. It’s an outdoor shopping center, a perfectly fine one, but nothing more than that.

Whenever I hear or read someone opine that Fresno doesn’t need a vibrant downtown because it has River Park – something I’ve heard and read numerous times – it immediately tells me two things about that person:

▪ They probably haven’t lived anywhere else but Fresno.

▪ They probably haven’t traveled much outside Fresno.

There must be a connection between stale air and stale opinions.

When I first moved here 20 years ago, in my late 20s, I was struck by how the biggest detractors of Fresno seemed to be its own residents. And that was particularly true of my age group.

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Downtown Fresno resident Jordan Gustafson bikes past one of the many downtown murals during an evening ride in July 2017. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

But now I better understand the context. Those people grew up in a city laid out as a never-ending grid of stoplights and strip malls that lend little sense of place or identity.

How can anyone get attached to a strip mall?

Fortunately, things have changed. There’s a new, young energy in town, one that has been building and bubbling for a decade or so and more recently started to ooze to the surface.

You can feel it at the Tioga-Sequoia downtown beer garden, especially before or during a soccer match, or at any of the newly opened breweries or coffee shops.

You can sense it when walking through the doors of Bitwise Industries on Van Ness Avenue for one of their many events or lectures.

You can see it in the video ad campaigns produced by Top Hand Media, whose founders’ driving mission is to tell “a different story” about Fresno, and hear it in the words of small-business entrepreneurs like Casa de Tamales owner Liz Sanchez.

The Fulton Street project harkens back to a time of vehicular traffic, including streetcars, with the opening of the important downtown corridor, along with a section of Mariposa Street, clear for traffic for the first time since the 1960s.

What’s the common thread? Most are millennials, and they’re all bursting with pride for Fresno. Unlike previous generations, a lot of them reject the stigmas and mores that led to hopscotch developments further and further north, along with the requisite shopping centers and strip malls.

These people want to be rooted downtown. Just like movers, shakers and taste-makers in every great city.

“I wholeheartedly believe downtown is headed for a turnaround and will be a much more vibrant place than it is right now,” said Sanchez, whose location in the T.W. Patterson Building is set to reopen Friday.

“With high-speed rail and more residential coming, I think downtown is going to flourish beautifully.”

During Saturday’s reopening celebration, with pop-up businesses breathing life into vacant storefronts, we’ll get a sense of what a flourishing Fulton Street can be like. Only for one afternoon and evening, though. Revitalization is going to be a process.

But there is so much promise. Nowhere else in Fresno contains such great architecture, buildings that give you a sense of place and history. And few California cities, if any, boast Fulton Street’s amazing collection of mid 20th-century sculptures and fountains, all beautifully conserved.

Restoration of Fulton Street sculptures reveals a treasure of California public art

Drive down there, feed the pesky parking meter and take a half-hour stroll. You might just be surprised at how open and inviting everything looks. Spend five minutes sitting in front of “The Visit.” Bet you’ll visit again.

Yes, you’re going to have to overlook a few warts. All cities have them, both the great ones and those trying to be.

Don’t be part of the problem of downtown Fresno. Be part of the change.

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee

Fulton Street reopening

What: A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the reopening of Fulton Street in downtown Fresno

When: 3 p.m. Saturday

Where: Intersection of Fulton and Mariposa streets

Notables: Dignitaries expected to speak at the ceremony include Mayor Lee Brand, former mayor Ashley Swearengin, City Councilman Oliver Baines, Rep. Jim Costa, Jalisco Jewelers owner Raul De Alba and downtown Fresno Partnership interim CEO Craig Scharton

More: The celebration will continue after the ceremony, with a number of events and activities planned and produced by the Downtown Fresno Partnership, highlighted by “Draggin’ The Main,” a classic and custom car show that will cruise Fulton Street from 4-6 p.m. Also, more than a dozen “pop-up” stores and restaurants will take over storefronts on Fulton. See the list compiled by Bethany Clough, www.fresnobee.com/bethany-clough

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