Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

A winter walk through downtown Fresno

My bosses and I are working on a new blog. It’s about my daily walks to City Hall.

I take different routes and almost always see something of public-policy interest. The plan is to use smart-phone aps to chart both route and distance traveled. We’ll combine those details with my observations, then publish the result on fresnobee.com.

All stops at The Cosmo will be deleted.

I’m struggling a bit with the technology. But my eyes still work. Here’s what I saw on today’s walk:

* I left the newsroom about 1 p.m., headed out the building’s back door and cut across the east parking lot to G Street. The Bee has two driveways on our east side, each with a gate. We lock the gates after 5 p.m. It’s not unusual for walkers (non-Bee employees) going from E Street to G Street (or vice versa) to cut through our parking lot during business hours.

A couple of years ago I was walking around the block and bumped into a man who also takes a daily constitutional. I think he works for one of the nearby engineering firms — or maybe the Post Office.

For a reason unknown to me, The Bee that day had locked the east gates early. This guy had wanted to take the shortcut, only to be locked out. He saw me, knew I work for the paper, and let me have it.

“What’s wrong with you guys?” he said. “How do you expect people to get across?”

I was stunned.

“It’s private property,” I said.

“I don’t care.” He wasn’t joking.

That guy is why America has an entitlement crisis.

* I headed south on G Street and passed a couple of produce distributors. One of them keeps a guard dog behind a fence during the day. The dog barked at me. I did nothing but look at him. The dog walked away.

Back in the fall of 2011, I attended a two-day Investigative Reporters and Editors workshop. It was hosted by my employer, The McClatchy Company, at company headquarters in Sacramento. Reporters and editors from McClatchy papers throughout the Valley were there. Three of my Fresno Bee colleagues joined me.

IRE is a non-McClatchy group that serves all journalists. One of the IRE lecturers opened the second day with an announcement.

“We’re going to talk about watchdog journalism,” he said.

There was some more chatter, then he asked for questions. I raised my hand.

“The first thing we need to do is change the name,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“Well,” I said, “a watchdog is a kept dog.”

I seldom see anything on my walks sorrier than a watchdog. For all its bark, a watchdog’s spirit is almost always destroyed by its solitude and utter dependence. The exceptions are those watchdogs that can’t help but go overboard — snarling and growling and throwing themselves at anyone just passing by.

There’s nothing measured and judicious about a watchdog. If symbols should be based on reality if they’re to have true value, then newspapers would be wise to pick something other than “watchdog” as shorthand for their public service role.

I didn’t get to explain my thinking. The IRE lecturer looked at me.

“Here’s what I wish you’d said.”

Then he turned on his heels, strolled to the other side of the conference room where a more receptive audience beckoned, and proceeded to put words in my mouth.

I chuckled. So, I thought, this is how real watchdogs feel.

* I stayed on G Street, figuring I’d go past the Rescue Mission, then circle back to City Hall. I crossed Tulare Street. There, in the middle of the street, was a soft drink cup. Litter. I’ll pick up 15 or 20 pieces of litter a day, depending on how often I’m on the streets.

I picked up the cup and two more cups on the sidewalk as I approached Central Fish Co. at Kern Street. I had to head west on Kern for about 30 yards to find a trash can. The view west on Kern was great — no litter.

* The same can’t be said for the area around the Renaissance at Santa Clara, the Fresno Housing Authority’s new 70-unit apartment complex for the homeless on the northwest corner of G and Santa Clara streets. The $11 million public-private venture’s ribbon-cutting was in November.

Bob Seger’s “Old Time ‘N’ Roll” was blaring from the open door of one of the apartments as I walked by on Monday. Great tune. That’s the way I want to spend Monday afternoons when I retire.

Further to the west on Santa Clara — homeless camps. To the north of Renaissance at Santa Clara on F Street — homeless camps. Across the street from Renaissance at Santa Clara, in front of the Poverello House — a homeless man walking in a circle, shouting the f-word each time he went from sidewalk to gutter.

* I had an excellent view of the Freeway 41 overpasses as I continued my trek south on G Street. The Monterey Street Bridge, a fixture in downtown for more than 60 years, is completely gone.

Well done, City of Fresno Public Works Department and Evan Brothers Inc. of Livermore. The former administered the demolition project, the latter did the demolishing.

That bridge was ugly. The only hints that it once existed are relatively small mounds of dirt on both sides of Golden State Boulevard that were part of the exit and on-ramps.

* I made a right on California to check on things in what used to be Germantown. This is the tiny, diamond-shaped neighborhood bounded by Freeway 41, Golden State Boulevard and Highway 99. It’s home to the E Street homeless camp that I wrote about in October.

This camp stretches along an alley for two full city blocks. Homeowners and renters, including children, live on the other side of the alley.

The camp was bad in October. If anything, things are worse today.

The camp parallels E Street. I walked north on E, then turned left on Monterey Street. This took me toward the very center of the camp. There is a sea of trash on Monterey that spills onto the sidewalk and into a nearby field. Somebody had cleared a five-foot-wide path through the trash. Otherwise, I couldn’t have used Monterey to get to the homeless shanties.

Two men were digging through the trash.

“I’m looking for a sign,” one of them said.

“What sign?” I asked.

“There’s a sign that says we got 10 days to move.

“A sign from the city?”

“Yeah, that’s what I heard. But I didn’t see the sign. Somebody tore them down. I got to find the sign.”

Back in September and October, when I was researching the E Street camp story, I spoke several times with Marsel Bufford, 57. He lived in an elaborate shanty in the center of the camp, right where Monterey ends at the alley. He had a double bed and soft chairs and a living room-style coffee table. He fried potatoes and grilled meat for lunch over an open flame in a shaded outdoor kitchen.

Buford’s place was nothing but ashes on Monday.

* I went back to G Street, turned south, then veered left onto California Avenue, then onto Railroad Avenue. I didn’t stay on Railroad for long. I scooted across the Union Pacific tracks to California and Cherry Avenue.

A pickup truck stopped at that intersection. The driver was lost.

“How do I get to Broadway?” he asked.

“I have no idea,” I said.

“Think I’ll try Cherry,” he said.

I followed on foot. He was right — Cherry was the path.

As I approached Broadway, I sew hundreds of pieces of paper on the road. They were scattered across Cherry and Broadway. They were handbills touting a concert in Visalia.

I picked up two and carryed them with me. If 500 walkers pick up two each, that stretch of downtown Fresno will once again be clean.

Shouldn’t take more than a century.

* I decided to head back to the newsroom. It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day. City Hall is closed.

I headed north on Broadway, then turned left on San Benito Street. San Benito connects Broadway and H Street.
The H Street homeless camp is back. It’s not as big as the camp of infamy from several years ago. But shanties sit on the south side of San Benito and the west side of H.

On the late afternoon of Saturday, Jan. 12, I walked from The Bee to the Disabled Vets store at Van Ness Avenue and Mono Street in downtown. I like to look through the books.

I took Mono on my way back. In the distance, toward the Rescue Mission, I saw black smoke. I headed that way. By the time I got to San Benito and H, the Fresno Fire Department had already put out the fire.

The blaze destroyed two structures on San Benito that had been homes to the homeless. One of the structures had belonged to Susan Joyce Mills and her husband, Mark Mills. They were sitting on a curb, talking to a firefighter when I arrived. Susan wore only a night shirt. Mark wrapped her in a blanket. They had lost nearly everything. When I last saw them, Susan was wearing a pair of Mark’s sneakers with no laces. Her bare legs poked beneath the blanket. They were walking south on H.

I went by the site of the fire on Monday (today) to check things out. I stood on San Benito, looking at the charred remnants to two homeless homes. A woman emerged from a nearby tent.

“Can I help you?”

“I’m from The Bee. I came out here when the fire happened. Where are Joyce and Mark?”

“Over there,” she said with a jerk of the head. That was the same answer I got at the E Street camp when I asked those two men poking around the trash if they knew what had happened to Marsel Bufford. Apparently a jerk of the head, indicating some vague spot in the distance, is where Fresno’s homeless go whenever they’re burned out of home.

The woman’s name on San Benito was Renee. She opened up once she realized I knew enough of the neighborhood to have met the Mills couple.

She told me the same story I’d heard from Joyce and Mark on Jan. 12. The fire had started in the structure next to the Mills home. A woman (57 years old, Renee said) lived there. Her adult son showed up quite often. He was a handful — crazy, Renee said. He’d throw cans of food at people he didn’t like. “Should’ve been a baseball player,” Renee said.

On Jan. 12, Renee said, the son started a fire in his mother’s home. Neighbors stamped it out with their feet, Renee said. Someone called the cops. The neighbors wanted the son taken away for good. The cops said they couldn’t do that. How? On what justification?

Renee said the son came back. He was angry and almost immediately set a series of fires inside his mother’s home. Renee didn’t say where the mother was in all this. The fire got big in a hurry and caught everyone by surprise.

“He burned his mother out of her home,” Renee said.

* I returned to the newsroom. I’d been gone about 90 minutes. I probably walked three, maybe three-and-a-half miles with all the zig-zags. I saw and met a lot Fresno.

Happens to me just about every work day.

Responses

Lee Ayres says:

This series is a great idea. Thanks for the insights. Sounds like the area could use some trees.

Mike Harris says:

Mr. Hostetter,

Read your story on wandering through the homeless camps, was a good piece and I enjoyed it. I am retired from the Police department and that area used to be my beat assignment. I am now the Deputy Director of the Vets Museum at the old Memorial building.

I would invite you to wander through the museum when your walks take you closer to city hall. I am here on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays as a schedual and would love to show you through the place on a personal level. The docent staff are of the Greatest Generation group and are the finest of Fresno.
Please come see us and consider a piece on the museum as it is truely a National treasure the public just does not know about.

Mike

christian palmer says:

Mr. Hostetter,

Should your feet every become weary of walking through the Downtown area, I would like to invite you to come and ride along with Engine 3A of the Fresno Fire Department, located just around the corner from you at Fresno and E street.

The stroll you described in your recent column is one we take every day at work. Our job provides us with a unique opportunity to access areas of our downtown that many people have never had a chance to see. The names and faces of the people living in our area change year to year, but the scene is always eerily familiar.

Christian

JJJ says:

I look forward to this being a regular feature.

However, I’d like if you take more consideration of policy in your observations.

Take the first portion, where you talk about “That guy is why America has an entitlement crisis.”.

Consider for a second why the gentleman was inconvenienced. The Fresno Bee lies in a superblock – a massive expanse of uncrossable land. Easy to navigate around in a vehicle, not so much on foot. Is it really entitlement to expect short, walkable blocks in the downtown of a city?

I have no idea how long the Bee area has been a super block. Maybe decades, maybe its always been that way since the streets were first laid out. However, Fresno has had a policy that past few decades of granting private businesses the luxury of creating a super block. Look at how Community disrupts Divisadero, or the IRS building and Broadway.

It’s a very serious policy choice, and I don’t think demanding an accessible walk where one previously existed, or should have, is entitlement, it’s common sense. If you think walking can sometimes be a hassle now, imagine if every block was as big as the one the Bee sits on. This column wouldnt be able to exist.

Again, knowing nothing about the history of the Bee block, it may have been that whenever the industrial developers took the land, the city agreed to close public wight of way with the promise that public access would always be granted. It may very well be that the Bee is in defiance of some ancient zoning ordinance. Or it may be that it’s simply always been that way – that’s the kind of stuff I’d also like to read about.

Another example: Does Fresno keep public street garbage cans, and if not, wouldn’t they help solve the litter problem?

Bethany Clough says:

George, there’s a term for what you’re doing. You’re a flâneur, a man who strolls and observes the world around him. You’re following in the footsteps of the poet Charles Baudelaire, except that instead of Paris, Fresno is your subject. Keep walking. I’m enjoying this. And share some pictures with us, please.

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