Thursday’s walk: The Vanity of Human Wishes in Three Miles.
* I’m busy with a weekend story, so it was 3ish when I left for a late lunch. Tuolumne to P Street, P to Abby, then to Carl’s Jr. at Abby and Illinois.
Jovita works behind the counter. She’s superb. Friendly, too. Time is always of the essence for Jovita, but over the years we’ve managed enough chit-chat at the cash register to develop a rapport. Health and family are our main topics.
I sat in the back of the restaurant, finished my chow and read.
“Can I take that for you?” Jovita said, pointing to my wrappers.
“Nope. That’s my job.”
“I like your attitude,” she said with a laugh.
Fresno would be a better place if everyone had Jovita’s attitude.
* With lunch behind me, I went south on Abby toward Fulton Mall. Up ahead I spotted five guys — late teens or early 20s — loitering on the corner of Abby and Divisadero, in front of the McDonald’s restaurant.
“Loitering” is the right word. They didn’t look like they had just finished eight hours of poetry and welding classes at the Chavez Adult School across the street. They had that predatory look — walk enough downtown and you learn to spot it from a distance.
But there was still plenty of daylight left and the traffic was fairly heavy. I plowed into them, planning to cross Abby and head down P toward City Hall.
The scholars parted, four to my right, the fifth to my left.
“You wanna buy some bus tokens?” the guy on my left mumbled.
I pretended not to understand. “Beg your pardon?”
“You wanna buy some bus tokens?” he mumbled again.
“No thanks. I don’t need ‘em.”
I don’t know why I added that qualifier. I just know the experience soured me … and gave me a chill.
* A Tuneup Masters shop used to be on the southwest corner of Tuolumne and P. Now it’s a large vacant lot. I crossed Tuolumne and saw in a homeless man in the middle of the lot.
He had a ton of stuff spread on the ground — a queen-size mattress, blankets, boxes, clothes, a wood dining room chair with a broken backrest. He was shirtless. He was doing something with a box and a shopping cart — I couldn’t tell for sure because the chore, whatever its intent, was getting the better of him.
“You going to get all that on your cart?” I said.
“Don’t ask me anything … unless you want to make a donation.”
“Sure, I’ve got some change.” I was willing to pay 75 cents for an answer.
He took my money. “I’ll do it.”
No, he won’t.
* I went south on P to Merced, then took Merced west to Fulton Mall. With Mayor Swearengin’s State of the Downtown breakfast on Tuesday, and noted urban planner Henry Beer on tap as keynote speaker, I wanted to walk the mall’s length as practice for covering the big day.
The time is now in the 4:30 range. I don’t expect the mall to be hopping. I understand the challenges. And I know Downtown Fresno Partnership, with its innovative Ambassadors program, keeps a close eye on the mall’s ambience.
Still, I didn’t expect to cross Fresno Street to the mall’s middle section only to immediately find four young people — three males and one female in their late teens or early 20s — hanging out on a bench and boozing it up.
The female didn’t try to hide her swilling from a nearly-empty 40-ounce bottle of Olde English 800.
* There were some nice scenes. A little girl in a rainbow-striped sweater danced on the free-speech stage. Off to the side, watching with delight, was a man who might have been her father. The little girl stopped, ran to the man to say something, then ran back to the stage and danced again.
And at the intersection of Fulton and Kern malls was a man playing the saxophone. His instrument case was open. I dropped in a $1 bill.
“One ‘L’ or two?”
“One. What can I play for you?”
“What you’re playing is fine.”
If he’d been playing a clarinet, I would’ve asked for Artie Shaw’s version of “Begin the Beguine.”
Still, a guy playing for handouts on Fulton Mall, while perhaps adding a compelling urban “feel” in the minds of some observers, is hardly the stuff to spur a downtown revival.
I made a left at Inyo, thinking I’d take a quick look at the Droge Building on Van Ness across from the circular garage. The site is supposed to become a new housing project. On this day, at least a hundred pigeons were resting on the building’s south wall. There are enough pigeon droppings on the Inyo sidewalk to spark a CEQA lawsuit.
“Hey, how ya doin’? My name is Art.”
Art was standing on the northwest corner of Inyo and Van Ness as I approached.
“Hi, Art. I’m George. Look at those pigeons.”
Art turned. He didn’t give a hoot about the pigeons.
“Yeah, yeah. Say, you wouldn’t have some spare money, would you? I need something to eat.”
I handed him the last greenback from my Carl’s Jr. meal.
We shook hands. Art was in a good mood.
“You’ve got a good grip,” he said, laughing. “Don’t go breaking my hand.”
“I couldn’t do that, Art. I’m an old man.”
“Stop it. You’re as old as you feel.”
* I don’t know how old I feel these days. I do know I was finishing up third grade in Lindsay when, on May 18, 1959, the “Gruenami” hit Fresno with full force.
It was a Monday and Victor Gruen, the man whose New York City architectural firm was already casting a highly-critical eye at Fresno’s “Main Street” (Fulton between Tuolumne and Inyo), spoke to more than 100 delegates to a meeting of the Pacific Southwest Regional Council of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment.
The Bee covered the speech at Fresno’s Hacienda Motel.
To hold a stethoscope to the heart of Fresno and other cities, Gruen said, is to find a sick patient.
“A new generation never has known the pleasures and advantages of truly urban life,” Gruen said. “Our expectations for city life are low and steadily on the downgrade….If we do not act decisively in our generation, the advantages of urban culture may disappear.”
And what’s causing this unprecedented catastrophe?
“It is utter madness to serve large downtown areas with private autos,” Gruen said. “Yet in the last 50 years there has not been a single important improvement in public transportation. The overemphasis on stopgap traffic and parking measures has loosened the urban fabric.
“The mechanical being has found its natural habitat in the freeway, closed to pedestrians. The human being should likewise demand his own habitat without mechanical smells and sounds.”
Let’s pause here. Look at those phrases — “a new generation,” “expectations … low and steadily on the downgrade,” advantages of urban culture may disappear,” “utter madness,” “mechanical being,” “the human being … his own habitat.”
Are these the words of a thinker or a flim-flam man?
Back to The Bee’s report.
There’s hope, Gruen told the conference. It lies in creating pedestrian islands out of areas of intense human activity, “separating flesh from the machine in urban cells revolving around the downtown core,” Gruen said.
The Bee noted that Gruen’s firm was studying downtown Fresno under contracts with City Hall, the Redevelopment Agency and a group of downtown businessmen called the Hundred Percenters.
Gruen called his firm’s work “highly significant” because Fresno in 20 years could be the hub of a six-county region with more than one million people.
“Fresno’s heart could be the cultural, economic, recreational and administrative core of the area if it is revitalized with no compromise on planning principles,” Gruen said.
Note that phrase “no compromise.” The “planning principles” were to come from Gruen and his kind. Gruen guaranteed unimaginable greatness for Fresno, but only if his “planning principles” were embraced with “no compromise.”
Victor Gruen swept Fresno off its feet. The city for years was crazy in love with Victor Gruen. On Thursday afternoon, I took a walk and saw what this Don Juan gave us.
He gave us a uniquely urban way to buy bus tokens. He gave us the truly urban pleasure of watching a nearly-naked man rearrange his open-air bedroom. He cast out of the urban Eden that mechanical beast called the car and gave Fresno’s main street a civilized place for young girls to drain Octoberfest-sized bottles of high-alcohol lager. He strengthened our deteriorating urban fabric and preserved our endangered urban culture by giving Fresnans a habitat they need share only with panhandlers and pigeon droppings.
Downtown Fresno was on its death bed in May 1959. Then somebody turned downtown over to Victor Gruen and said: Remake it as if you are the Sun King.
I walked three miles on Thursday but couldn’t find that somebody. I’ll keep looking. He’s got a lot to answer for.