Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

A memorable view of Van Ness

Friday’s walk in four miles.

* I headed to City Hall at 4:15 p.m. after taking a brief detour to the E Street Post Office. The walk to our seat of municipal government was uneventful other than a pause on the northeast corner of Van Ness and Tulare.

I stood by the stoplight and looked north on Van Ness. To my right was Courthouse Park. On my left, across the street, was Club One Casino. My interest lay directly in front of me.

In spare moments over the past year I’ve been digging through old Bee photos in our library and morgue. I’m looking for anything that uncovers the secret of Fresno’s cultural and intellectual landscape in the 20 years prior to Sept. 1, 1965.

That date is the first anniversary of the opening of Fulton Mall.

One night I found an aerial shot of Van Ness taken in July 1950. It’s 3-and-a-half inches by 11 inches. It sits on my desk as I write this blog.

It appears the photographer was several hundred feet off the ground when he snapped the shutter. Based on the angle, it looks like he was atop a high-rise on the northwest corner of Van Ness and Fresno Street (where Bank of the West is today). Did our city have a 200-foot-high building at that spot in 1950?

Although oddly cropped, the photo is most interesting.

A sliver of Fresno Street is at the bottom. You can see the crosswalk to Courthouse Park.

In the photo’s center is the Van Ness-Mariposa Street intersection. Mariposa dead ends at Courthouse Park, but it’s clear that the street takes traffic to west Fresno. A car making a left onto Van Ness is waiting for people to clear the crosswalk.

At the photo’s top is the Van Ness/Tulare intersection.

Van Ness has two southbound lanes and two northbound lanes. A narrow unbroken line separates the lanes running in each direction. A thicker unbroken line separates southbound and northbound cars.

Three things strike me as memorable.

There’s a good view of the sidewalk on the west side of Van Ness. It looks wide, clean and uncluttered. No trees, no one pushing shopping carts. The sidewalk is inviting.

We see only the tops of buildings along the west side of Van Ness. But you sense from all the different roofs that these 1950 buildings were varied in size and architecture. Today’s buildings along the west side of Van Ness between Fresno Street and Tulare aren’t especially charming. The sidewalk along that stretch is dark at all hours.

But I’m most intrigued by the cars in the 1950 photo.

There are seven cars southbound on Van Ness. There are seven cars northbound on Van Ness. There’s that one car making the left turn at Mariposa. That leaves a lot of empty asphalt.

Those, however, are just the moving cars. The parked cars — there’s a ton of them.

There are 36 cars parked on the west side of Van Ness. There are empty spots along the curb, but only a few.

Then there’s the parking along the east side of Van Ness, running the length of Courthouse Park. My tired, old eyes aren’t the best, but I count 61 cars parked diagonally in front of Courthouse Park.

There’s a roadway behind these diagonally-parked cars that’s not part of Van Ness. I don’t know what this road was called. But to the west of this road are two lines of parked cars. They’re bumper to bumper, from Fresno Street to Tulare with only a break for Mariposa.

I count 39 cars in each line.

The photo, left to right, goes like this: Courthouse Park trees, diagonally-parked cars, narrow road, two side-by-side lines of parked cars, four lightly-used lanes on Van Ness, a nearly-unbroken line of cars parked on the west side of Van Ness, a spotless sidewalk meant for serious walking, two blocks of buildings with nary a rent-a-guard at the entrance.

Imagine the story hidden in this 1950 photo. It’s probably a Friday — July 28, let’s say. Lunch is almost here. The mercury holds no surprises; it’s already hot. There are 90,000 people living in town — so the census then underway will report. A good portion of them are downtown on this morning. They’ve got work to do. Everybody works or they don’t eat. That’s why every parking spot in front of the courthouse is taken. That’s why every parking spot on both sides of Van Ness is taken. Oh, heavens, all those cars baking in the sun! Not a one of them with air conditioning. Soon, all those cars — the size and weight of small tanks — will navigate their way home. Somehow, their drivers do so without gridlock or losing their faith in humanity or fearing they’ve lost their souls to mechanical monsters. Come Monday, everyone will do it again.

That’s why I paused on Friday, Feb. 1, 2013 at the northeast corner of Van Ness and Tulare. I looked north and saw the dark tunnel leading to an underground garage. That underground garage has room for hundreds of cars. Parking underground — it was to be one of the many blessings from Victor Gruen’s humanist transformation of downtown Fresno. But the garage hadn’t been open a year when people (especially women shoppers) began worrying about underground muggers. I looked beyond the underground garage’s entrance. There I saw two huge FAX bus stations. Almost all of the east side of Van Ness from Tulare to Fresno Street is one vast bus stop. Except for the Vets Day Parade, no one walks along that stretch of Van Ness.

That’s all I saw. I moved on toward City Hall. I didn’t want to see anymore of modern day Van Ness between Tulare and Fresno Street. I prefer the pre-Victor Gruen Van Ness.

I made my way across Courthouse Park, east on Mariposa Mall past the police headquarters, and over to the City Clerk’s Office. There, on the front counter, was what I wanted – the agenda for Monday afternoon’s meeting of the City Council Infill Development Act Subcommittee.

The members: Lee Brand, Oliver Baines, Clint Olivier.

The subcommittee is tackling the central question at the heart of the 2035 general plan update.

That question is this: What government subsidies are necessary to convince private-sector developers to build nearly one of every two Fresno housing units over the next quarter-century in the middle of the city?

The secondary question, though not part of the subcommittee’s investigative charge, is this: What government subsidies are necessary to convince middle-class consumers to buy those units?

If there are answers, the subcommittee will find them.

A good book that explains a great deal about how downtown Fresno got into its current fix is “Seeing Like A State” by James C. Scott.

Scott is a political science/anthropology professor at Yale. His age now is in the mid-70s. I’ve seen him described on the Internet as a Marxist anarchist. Sometimes that seems like a contradiction and sometimes like a redundancy. One thing is certain: Scott knows how to tell a good tale.

The “State,” in this setting, is centralized political authority with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.

The subtitle to Scott’s book is: “How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.”

One of Scott’s many themes is the State’s passion for “legibility” and its willingness to use overwhelming force to get it. The world is a complex and confusing place. The State figures it can’t act effectively unless it imposes order — “legibility” — on the masses.

Another of Scott’s themes is the passion of average people for independence in the face of strong State authority.

The result is inspiring when State power and the people’s will dovetails, Scott says. A lot of human misery – sickness and hunger, for example — has been largely alleviated in many countries over the last 150 years thanks to concerted and powerful government action.

But all too often, Scott adds, overbearing State authority exercised in the name of goodness and justice inflicts more misery.

“An illegible society is a hindrance to any effective intervention by the state,” Scott writes.

If the State wants a fast and effective way to fight fires in a big city, but most of the city’s neighborhoods are a maze of side streets and dead ends, then that city is not “legible” in a fire-fighting way to the State. If the State wants to get the most taxes out of its citizens, but the citizens can’t be easily counted and identified and located, then the State doesn’t get much money.

“Legibility implies a viewer whose place is central and whose vision is synoptic,” Scott writes. “State simplifications … are designed to provide authorities with a schematic view of their society, a view not afforded to those without authority. Rather like U.S. highway patrolmen wearing mirrored sunglasses, the authorities enjoy a quasi-monopolistic picture of selected aspects of the whole society. This privileged vantage point is typical of all institutional settings where command and control of complex human activities is paramount. The monastery, the barracks, the factory floor, and the administrative bureaucracy (private or public) exercise many statelike functions and often mimic its information structure as well.”

Scott doesn’t mention Victor Gruen, Fresno or Fulton Mall, but he could’ve added all three to this paragraph and remained true to his point.

That’s what Fresno did in the late 1950s and early1960s when it turned over downtown Fresno to Gruen. Fresno decided its downtown was no longer “legible” due to the rapid social changes that are always part of American life. So, to make downtown “legible,” Fresno brought in a man who viewed people as so many pieces on a game board.

To read through the old Fresno Bee clips of the Gruen years, the late 1950s and early 1960s, is to constantly see Gruen’s vision for downtown described as a “system.” Fresno was a city in our photo of Van Ness taken in July 1950. Gruen and his supporters convinced Fresno’s leaders to turn downtown into a “system.”

Fresno’s great experiment in State-imposed “legibility” on downtown went into high-gear in the last week of March 1964.

On Friday, March 27, 1964, a banner on The Bee’s front page said: “Shop Tonight — Many Stores Will Be Open Until 9”. The front section included a story from Queens in New York City. Kitty Genovese, 28 years old, had been stabbed to death a few days earlier. Nearly 40 neighbors heard her scream for help but didn’t call the police.

On Monday, March 30, 1964, The Bee ran a story saying the ground-breaking for construction of Fulton Mall would begin at 9 a.m. the next day. The plan was to have a small ceremony on March 31, then let the bulldozers loose on Fresno’s main street. Three week later, if all went according to plan, the six blocks of Fulton Street between Tuolumne and Fulton would be rubble.

The Bee on March 30 quoted City Manager H.K. Hunter: “I ask the indulgence of all the people downtown and their cooperation in this major development which will result in a very beautiful city and an attraction that will bring people here from all over the country as well as from Central California.”

March 30, 1964 — the last full day that civilians could drive their cars on Fulton between Tuolumne and Inyo. But it was all for the greater good, right? Fresnans had been told for nearly a decade that Gruen’s vision would turn downtown Fresno in a national jewel. Granted, most Fresnans weren’t part of the educated elite. But you’d think they would recognize the elimination of Fulton as total blessing.

Yet, a lot of Fresnans on March 31, 1964 apparently didn’t feel quite right about events. The Bee wrote that Mayor Wallace D. Henderson was surprised by the size of the crowd that showed up to say good-bye to that stretch of Fulton Street.

“This day is a turning point in the history of Fresno,” Henderson said at the March 31 groundbreaking ceremony at Fulton and Tuolumne. “’Dragging the main’ on Fulton will be no longer for the youth of our city. I dragged it for the last time this morning with a little bit of heartache. But those heartaches have to go. We have a new city to build, one not only economically sound but one which will be esthetically one of the greatest cities in the western United States.”

Henderson, F.G. Robertson (president of the Downtown Association) and Karl Buckman (chairman of the Redevelopment Agency board) climaxed the event by breaking a bottle of champagne on a chunk of ripped-out pavement.

“Only a handful of persons was expected for the ceremony, but a substantial number lined the sidewalks,” The Bee reported. “One of the main points of interest appeared to be the railroad ties, part of the old street car track system on Fulton, which were rooted out by the bulldozer.”

A hour after the March 31, 1964 ceremony, The Bee reported, a local developer announced plans to build a 7-story office building, a 16-story apartment tower and a 20-story office building on Van Ness between Mariposa and Tulare.

Gruen’s humanist vision for downtown Fresno was set to take off. A week after bulldozers began ripping up Fulton between Tuolumne and Inyo, Edgardo Contini, Gruen’s top architect on the mall/downtown system, spoke at a Rotary Club luncheon at the Hotel Californian on Van Ness.

“No other city has made such great strides,” Contini said on April 7, 1964. “Though it will take another 10 years to see the entire transformation, it is safe to say most difficulties are past and the chances for ultimate success excellent.”

The bulldozers were still doing their ripping and tearing and destroying on Fresno’s main drag, and already the State (in the guise of Victor Gruen and Edgardo Contini) was “safely” saying all problems were gone.

This hubris is the very essence of authoritarian, high-modernist State policy in its mad dash to impose “legibility” on the masses, Professor Scott writes — especially masses living in cities.

“The past is an impediment, a history that must be transcended,” Scott writes of high modernists such as Gruen. “The present is the platform for launching plans for a better future…. The practical effect is to convince most high modernists that the certainty of a better future justifies the many short-term sacrifices required to get there.”

* The average Joe and Jane, regardless of what continent they live on, helplessly watch these State-imposed projects, then figure out how to live the best they can, Scott writes.

So, on Friday, Feb. 1, 2013, I left City Hall just as 5 p.m. hit and headed for one of those neighborhoods that was to bask in the glory of the Fulton Mall system.

I walked east on Fresno Street and made a right onto Divisadero. I was looking for the typical infill neighborhood. Council Member Brand’s Infill Development subcommittee is trying to come up with an economic formula that turns the 2035 general plan’s development theme into reality. The 2035 general plan calls for 45% of all new residential construction to be in the inner city. Brand estimates that less than 5% of such construction now occurs in older areas.

Gruen ripped up Fresno’s main drag, Fresnans fled a soulless urban center, City Hall failed to use its omnipotent State powers to force people to live where they don’t want to live, and now Brand’s subcommittee is trying to fix this huge mess.

There, on my left as I headed along Divisadero, was the Jefferson neighborhood. We hear a lot about the Lowell neighborhood, northeast of Uptown. We don’t hear much about Jefferson.

I took a walk northeast on University Avenue. The street was a dead-end at a Jefferson School playground. University Plaza apartments is on one side of the dead-end. A six-and-a-half-foot-tall fence with pointed iron spikes on top kept the tenants safe. There also was barbed wire on the fence. There also was a “beware of dog” sign on the fence.

I got the hint and got out of there.

I went back to Divisadero, then headed northeast on Mariposa. Jefferson School was on my right. I came to a run-down apartment complex on the corner of Mariposa and Illinois Street. Next to the apartments was an empty field. It was about 35 feet wide and perhaps 80 feet long. Tiny. This is the infill development opportunity that the 2035 General Plan update figures to make irresistible to private-sector developers.

There was a for-sale sign in front of the field. Contact Terri Drewes at Guarantee Real Estate Services if you’re interested.

She’s one of many stuck cleaning up after Gruen and Contini.

Van Ness Avenue in July 1950

Van Ness Avenue in July 1950

This is Van Ness underground garage in November 1967.

This is Van Ness underground garage in November 1967.


Dan says:

Hey George, shilling for the Mayor now?

You have left out a key part of the equation that led to the demise of downtown Fresno: it’s called HUD.

Downtown was urban renewed to death. Victor Gruen was not part of that. The City decided to turn downtown into an office / commercial center and demolished most of the residential stock and much of the commercial stuff not on the Mall.

So what was left was an area with no life really after 5pm except along the Mall. And once the Mall started to empty out with stores going north, why would anyone go downtown unless they worked down there. Nothing to draw them except the Convention Center and its events.

Gary Alexander says:

Once again, I point out that Fresno has lost much more than Fulton. We lost Broadway St., too PLUS all the cross streets.
All this love for Fulton, yet nothing for the Old US 99.
Probably because, unlike Fulton, you can’t walk the Old 99.

JJJ says:

Quite a bit of revisionist history going on here.

Is it time to start blaming the decay of Ventura, California and Blackstone on the Fulton Mall as well?

I guess downtown Bakersfield also lost its luster because the Fulton Mall came in. And I hear downtown LA looked terrible in the 70s. Who else to blame bu the Fulton Mall!

And don’t forget Detroit. Yup, Fulton Mall to blame there too.

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