Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Some rain and thoughts in downtown

Thursday’s downtown trek involved a little bit of shoeleather and a little bit of driving. What counts is what I saw and heard:

* It was council day. The meetings are always interesting, but this one more so than most.

“Talk slooooooowly” was constantly on the lips of all six council members in the morning. (Oliver Baines is out of town on city business.)

The council had a light agenda. Several items were timed. That means the council can tackle the item after its appointed hour, but not before. Ten to 20 minutes separated the scheduled start of these timed items.

Things unfolded like this: Council President Blong Xiong introduced a timed item right on the minute. A staff member went to the public microphone, gave a brief summation of the issue, then sat down.

“Any questions?” Blong asked. No one from the audience made a peep. “OK, let’s vote.”

Things went fast. So fast that the council had time to kill between timed items. Usually the council fills such voids with other things on the agenda. But on this day, the council had already blasted its way through everything that wasn’t timed or scheduled for the afternoon’s closed session.

The result was a few minutes of deadtime on several occasions. Council members hustled to the bathroom or the drinking fountain. Or they just sat on the dais, silently urging the clock to move faster.

“Any jokes?” “Maybe we can speak slowly from now on.”

Such a scene of verbal discipline by Fresno’s elected leaders was surely a first since the city incorporated some 128 years ago.

Perhaps Council Member Paul Caprioglio’s “pep” talk to his colleagues two weeks ago had something to do with the electeds’ new-found brevity. “Cap” wasn’t happy with several council members for what he viewed as their unfocused chatter from the dais. He blasted them.

“Thank you,” Caprioglio said to a staff member early in this Thursday’s meeting, “for that precise presentation.”

I think “precise” is Cap-ese for “brief.”

* Twice, I got a hearty “thank you!” from strangers who saw me picking up litter.

The first was while I crossed O Street, heading toward Mariposa Mall and City Hall. There was a crumpled piece of paper in the crosswalk. I almost bumped heads with a young woman who had her eye on the same eyesore.

“Thank you,” she said. “Let take that for you.”

“No thanks. I do this all the time.”

“So do I,” she said with a smile.

She was wearing the jacket of an Ambassador with the Downtown Fresno Partnership.

Kate Borders, give that charming (and hard-working) Ambassador a raise.

* The council went behind closed doors at about 1:35 p.m. I headed down P Street to McDonald’s. I picked up coffee cups and newspaper as I approached the empty car wash on the northeast corner of P and Tuolumne.

“Thank you. That’s nice of you,” said a man. He was sitting on blacktop, his back against a wall of the old car wash.

“This stuff drives me nuts,” I said.

“Me too. I was going to pick that up when I finished.”

Balance is everything when it comes to effectively picking up litter. This guy had in front of him a 24-ounce can of Steel Reserve high-octane brew. I don’t think that stuff is in the litter training manual.

* I got an order of chicken McNuggets and found a seat at the McDonald’s at Blackstone/Divisadero. I eat a late lunch there a couple of times a month. The place was relatively quiet on Thursday about 2:15. Sometimes it’s not.

I pulled out my Kindle and read a bit in Theodore Dalrymple’s “Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality.”

Theodore Dalrymple is the pen name of Anthony Daniels, a retired prison doctor and psychiatrist. He’s a prolific essayist who’s often published in the Manhattan Institute’s great “City Journal.”

“It’s hard work to know something,” Dalrymple writes, referring to a British school system drunk with sentimental views of childhood.

“The triumph of the romantic view of education was doubly disastrous because it coincided with the triumph of the romantic view of human relations, especially family relations,” Dalrymple writes. “This view goes something like this: the object of human life being happiness, and the fact that many marriages are unhappy being patent and obvious, it is time to found human relationships not upon such extraneous and unromantic bases as social obligation, financial interest, and duty, but upon nothing other than love, affection and inclination. All attempts at stability founded upon anything but love, affection and inclination are inherently oppressive and therefore ought to be discounted. Once relations — especially those between the sexes — were founded upon love alone, the full beauty of the human personality, hitherto obscured by clouds of duty, convention, social shame and the like, would emerge, as a shimmering dragonfly in the summer.”

Beautiful. But if Dalrymple had wanted “Cap-ese” precision, he could have written: “The romantic view of human relations goes something like this: Fresno’s 2035 general plan update.”

* I walked through the Lowell neighborhood, zigging and zagging. Lots of people, lots of good revitalization work accomplished so far, lots of work to do.

I eventually ended up on L Street between San Joaquin and Amador. It’s not a long stretch of block, but it sure generates a lot of controversy at City Hall.

The Assemi family’s Crichton Place project, on the northeast corner of L and San Joaquin, is still nothing but dirt. The “Alamo” house, on the southwest corner of L and Amador looks great — the Housing Authority’s rehab is nearly done.

I took photos of both sites, but they’re upside-down. I can’t get them right side-up. I’ll do a better job with the camera next time.

My walk past the Crichton Place site reminded me of another time I had an adventure in the same neighborhood.

It happened on a Friday evening last fall. I had finished a story a little after 5 o’clock that was slated for Sunday’s paper. My boss had other stories to edit before mine. I decided to walk to the corner of L and San Joaquin.

The Assemi family and a preservationist group were already in a legal fight over the project. Some trenches (footings for the apartments) were dug. Otherwise, work had stopped. A security fence surrounded the site. There was a big sign (still there) explaining why the project was stalled.

On this Friday evening last fall, probably about 6 o’clock, I stood in front of the sign looking things over. I had on a windbreaker, white shirt and tie. Off to my right, walking north on L Street, I spotted a woman walking my way. She looked like she was in her mid-30s.

“What ya doing?” she asked.

How was I to explain everything in a sentence or two? I didn’t try. “These apartments — looks like they won’t get built anytime soon.”

We chatted about the neighborhood. She was friendly in a modest way.

“I’ve got to get back to The Bee,” I said, crossing L and heading west on San Joaquin. “It was nice to chat.”

I was almost to the west side of L when she asked, “You wouldn’t want a date, would you?”

“What?”

“You wouldn’t want a date, would you?”

Where? In one of those Crichton Place trenches?

She was smiling. No embarrassment.

“No thanks.”

It’s a big city. I continued west on San Joaquin, then turned north on H Street. My plan was to cross the Union Pacific tracks on Divisadero, go to G Street by the City Yard, then back to the newsroom. I made it to work, but not by that path.

There was sunlight, but the sun was setting fast. I was on the west side of H, nearly to Divisadero, when a 1990s-era Dodge mini-van heading south on H stopped next to me.

An elderly couple was in front, the man driving. In the back were two females. One looked to be in her early teens. The other was 20 or so. All four were dressed nicely. Spanish, I soon learned, was their first language. Only the man, at least in my presence, spoke much English.

Now, keep in mind the street pattern here. There are about six different streets that come together in this spot. It’s nearly impossible to tell which stoplights apply to which lanes. My Bee colleague Bill McEwen says he’s constantly seeing drivers handle the dilemma by simply assuming they’ve got a green light and barreling ahead.

The man said to me in his broken English: “We’re looking for a church. Golden State and 99. North of Selma.”

I thought to myself: “No way I can give them directions that make sense. But I don’t want to leave them stranded.”

I said: “Let me in. I can direct you.”

That’s how I ended up in the back seat of a mini-van, sitting next to 13-year-old girl who wanted only to get to a church. She wasn’t happy — not with her grandfather for getting so totally lost, not with being late to her church event, not with sitting next to a stranger who (though she didn’t know it) had just been propositioned by a prostitute.

We headed toward the south part of downtown. I figured the church was somewhere near Old Germantown. We’d find it and I’d have a relatively short walk back to The Bee. Instead, about five minutes into the drive, the man said the church was near Golden State, 99 and Ashlan Avenue.

We were going the wrong direction.

It took another 30 minutes, but we found the church in an industrial park on Golden State, north of Highway 99’s Ashlan exit. We pulled into a parking lot next to various machine shops and, sure enough, there was a crowd of about 75 people getting ready for what appeared to be an outdoor supper. There were people of all ages milling around. Some waved at us as we parked. The girl next to me finally smiled.

The man and I shook hands. He was a retired farmworker from Visalia. Their family church was back in Tulare County, but they had been invited to the Fresno church to hear a popular preacher.

The man gave me his home address and invited me to drop by sometime. He offered me a ride back to work. I declined. I was still afraid of his granddaughter.

Somehow, I had to get to the newsroom.

I walked to a gas station and called my city editor, Robert Zizzo.

“Hey, Robert, it’s George.”

“I’m ready to go over your story. Where are you?”

“At a gas station on Ashlan off of 99. I need a ride”

Pause.

“What are you doing out there?”

“Well, boss, there was this hooker … and then there was this family that didn’t speak English … and then there was this church pot luck … and then …”

“Don’t move.”

Robert picked me up. He’s now working in Green Bay, Wisconsin. I miss that man.

* Nothing so dramatic happened on Thursday, February 7 on L Street and San Joaquin. I walked past the “Alamo” house, marveling at the fine remodeling work, then took Amador to H Street.

Once again, I was almost to Divisadero when I met someone. He name was Raymond, 27 years old. He was standing on the sidewalk on the east side of H, looking at a car parked on a lot near one of the shops on that stretch of road.

“Look at that,” he said.

It was a black car. Looked very nice. But I’m not a car person — didn’t own my first car until I was 29.

“What is it?”

“A Maserati. Probably costs $54,000. That’s what I’m going to have someday.”

“What do you do?”

“I don’t work. I just got out of prison.”

We walked together. He was headed to a visit with his parole officer at the state office on the corner of Divisadero and G.

Raymond spoke fast. I couldn’t understand everything he said. He said he didn’t know much about his parents. He said he ran around too much with the wrong crowd. He’s now homeless.

He didn’t ask, but I gave him the couple of bucks in my pocket.

Raymond almost certainly is similar to many of the young British prisoners and ex-cons described by Theodore Dalrymple in his essays. You shake your head and say: What’s a society to do with them? Dalrymple’s most famous books of essays on this topic is titled, appropriately, “Life at the Bottom.”

“I gotta stay away from the wrong crowd,” Raymond said as he angled toward the parole office. “But I guess it’s me, too. It works both ways.”

* I returned to the newsroom at about 3:30 and figured that was the end of my walking that day. Nope. Two hours later, I was hoofing it over the Stanislaus Street bridge to Bix-Werx on Fulton Street in Uptown.

Bix-Werx is an office-studio complex in the old San Francisco Floral shop at Fulton and Calaveras. Granville Homes bought the building and changed its DNA. “Adaptive reuse” in City Hall jargon.

Thursday was Art Hop night. Darius Assemi, head Granville, was hosting a small, casual party at Biz-Werx. A couple of guys who make custom skateboards were in one space. A photographer was in another.

City Manager Mark Scott showed up. Music and snacks put everyone in a good mood. People were coming and going all the time.

And in one of Biz-Werx’s spaces, Darius led about a dozen people through a brief Power Point-like review of Granville’s newest project — The Met museum block.

This project has passed before the City Council several times in past year or so. Assemi said it’ll cover almost the entire block bounded by Van Ness, Calaveras, Fulton and Stanislaus. There will be more than 80 apartments, some with two bedrooms. There will be retail spaces. Reza Assemi, Darius’ cousin, has plans to develop the former Theater 3 building on Fulton.

The old Met building (once home to The Bee) is now owned by a City Hall offshoot. It has a few tenants, but could use more.

Construction on The Met block’s first phase could begin at the end of 2013, Darius said. When built out, the project’s investment could total $15 million.

“Are they doing cartwheels at City Hall,” I asked Darius.

He just laughed. He’s too shrewd to answer such a question.

But look at Uptown. The Assemi family builds what it says it’ll build. If the Met block turns into a successful eight-figure public-private investment, then City Hall can say good-bye to the Met Museum loan-guarantee fiasco.

Even Cap would condone a little grandstanding in that case.

* I left Biz-Werx and walked around a bit.

Fulton and even H Street were hopping. I guess that’s why they call it Art Hop.

There’s a gallery called 1821 Calaveras. Cars — nice cars — were parked along both sides of H Street. It was dark, for heaven’s sake, and North Fresno cars were lining the curbs of H. I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it.

A woman parked her car on Calaveras, between Broadway and Fulton. Two junior high-age girls got out with her. I was a few steps ahead of them on the sidewalk. We were headed toward Fulton.

I turned right on Fulton and they went straight.

“Hurry,” the woman said to what I assumed were her daughters. “We’ve got a green light.”

You might think it would make no difference to nightime pedestrians if the stoplight at Fulton and Calaveras were red or green. Just proceed. No one’s around, right?

But not on this night. There were cars everywhere. And bicyclists, groups of bicyclists. I guess they wanted to be part of the fun.

I headed south on Fulton. KJWL headquarters was packed with people and music. So, too, with the Warnor’s side of the street. An animal rescue group had a climate-controlled kennel on wheels in front of Warnor’s. Small dogs with their own secure space were the show. People loved it. Not sure about the pups.

I walked the length of Fulton Mall, Tuolumne to Inyo. Except for the CVS pharmacy at Tuolumne and a basement-level art show at the Pacific Southwest Building, there was no action. The mall was clean. All the lights worked. You got a great view of the Water Tower as you crossed Fresno Street. But all those trees and empty buildings and closed stores gave the place the feel of a cemetery.

It was raining as I turned west on Stanislaus to return to the newsroom. I got to the top of the Stanislaus bridge. I stopped and turned, first toward Uptown, then toward the tall buildings that line the mall.

There was a pretty good wind. The rain was blowing into my face. I was the only person up there.

I thought: Downtown Fresno just might make it back. But that mall!

Responses

Bryan Harley says:

Correction: the Met building doesn’t have a few tenants, only one: CMAC, the new public, education, and government access television station. You came by once to cover the League of Women Voters debates. Feel free to come by again and I’ll give you a proper tour!

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