chapter  7
22 Pages

Facing change in the Central Valley: A declining Fresno

Any history of Fresno is, more than anything else, a history of water. Its use, its abuse, and its limits. Worster’s (1985) definitive treatment on the topic of water and the American West is a useful point for beginning to understand what has occurred in the Central Valley and what its future portends. Worster argues that water “more than any other single element, has been the shaping force in the region’s history” (p. 5). The wholesale reconstruction of the Central Valley to provide for massive scaled irrigation has both wreaked havoc on the region’s natural systems as well as brought great wealth. Worster’s study explores how the 1933 Central Valley Project brought great water works to a fertile, yet dry basin, allowing for an unprecedented transformation of a sleepy train station town into the agricultural center of the world. Estimates are that the valley produces 25 percent of all U.S. table food; it’s been called by one environmental scientist the “richest agricultural region in the history of the world” (Johnson et al. 1993). This inconceivable change has been the subject of much attention in planning and real estate development literatures. In her study of the modern history of the Central Valley, Nash (2000) writes, “Perhaps no other landscape has been so discussed, studied, and planned over the last century” (p. 3)—thus making Fresno a uniquely interesting place to understand contemporary urban change. Settled first in 1878 by Minnie Austin and three other San Francisco-based school teachers, Fresno was eyed even earlier by railroad magnate Leland Stanford as the main midway station stop along his Central Pacific route. A small town grew up around the train station and farming in the desert community took off. But the desert climate meant little water was available for irrigation and the small town remained small. Once the Central Valley Project got the water flowing, the City of Fresno and surrounding communities transformed their landscape into a hard-working agricultural center. The very seasonal nature of agriculture has meant much work during the growing season and much unemployment the remainder of the year. Fresno’s agricultural economy demands a “malleable and eternal lower class” as Johnson et al. (1993) put it-this “shadow society” of as many as 86,000 live throughout the valley with few benefits, no security, and low wages (p. 14). In the 1960s, city officials, armed with millions in federal dollars, cut wide swaths through Fresno’s neighborhoods either literally by building highways, or figuratively by labeling the swaths as high density districts. The high density classification was made with no regard for what structures or uses were actually there; according to one planner, “non-conforming uses were created within structures!” Today’s planners conjecture that the mid-twentieth century planners’ aims were to generate new construction and reinvestment within the city boundaries so as to rejuvenate the city and its neighborhoods. By upzoning land, they would provide an incentive to property owners to build, thus enhancing economic activity. But the building was often very low quality apartments and “not anything that will stabilize neighborhoods.” In exchange for a temporary infusion of construction jobs

as Lowell-Jefferson into primarily tenant-occupied congested places. A planner in Fresno told me, “we never really respected ourselves, we just wanted new real estate development.” And with all the physical improvements, not much progress was made in enhancing the physical aesthetics of the city. As Setencich (1993) put it, “Fresno will never win any beauty contests” (p. 11). For decades, the city recoiled from the urban renewal disasters and by the mid2000s the economy began to boom with increased overall wealth and growth for Fresno. Population rose, number of jobs grew, and number of houses also climbed (see Table 7.1). To accommodate these new residents, thousands of acres of agricultural land every year were being converted into housing developments (Johnson et al. 1993, p. 199). The region’s very economic base-agriculture-was losing out to its newly favorite industry: home building. This sprawling, placeless new growth was recognized by planners and others as a serious threat to the sustainability of the region. Some demographers went as far as to predict a doubling of population between 2007 and 2050 for the region. A key policy report behind much of the planning warned, “In order to prepare for this growth, today’s leaders and residents will need to make intelligent choices regarding the shape and future of the valley’s communities and land” (Great Valley Center 2007, p. 1). Beginning in early 2006 a broad coalition of local politicians, planners, and nonprofit community leaders in the Fresno region1 came together to shape a BluePrint, to respond to the warning of four million more people, to guide future growth. The goal of this BluePrint project is to reduce vehicle miles traveled, enhance housing affordability, and decrease long-distance commuting by bringing more jobs into the immediate region. One regional planner remarked that they want to “get more jobs here so people don’t have to commute so far.”