Dorie Dakin Perez
Like many so-called “boomerang” millennials, I found myself returning to the Central Valley to set down roots after living away for a decade. Looking at my hometown with new eyes and a burgeoning career as an urban anthropologist, the subject of change in insular Fresno and its spatial politics can be hard to swallow. More so, crisis conditions from the statewide drought had been an alarming yet helpful framing mechanism in which to visualize the physical and communal stratification of Valley life.
Water, or more specifically its absence, has helped shape the built environment of urbanization in Fresno. Such deficit thinking has continued to be a driving force in setting policy and placemaking practices in the City of Fresno, even as the city currently pursues an effort to revitalize its aging infrastructure to meet twenty-first century economic demands. Most interestingly, the production of an imagined future by groups of non-state actors eager to stake their claim on the community is where memory and planning intersect, sometimes painfully.
As much as the Central Valley’s agricultural interests have long positioned themselves as the major economic base for the region, the drought has revealed the lingering dispossession caused by such uneven concentrations of wealth. Regional concerns echo those claims of dispossession, highlighted in the media coverage of dry, unincorporated areas feeling the worst effects of the drought. A 2015 example of this was in the especially hard hit region of rural East Tulare County, where a humanitarian crisis occurred due to major water shortages and a lack of stable infrastructure. Yet it is the City of Fresno and the process of urbanization where such discourses of cultural deficit meet an engaged social placemaking through practices of memory and a general rethinking of the politics of space.
My ethnographic scholarship uses the recent five year drought, and the inequality it has made visible across different cultural platforms of space and place, to understand the Central Valley as a culture of historic extraction, be it natural resources, labor or public space. This social memory of dispossession is exemplified in the ways that nonstate actors in the City of Fresno, and the greater Central Valley, seek to revise social-spatial projects. Specifically, the push to stake a grassroots claim in the revitalization of the inner urban core of downtown Fresno, as well as the reimagining of space in and around the city, is part of this new project of place that small-scale community organizations are using to highlight the sunshine and noir of urban change. My use of the term “urban,” in a region known for its rural life and agricultural economy, is deliberate; “The urban is not a unit, but a process of transformation unfolding in diverse sites, territories and landscapes.”
The subject of water is never far behind when discussing land use policy and the Central Valley’s built environment. Changes in the conceptualization of these two resources—water and space—are the mechanisms of new social projects happening in Fresno. Through the application of a theoretical framework borrowed from urban geography, Henri Lefebvre’s idea of the “right to the city,” the twin issues of water and space are helpful for their potential to assist in making these projects of social construction manifested.
The right to the city is, therefore, far more than a right of individual access to the resources that the city embodies: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city more after our heart’s desire. It is, moreover, a collective rather than an individual right since changing the city inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power over the processes of urbanization.
Urban development and water resource management by competing interests seek different ends to their work, and yet together shape the social and physical landscape of the Central Valley. Two key case studies are the focus of my analysis that convene the spatial politics of place with the histories of dispossession that have become part of the collective social landscape.
Urban development and water resource management by competing interests seek different ends to their work, and yet together shape the social and physical landscape of the Central Valley.
Water and its infrastructure needs in the Central Valley were made material in the dry fountains along the Fulton Mall in downtown Fresno. From initial private investment to haphazard public enjoyment, the fountains once stood as beacons of modernity, offering shoppers a spot to linger as they returned to the revamped “cool” of 1960s urbanism chic. The fountains, all twenty-two of them, were in Fall 2015 mostly dried up and filled with trash or repurposed as planters. Refilled and drained at random, their visible deterioration echoed the nearly empty space of the Mall’s decaying Mid-Century Modern infrastructure. “Emptiness” remains a relative term. In the perception of the mainstream shopping public of Fresno, a lack of middle class shoppers present reads as evidence of emptiness, as ‘empty’ despite the “hundreds of people, mostly of color and of lower socioeconomic status, who walked the Mall each day.” Illegibility, of both a new kind of patron, who is not the white middle-class consumer benefiting and partaking in gentrification processes, and the natural resources like fountains and trees through which water flows on the Mall is inscribed in its initial problematization.
The Fulton Mall’s fountains, part of the initiative to find local artists who could help curate the space for a 1960s consumer base, and their removal as not representing the natural conditions of the Valley environment exemplify the different conceptualizations of public goods and a changing vision for the future. This decline, tracked for decades by The Fresno Bee daily newspaper and local business community newsletters, is part of the contestation of space and place that is underscored by the recent drought conditions that made water a necessary but insufficient condition for change in the Central Valley imaginary.
Blackstone Avenue is another dispirited infrastructural legacy, once the “center of town” where commercial interests were centered below Shaw Avenue away from the civic institutions of the city’s downtown. Similar to how rural space in the Valley has been divided up and intensified throughout the twentieth century, the commercial space on Blackstone has transitioned from retail to a concentration of auto and auto-service related enterprises, owned by non-residents who are seen by many within the transitioning neighborhoods around the central artery as the cause of urban blight that bleeds southward towards the neglected downtown. Both the Mall and Blackstone Avenue are the foci of revitalization efforts by government functionaries led by former Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s “I Believe in Downtown” campaign and community nonprofits who seek to tie physical revitalization with social transformation through engaged electoral participation and economic investment. The phantom force of water—its accessibility, disappearance, ties to nature as key to physical improvement and regulation as part of the broader technologies of power overlapping in downtown—is always present as part of a larger discussion of resources that have helped reproduce histories of dispossession and extraction that leave “ordinary cities” like Fresno a contested social terrain.
California, as a product and site of cultural production, is an outward-facing entity that valorizes a mythic, encrypted self-narrative of opportunity envisioned by generations of booster elites eager to develop the American West. California’s “sunniness” is coupled with its inherent noir, a hidden power phenomena that keeps its less desirable yet essential parts in shadow. The Central Valley is where those dual forces of noir and sunshine intersect, where the issues of urbanization and historical patterns of rural settlement coexist uncomfortably within the California project. An area east of the Coastal Range that includes the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys, from Bakersfield to Chico, the Valley has always been socially embattled when not ignored as a political backwater. “Not much about California, on its own preferred terms, has encouraged its children to see themselves as connected to one another. The separation, of north from south, and even more acutely of west from east, from urban coast from the agricultural valleys… was profound, fueled by the rancor of water wars and by less tangible but even more rancorous differences in attitude and culture.” As Gerry Haslam has argued, the Central Valley serves as a liminal cultural space, the “Other California,” left out of a Southern California-centered focus on economic opportunity and cultural production:
I began to look more closely at the physical environment and saw things I should have noticed before. Just north of where I had grown up, I realized, lay a maimed environment, the bed of the largest freshwater lake in the West, now dried, plowed and irrigated: What had happened?
This naturally-occurring ecological event has intensified to unheard-of costs to human development. The statewide drought was deemed a disaster in 2014 by Gov. Jerry Brown and subject to federal intervention by 2015. The drought’s slow burn into the collective consciousness of those not in the business of agriculture has helped unearth some of the more human disasters and longstanding internal contradictions that make explicit the social constructions of place that re-emphasize the Valley’s history as a land of physical and social dispossession and struggle for cultural significance. The research agenda that informs this work is part of a broader focus on the anthropology of Fresno’s downtown redevelopment that informs my preliminary dissertation research on the cultural construction of urban space. Over the course of the last two years, I attended public meetings at the state, city and regional levels (Fresno City Council Meeting, 4 and 27 February, 2014; State Workshop on Water, January 2015; Kings River Irrigation District Board Meeting, August 2015) on urban redevelopment and water policy, as well as conducted unstructured and semi-structured interviews with informants working on these two issues within the city. One key part of this preliminary ethnographic analysis has been the data collected through fieldnotes from participant-observation efforts. I worked on projects, went to meetings and attended special events with various community organizations working outside the confines of political campaigns or government office.
Central Valley farmers have long fought against the movement of water from Northern California to the southern part of the state, using “L.A.” as a euphemism for waste, entitlement and bad planning policies.
The theoretical framework of Lefebvre’s “right to the city” can be used to understand California’s historical spatialization and put the recent water crisis into socio-political context. Henri Lefebvre, the primary member of the Marxist revival in mid-twentieth century cultural geography scholarship, argued that the city’s inherent benefits—social, political, and economic—were made possible by the diversity of people, opportunity and intensification of space and development. These social and economic resources found in cities should not be hindered by privatization as a phenomenon in a city available for public benefit, including the surrounding areas. This call for keeping some things, like economic markets and open urban space, public and publicly-administered was positioned squarely against the creeping privatization and divestment of public resource management that cities sought to systemize in the latter half of the twentieth century. Public goods, Lefebvre argued, were the only things not made into commodities for exchange by the economically-privileged few who gained the most from capitalism’s structural inequities. This idea was part of his more general discussion of the social production of space as something categorized and made into physical and representation modes for the organization and stratification of human development. Thus the built environment, and policies of land use and production, are part of this codification and reinscription of capitalistic social organization, where space makes some welcome and bars others from its production.
City/farm, urban/rural—the dispossession of space and the extraction of resources for a global market is a process that the Central Valley has always taken part in despite competing concerns over growing urbanization and the political economy and industrial concerns of agriculture. A recent focus on water is one of many historical cycles of political attention and eventual obfuscation. Central Valley farmers have long fought against the movement of water from Northern California to the southern part of the state, using “L.A.” as a euphemism for waste, entitlement and bad planning policies. For the last decade, signs along Highway 99 shout slogans like “Food Grows Where Water Flows,” vilifying the names of those legislators who vote for more environmental protections that limit industrial water use. This geographic division of resources and power are part of the political project of the state’s dualism; a shiny attractive Coast and a shadowed hinterland in complete symbiosis, the city’s “contado” that Gary Brechin wrote, “feeds the people,” yet remains unknowable.
Decades of benign neglect of water in the form of a lack of regulatory processes across the Central Valley has led to the depletion of groundwater from local water tables. Water meters that measure and charge for home water use are recent additions to the utility bills of Central Valley residents, a factor that historically increased the illegibility of its importance in the daily lives of residents. This lack of attention, given that other urban areas have for decades worked on multiple levels of governance to limit and control water use, poses questions about water’s centrality and value in Valley life. Was there a simplistic feeling of material abundance in the landscape, or rather, did power elites controlling the development of the Valley landscape see little need to quantify the use of water even as urban areas like Fresno started to compete with industrial agricultural operations for finite material resources? These type of questions about the relationship between the material conditions of Valley life ask questions that efforts like urban revitalization and placemaking seem to want to answer, the social response to physical and natural droughts.
This water crisis, similar to the “urban crisis” of the 1960s in its self-creation mythology, has afforded the social space in which different alternative imaginings of place and the politics of belonging can be articulated. Several groups have taken up the charge of not letting a crisis go to waste, using different but significant points of entry to discuss dispossession in urban form. The role of activism around issues of equity and resource distribution, the special relationship between space and water, development and history, has been ripe for discussion. At a regional level, dry wells in East Tulare County, south of Fresno, have highlighted the lack of infrastructure and muted governmental response to the physical needs of a largely poor community of Latinos. This inattention has spurred efforts by local organizations and non-state actors like the Valley Water Center and California Rural Legal Assistance to organize a disadvantaged community and link their concerns for the continuation of life in a culturally cohesive yet politically unincorporated part of the county to larger variables about representation and engagement in the formal political process. “All local residents should participate for, although corporate boards elsewhere may control the deeds to much land here, they do not know the call of a dove or the chill of river water slicing from the Sierra Nevada or the dawn smell of a freshly mown alfalfa field.” Countering the power of a decentralized planning regime and decades of developmental policy that are exclusive by their very nature is used as the mechanism by which the historiography of the Central Valley organizes its major themes.
The contestation over the revitalization of the Fresno Fulton Mall is where urban space and its complicated place in the cultural imaginings of place are centered in this analysis. An aging twentieth century pedestrian center in the heart of downtown Fresno, the history and cultural narrative of the Fresno Fulton Mall is contentious. Recent efforts to revitalize the three-block area as part of a national post-recession movement to gentrify deindustrialized urban areas, as well as a nod to the market demands of cities’ endless search for tax revenue, have frayed the tempers of longtime denizens who seek to preserve the space according to its ethos of Mid-Century Modern aesthetics.
This project is personal to me, challenging the division between emic and etic approaches to anthropological study. As one born in Fresno and gone for over a decade, the place-memory of home still retains meaning for me, especially in the older areas like the Fulton Mall that are untouched by urban redevelopment. Marx Arax understands this as part of returning home: “The stakes always seemed higher [in Fresno] than when I was writing about L.A. The reasons were obvious in one respect—it was my home—and yet I sensed a deeper explanation that had to do with how we as a society related to place…. It has been a messy affair, but I am still here, trying to put my finger on this place.” As the world urbanizes and the process of urbanization takes varied forms that go beyond the simplistic dichotomies of rural vs. urban, suburban vs. urban, the Mall has become meaningful to me and a new generation of citizen artists, activists, and planners.
Built to much fanfare in the early 1960s, the Mall became one of the first open-air pedestrian malls at the beginning of the suburban mall era. Anchored by J.C. Penny and other major department stores, the mall was the first major site of concentrated consumerism in Fresno, and attracted shoppers with its park-like setting. The choice to redevelop an already urban space was deliberate—planners including the nationally-recognized planner Victor Gruen and landscape architect Garrett Eckbo wanted to bring the suburban shopping experience to downtown Fresno, already in decline as citizens moved northward. Its success at the time of its opening in 1964 was quickly overshadowed by the creation of newer enclosed malls like Manchester Center in 1969 and Fashion Fair Mall on Shaw Avenue in the 1970s. As fewer shoppers came downtown, the Fulton Mall became a place where community events were held in Mariposa Plaza, the largest of the open areas in the three block mall setting, and a free speech stage was created as a commemoration of the site of a labor protest in the 1920s.
The turn from the Mall’s original plan as a place middle-class residents shop into de facto parkland for the urban poor was due to unimpeded and steady decline, as the vast majority of the major department stores left in the 1980s. The Mall’s genesis speaks to a planning ideology of another era, and contemporary proposals that seek to either crystallize its history or revamp it altogether manifest the competing pressures of real estate and community memory that counter each other within the sphere of Fresno planning politics. As it stands today, the Mall is under construction to be transformed into Fulton Street, reopening late 2017. The approved proposal to open the pedestrian mall to vehicular traffic and add over a one hundred parking spaces was stymied by a lawsuit filed by supports of the Downtown Fresno Coalition (DFC), which sought to keep the Mall a pedestrian-friendly place and thus were behind the unsuccessful push to get the site registered as a California Historic Landmark. As such efforts indicate, the mall serves as a place of nostalgia and distinction for many Fresnans despite its diminished state. The DFC utilizes the ideas of walkability, the need for the preservation of democratic public space, as well as green space in an urbanizing world, as the emotional pleas of an underdog argument bent on mobilizing the affective nature of place attachment. The death of several trees by lack of water oft-rumored to be a coordinated effort by the city to encourage blight and make its case for redevelopment stronger, echoing a similar fight over changes in a historic Central American urban space discussed by anthropologist Setha Low:
The sense of loss in these stories is not with the place itself, but with the decoration and social participants, yet the stories communicate a sense of place attachment that has been disrupted physically, but not in memory, by ongoing social change.
The emotionality and use of memory in the argument for preservation touch on issues of aesthetics, in the access to public art and environmentalism, representing the interests of the denizen-activists of the DFC. Decidedly white, upper-middle class and college-educated, very few members live near Downtown and the Mall and most don’t visit its businesses and services. The Mall, to them, is understood as parkland and a place where public art can be enjoyed. The cost and prestige of the public art, led by some of the artists themselves, are often highlighted in the materials produced by the group. The transition from mainstream consumer sites like J.C. Penny to smaller, local retailers as well as the administrative offices of county agencies that cater to a largely Latino audience has been an uncomfortable one. The racial politics of space are deliberately softened by the social memory of postwar prosperity that centers on white consumers. As part of a series of events to mark its fiftieth anniversary of operations in 2014, a local filmmaker created a film that made the Mall its main subject. “We certainly don’t need more botanicas,” one woman commented during a Q&A session after viewing the documentary. Screenings and a series of walking tours were hosted in 2015 and 2016. This was also a response to the walking tours that are offered by a competing business association centering the Mall in a discussion of urban blight, focusing on future development plans in 2017 for the space that include private real estate.
Another significant project of place where space and water play a central developmental role is the A Better Blackstone neighborhood redevelopment project, northward in Fresno’s central core area. Blackstone Avenue serves as Fresno’s High Street, its central North-South conduit that shuttles people into and out of downtown, paralleling the main Highway 41 that intersects with Highway 99, the Valley’s main site of passage. Its demise has been well-documented, echoing concerns for a better investment of place:
No place with even a modicum of self-worth would allow such a disgrace, much less right down its spine. I venture it’s more complicated than that—and more simple. I doubt that anyone in City Hall actually planned on disfiguring Fresno this way. The Boulevard more or less developed, downtown to river, a century of progress, without any countervailing force ever saying “no.” In the process, its belief only got replicated.
A programmatic arm of a local nonprofit giant, A Better Blackstone is a multiyear project that is both ideational and outcome-specific. “We have come together to imagine what it would look like for Blackstone to thrive once again.” In its first months of work, the program sought to collect data on every business on the avenue itself as well as initiate direct contact with residents of the surrounding neighborhoods, no small feat.
At a community event called “Imagine Blackstone,” Summer 2015, local residents were asked to participate in this reimagining, both the possibilities of place in the central district and the realism of its current state of neglect. A photovoice project led by staff was displayed, and viewers were asked to stop and get their event pass stamped along a curated path of projects related to city services, civic education and spatial imagery. A fully stamped event pass meant free tacos and drinks on the hot August tarmac of Susan B. Anthony Elementary School. Pop-up parklets, like those trumpeted by urban civic leaders as solutions to the limited public space of gentrifying cities, were created using rolled up Astrotrurf and DIY park benches. Asked to take the lead on this exhibit display twenty minutes before the gate opened, I gamely tried my hand at curation and was assigned a twelve year old assistant who worked the scotch tape. There was a clear agenda of engagement that was being asked of participants by A Better Blackstone staffers: we as volunteers were tasked to stimulate conversation by asking how Blackstone is popularly and individually conceptualized (“bad” and “ugly” were common answers), and what, if any, factors could improve the thoroughfare (“Trees!”).
Methodologically and logistically, these conversations were happening on several fronts: Participants at the event wanted to know what photovoice as a method was, and second, why did all these photos matter to the redevelopment of their neighborhood? An ethnographic research methodology used by visual anthropologists, photovoice is both empirically sophisticated and immediately accessible. A photovoice project is typically a carefully administered elicitation of visual data collection through initial discussions of themes about a certain phenomenon, then cameras given to those involved as subjects. The ensuing photos and captions are pulled together to gain understanding of one’s emic view of the world-made material by the photographs, and narratives captured that expand discussion on the community-developed central theme in the user’s own voice. Here, local students and their parents were asked to take photos of their neighborhood around Blackstone Avenue that they deemed were either positive or negative depictions of local life, and then asked to write down why they chose those photos, describing them in their own words. Central Valley water, as ever, was omnipresent as a thematic core of the project yet hidden behind an understanding of issues that made it seem only tangential to the goals of placemaking and revitalization. Dead trees, stagnant canals and broken curbs were the problems of infrastructure cited by many participants in their commentary. A lack of water, and lack of nature, or rather, its re-envisionment as pop-up spaces of temporary comfort on the hot summer tarmac of Susan B. Anthony Elementary were evidence of the creativity that such spatial deficits could engender.
Water’s role as the unacknowledged shaper of events, even in its absence, is correlated with the reproduction of a deficit-centric cultural discourse found here in the tactics of Fresno interest groups.
The activism and organizational engagement of A Better Blackstone on issues of space are central to what Michel De Certeau understands as tactics used to make sense of urban planning regimes by residents looking to exert spatial agency in a complex spatial arrangement, and to a larger extent, is “tactical urbanism” in action. The bottom up, self-directed work of A Better Blackstone functions in a liminal space—quasi-governmental due to its close relationship with regional arms of government and public orientation as part of a forty year-old nonprofit, yet privately-funded by larger state and national foundation grants for goals that center on social justice and the promotion of public health.
Imagined landscapes were the goal of “walking audits” of the corridor during the hot summer months. Strollers were pushed by volunteers up and down the street in an effort to collect data and physically embody the imagination of what could be. Infrastructure needs were documented in great detail; wheels stuck in concrete cracks were photographed as evidence of infrastructural neglect. The search for shade in 100 degree temperatures was a constant reminder that nature had been categorically eliminated on Blackstone Avenue. A 10 a.m. walk in August 2015 found two groups of mothers directed in both Spanish and English by A Better Blackstone staffers, upon whom seeing the ten feet of shade found near a bus stop north of Olive Avenue broke out into happy exaltations. Apparently shade is a historic vestige in vehicle-centered planning. Open irrigation canals that crossed the city were noted for being concentrated in older, now poorer parts of town, brimming with dark fast-moving water that seemed to tempt in the summer heat.
The role volunteer groups, political organizations and nonprofit service agencies play in the discussion of urbanization has proved the singular counterweight in the face of the capitalist political economy of city leadership forced to play an unending game of growth liberalism. Whether the aims of the ten year A Better Blackstone project will be fulfilled is an ongoing question, but the actions taken by its leadership and that of the Downtown Fresno Coalition to fight perceived threats of spatial inequality are indicators of deep place attachment by historically overlooked groups. The attachment reproduced by socially-ascribed memory implicitly ties place as the physical bearer of culture within the production of space. Water’s role as the unacknowledged shaper of events, even in its absence, is correlated with the reproduction of a deficit-centric cultural discourse found here in the tactics of Fresno interest groups.
Water is the phantom subject of interest that spurs political movement on space and place in Fresno and throughout the broader Central Valley. The planning regime that produced the Fulton Mall, and the modern effort to revitalize it amidst calls to preserve its significance as a site of history and social memory for many city residents are cyclical development projects that further the production of space, as all states must be productive in the highly privatized spatial project that is the Central Valley. Yet it is this same planning regime that has created the blighted Blackstone Avenue, where water’s disappearance in the form of trees and urban nature are also felt. Understanding the social response to urban physical intervention is my ongoing effort to capture ethnographically the process of change and renewal that stem from these issues of place attachment, and from within a historical framework of deficit that has subsumed conceptions of the Valley for so long. Through the distribution and rethinking of water as a central resource, a human right rather than a commodity, a naturally-occurring resource to be redistributed by humans, its role in reshaping Fresno as a political project and cultural production makes visible the fault lines across which denizens and their institutions must negotiate. For me, it is the price of coming home.
- All photos taken by Sydney Santana.
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Dorie Dakin Perez is doctoral candidate in political anthropology and urban history at the University of California, Merced. Her research focuses on the cultural meaning-making of urban space and public policy as cultural change. Previously, she worked for the State Legislature and the Google X Self-Driving Car project. Her work can be found at www.dorieperez.org.
Copyright: © 2017 Dorie Dakin Perez. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/