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Dream Unravels : Fresno: Rise and Fall of Urban Mall

April 28, 1988|PETER H. KING | Times Staff Writer

FRESNO — The great Fulton Mall sits abandoned in the night, a six-block monument to municipal vision and blindness. Iron gates stretch across the bargain shoe stores and jewelry shops that represent the latest mercantile dreams to inhabit the wide outdoor walkway, and the old office towers stand dark, their tenants having made tracks at sundown for the subdivisions.

Only transients walk the mall after dark, and they tend to step quickly, steer to the shadows and don't even window shop. No one else comes downtown to admire the expensive art pieces, or dip hands in the gurgling fountains, or hear the music piped from strategically placed speakers. The music, though, plays all night, serenading trees and benches.

The concrete void yawning through downtown mocks the notion of what was to have been--once automobiles were banished from the city's heart, once the forces of suburbia were thwarted, once Fresno had established itself as a bold pathfinder on the urban frontier.

'Our Finest Hour'

The downtown mall was dedicated in 1964, a time when white flight and inner-city blight were at the fore of issues here and everywhere, and it created a national sensation. "This is our finest hour," the mayor declared, more prophetically perhaps than he imagined.

Scores of American cities would pursue Fresno's vision. From Waco, Tex., to Eugene, Ore., from Oak Park, Ill., to Santa Monica--as many as 100 U.S. municipalities undertook to restore their centers by throwing out automobile traffic and creating what the architects called "pedestrian reserves."

"This was the thing to do," recalled Richard Hodge, whose family once operated the finest men's store on the Fulton Mall. "This is what towns were doing, putting in malls, sprucing up their downtowns. And why were they doing it? They were doing it to combat what they knew was inevitable--the sprawl to suburbia."

White Elephants

The thing to do turned out to be a mistake. Today, most municipalities that followed the Fresno model must contend with moribund white elephants where Main Street used to be. Suburban sprawl has not been thwarted, or even slowed, and the inner city has not been saved. In fact, arresting downtown decay remains a hot piece of work for urban designers--although now the first recommendation often involves yanking out the pedestrian mall to allow automobiles back in.

And Fresno, once the proud prototype for an urban experiment, now presents a case study in its failure.

Incorporated in 1885, Fresno dawdled pleasantly through its first half-century as a modest center for the enormous agricultural boom that huge water projects were bringing to the San Joaquin Valley. "We had buried no great men," Fresno-born author William Saroyan wrote in 1934, "because we hadn't had time to produce any great men. We had been too busy trying to get water into the desert, and the shadow of no great mind was over our city."

Like much of California, Fresno did not really begin to grow until after World War II. And like much of California, once the town did grow, it did not grow up. It grew out. The era of GI loans and ranch-style housing tracts, of suburbia in all its grid-patterned glory, was embraced fully, eagerly, by postwar Fresno.

Then as now, Fresno mainly promised warm summer nights, inexpensive housing, a pleasant compromise between back-yard living and economic opportunity, and short travel time to the Sierra and the Pacific. "So much, so close," is the newest official slogan.

'Branch Location'

And then as now, Fresno was suspended in that netherworld between big town and small city--large enough to support all species of fast-food outlets but, with the proud exception of the raisin industry, hardly any enterprise's first choice for a world headquarters. "A branch location," is how one Fresno leader describes it.

Downtown had been constructed in the early 1900s, and while it conveyed a certain Victorian charm, no one wanted to live there. The action was all in the subdivisions, and the subdivisions were all to the north--on inexpensive, barely farmable hardpan, and upwind of the prevailing southerlies.

"In cow counties you always move into the wind," said Joseph W. Levy, chairman of the Fresno-based Gottschalk's department store chain, citing a popular explanation for the tendency of all valley towns to grow north. "You move away from the smell."

Levy was one of the original One Hundred Percenters, downtown merchants who banded together in the late 1950s to improve their competitive prospects. Downtown had begun to totter, and it was clear that the suburban explosion was nowhere near full force. The Hundred Percenters wanted something bold to gird for the inevitable battle with suburban shopping malls.

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