FRESNO, CA - If you become interested in urban redevelopment, the
place to be, is Fresno, or even Berlin, Germany. That's where local
government redevelopment is a growth industry and people in local government
can't seem to de-fuse their bunker mentality.
To walk through the heart of Fresno's once-and-future All-American
City is to come upon devastation and chaos played out on an enormous
and historically compelling public stage.
The man behind the curtain had extensive influence in both Fresno
and in Berlin. He was former Fresno State professor Karl Falk. He
began compiling his own ideas of urban redevelopment while Falk, of
German-American citizenship, was working for Adolph Hitler in the
Berlin Reichsministry of Propaganda and Re-Education for the
years between 1933 and 1938.
Falk's imagination was given a free-hand in the late 1950's when
he manipulated an appointment for himself to head a Fresno City &
County planning board which was empowered by eminent-domain authority.
Falk had a vision of knocking-down Fresno's traditional commercial
downtown area and redeveloping it through the aegis of his First Federal
Savings & Loan Association. He would have a stake in it. He wore several
hats in the process, including that of financier who obtained federal
financing of the Fresno redevelopment and housing relocations projects.
What he saw in his mind was Fulton and Mariposa streets removed and
the space where the streets were as a parkland with rolling hillocks,
small streamlets, heroic stone sculpture, and a public address system
over which public announcements and martial music could be played
to public crowds. All this would extend southerly for a half-mile
from the front of Karl Falk's First Federal Savings and Loan at Fulton
& Tuolumne streets.
Soon, Fulton & Mariposa streets, the vibrant nerve-center of Fresno
commerce since 1880, was plowed into piles of irreducible rubble.
After that, every viable business fled from downtown Fresno to suburban
malls. The Fulton-Mall was allowed to sink slowly into decay, abandoned
at night except for the homeless sleeping in its alleyways amid the
ruined splendor of mall sculpture spray-painted with the grafitto
In the daylight, today, Fresno's night people flee the onslaught
of thousands of government employees who rush into reconverted office
spaces for government expansion. Government workers ultimately crowd
the void of what was once busy commercial zone buildings. Commercial
warehouses have converted into a hundred square miles of storage for
active Fresno County welfare cases.
In its best and brightest days, Fresno's economic power was recognized
as emanating from a large contingent of competitive private industry with a small government enclave.
Faith in shrewd private sector business was so strong then, that a
steel archway was placed over downtown's Van Ness Avenue on which
it proclaimed Fresno "The Best Little City in the U.S.A."
That was understood as an unchallenged claim of economic pre-eminence,
not the size or purchasing power of local government. In those days,
it was considered an unpardonable sin to even bring-up the idea of
a joint business venture with Fresno City Hall. A baseball stadium,
even then, was not the appropriate purpose of local government public
In a September 1963 Savings & Loan News, Falk's by-line credits him
as a housing-urban renewal expert, chairman of the Fresno City Housing
Authority, chairman of California Governor's Advisory Commission on
Housing Problems, and immediate past president of the National Association
of Housing and Redevelopment Officials. Falk made a startling admission
in the story. He wrote '...Savings and loan associations have a large
stake in revitalizing their communities...for...broadening investment
opportunity...the economic functions of the central city are changing
rapidly...cultural activities, recreation and amusement...show a desire
to remain in the central city when the environment is congenial.'
The ghostly arch still stands at Van Ness and Railroad Avenues in
muted silence awaiting the restoration of its abandoned pledge.
The only other city like this is, ironically, Berlin, Germany. And
like Berlin, today, Fresno is still being subjected to a City Hall
building-boom and still so intense and feverish that you can walk
for blocks without getting out of site of government construction
Walking in downtown Fresno after closing-time for government offices
is an unsettling experience not easily forgotten. Its not unlike visiting
a deserted cemetery in the middle of the night. The silence is deafening.
Emptiness is overwhelming. The experience of such a void in the center
of Fresno is a ghostly reminder of what Brian Ladd writes about in
his new book, The Ghosts of Berlin. Before proceeding with
your after-hours walk through downtown Fresno, you are well advised
to read it, carefully.
Ladd writes the story of Berlin's decline and incipient post-war
redevelopment that pretentiously rises out the ashes of previous Nazi
and Soviet central planning debacles.
Like Fresno's impossible dream, downtown Berlin, once a nerve center
of private capital and the crossroad of thriving private sector businesses,
is now just a huge public-works project full of bulldozers, parking
lots, and new urban blight of empty-headed government interference
in private sector economic dynamics.
If Fresno's downtown will make a new life for itself it will not be from
the ghosts of metropolitan cafes, retail stores, repair shops, offices, banks, savings and loans,
medical services, major department stores, markets, hotels, theaters,
open-air farmer's markets of downtown pre-redevelopment years.
Fresno redevelopers know that. Downtown has a non-industrial model
that has pocket change flowing from government workers in federal
courthouses, state courthouses, prisons, jails, city and county offices
and the corporate offices of an electricity provider and into City
In short, City hall planners ultimately see downtown ownership of
production and distribution of goods and services in the hands of
local government. A form of state ownership and control not unlike
the business model of Hitler's Third Reich from which the would-be designer of the downrown
Fresno Mall learned his techniques.
The Fresno and Berlin economies are not completely the creatures
of market forces and individual initiative because of market interference
in the private sector continuously set in motion and reinforced by
City Hall using tax resources as an investment, metaphor.
The similarities to 1930's Nazi Economics are startling and
Fresno City Hall isn't just interesting from an architectural or
urban planning model. Its City Council references to investment
of public resources raises fundamental issues about who, at City
Hall, will take responsibility to curb urban renewal initiatives,
e.g. business parks, baseball stadiums.
In designing a new Fresno community for the millennium, which remnants
of Fresno inglorious past does one keep, and which are best thrown
away? And what does one do about a past that is, to a great extent,
distasteful rather than inspiring?
The areas that will make up the new downtown Fresno of the 21st
Century are surprisingly dense with powerful reminders of the muddle
of the 20th Century.
In Berlin, for example, along the street called Wilhelmstrasse,
just a few steps from the chaos of Potsdamer Platz, there
is a grassy mound surrounded by a parking lot. Underneath it are the
remains of the bunker where Adolf Hitler spent the last days of World
War II, and where he committed suicide in April of 1945. Berliners
argue about what to do with Potsdamer Platz, and the restoration
Fresnans can quarrel over what the history of Fresno means to its
future. But, unless Fresno City Hall has the courage and determination
to face-down its ghosts of the past, whatever they want to build,
whatever they want to tear down, whatever they want to call any public
space, Fresno will find history slapping them in the face.
In Fresno and in Berlin you just cannot argue about a redevelopment
project without someone bringing up the name of Adolf Hitler or that
of Hitler's propagandist, Karl Falk.
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