A band of Spanish explorers comes upon a California valley where grapes are plentiful. "The grape is good. It will sustain us," proclaims the No. 1 conquistador, ordering the group to put down roots right there. But wait: here come two more men with a load of grapes from the next valley over. The comandante takes a taste, then spits them out with a grimace. "You call these grapes?" he cries. "They taste like Fresno!"
A few city fathers may not appreciate the etymology lesson that opens CBS's new mini-series, Fresno. But Creator Barry Kemp (a writer-producer who has worked on Taxi and Newhart) could not help noticing that Fresno, the world's raisin capital, wound up last in a 1984 ranking of American cities according to quality of life.
And the Fresno St. fans were so proud of that team.
A big reason why they were winners were for they NEVER took a chance.
They played the Ball St. of the world.
What was so comical you could go into a bar and the talk was USC, Oklahoma and Nebraska are scared to play the bulldogs.
I would say "If USC came here to play your bulldogs and you were at the game, the stadium would shake. It isn't a earthquacke it is the size of the SC players".
In the heart of California, the center of the richest agricultural region in the world, is a city larger than Atlanta or St. Louis, a city like anywhere else and a city like nowhere else. This is Fresno, a city with the look of a strip mall and the soul of a country town.
Fresno is a cautionary tale of planning gone wrong and development gone wild.
Add to the mix a whiff of civic corruption and you have a glimpse of a different future from the future the optimists see for California. Fresno is the only large California city that Fodor's Guide describes as ``depressing,'' yet it has what one filmmaker calls ``a strange pull'' that draws people back and keeps them.
Fresno has 12 freeway exits and 415,400 people. Fresno and the next-door town of Clovis have 27 Taco Bells, 16 McDonald's, 14 Burger Kings, 12 Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets -- 146 fast-food joints in all.
You could eat in a different one every day from now to the next century and never go to the same one twice. The country's fast-food moguls believe that Fresno has taste: The town is often used to test market new fast dishes.
It has endless strip malls that make the town appear to be one huge franchise, a kind of Anywhere USA. The malls, some critics say, are like cannibals -- new malls devour the older malls. At one end of town is the huge new River Park shopping center, which is booming; at the other is the East Gate mall, which is boarded up. Other regions have ghost towns: Fresno has ghost malls.
Fresno also has one of the first downtown pedestrian malls in California, a 1964 experiment in urban planning that failed, its lifeblood drained by malls with plenty of parking and franchise stores.
Despite the homogenized look of the city, Fresno is a place without a majority ethnic group. Eighty-five languages, at least, are spoken in the schools. It is more diverse, some say, than any Bay Area city.
Fresno more than doubled in size in 20 years and became a city that former Mayor Dan Whitehurst calls ``more suburban than urban, . . . a farm town that took this excessive population growth and does not know how to deal with it.'' The huge spurt of growth -- the bad planning decisions, the proliferation of strip malls -- did not happen entirely by accident. A continuing federal investigation called Operation Rezone resulted this spring in 13 convictions for bribery and corruption involving planning and zoning decisions. Five of those convicted were members of the Fresno or Clovis city councils. Operation Rezone is a blow to a town that thought it had become a city.
But Fresno has deeper problems. It looks prosperous, but even in boom times, Fresno's unemployment rate hovers around 10 percent -- more than three times the rate of places like San Francisco and San Jose.
This July, the Fresno County unemployment rate was 12.8 percent, compared with 3.3 percent for Santa Clara County and 3.6 percent for San Francisco. ``In a nutshell,'' said Whitehurst, ``we have had steady population growth without steady economic growth.'' Fresno is a town that took in refugees from the other side of the world. Some, like the Armenians, who fled the first genocide of a bloody century, succeeded in Fresno beyond their wildest dreams. Others, like the Hmong people from Southeast Asia, seem to have failed in Fresno and are leaving by the thousands.
Fresno is a puzzle. A city with 99 square miles of urban sprawl, it also has the charming Tower District of restaurants and clubs. It is a city with a reputation for crime. In 1997, more crimes were reported in Fresno than in San Jose, a city with twice as many people.
Yet it is also a small town, a place where the roots run deep. Fresno, says Whitehurst, is ``open, relaxed and friendly.'' The west side of town, across Highway 99, is tougher than nails. But California State University at Fresno, on the north side of town, has also produced a school of Fresno poets that the writer Gerald Haslam calls ``a remarkable center of poetic achievement.'' Fresno, too, was the home of William Saroyan, everybody's favorite native son, who celebrated Fresno as no one else ever did. An enormously talented man who was his own greatest fan, Saroyan was given -- and turned down -- the Pulitzer Prize for his play ``The Time of Your Life'' in 1940. An odd-looking monument erected in his memory on a corner of a dusty parking lot in downtown Fresno is literally falling apart, the paint peeling, the interior full of trash. It may be demolished. Fresno is a hard place. But, says Whitehurst, ``you can have a good life, here, a nice life.
Housing prices are low; commuting to work is a breeze. ``More than 400,000 people choose to live here,'' he said. ``Something right must be going on.'' For years, something right was going on in Fresno, a town that liked to call itself ``The Best Little City in the United States.''
For years, Fresno defined itself by Saroyan's writings. To him, Fresno was a town of endless horizons, surrounded by fig orchards and fields, the town of his childhood. Saroyan's Fresno is a mythic town, remembered with the monument and the William Saroyan Theater. Sometimes one almost feels that Saroyan is still there, his great booming voice shouting out his mantra, ``In the time of your life, live!'' And yet, at midcentury, two elements changed Fresno.
One was water, and the other was growth. California's new and complex water- development system diverted the rivers of the north to the San Joaquin Valley. Agriculture -- transformed into agribusiness -- turned the valley into the food basket of the world.
In Fresno County, agriculture was a $3.3 billion business last year.
Fresno saw itself as the center of the valley, a handsome, livable city with a downtown district to make residents proud. The city's plan was to turn Fulton Street, the heart of the downtown shopping area, into a pedestrian mall, several blocks of statues, fountains and strollable space, designed by famed architect and urban planner Victor Gruen. It helped earn Fresno an ``All American City'' award. But Fresno is a place where people don't stroll downtown to shop.
And they drove to a succession of brand-new shopping malls. Downtown Fresno died. Major businesses pulled out: What is left is supported by government workers -- city, county and school district workers. ``Downtown is not part of people's lives now,'' Whitehurst said.
When Whitehurst was elected mayor in 1977, Fresno had 190,000 people. Now there are more than twice as many. With downtown on the ropes and the west and south sides of Fresno becoming more and more dominated by nonwhite groups, there was a white flight to the city's north side. Some of this was driven by the usual forces that have transformed California -- growth, new housing and jobs.
Fresno built new convention centers downtown, a new arena and a City Hall, but the real action was on the edges. Miles and miles of fig trees were chopped down. Farmland was rezoned and turned into housing. Everyone with roots in Fresno has a story about the transformation of the town.
But there was another story. Despite the efforts of professional planners and reform mayors -- Whitehurst among them -- a pattern of corruption crept into the process. There have always been two Fresnos: the one of Saroyan and of admirers of the small-town feel of Fresno. The other was a town where the fix was always in.
Mark Arax, a Los Angeles Times reporter whose father was shot to death in a Fresno bar he owned in 1972, wrote a book called ``In My Father's Name,'' in which he makes a case that Fresno has always been a corrupt town, back to the days when the cops took payoffs from bootleggers generations ago. But growth and the millions to be made from development introduced another dimension. Development could mean, as Arax wrote, that ``a farmer barely meeting his mortgage could quadruple the value of his land by selling to the right developer with the political juice to finagle a rezoning.'' The story of how the million-dollar development industry led to political corruption came to light after a Clovis city councilman demanded a bribe from a developer in return for a vote on a rezoning issue in 1993.
The developer went to the FBI instead, and the FBI found a widespread net of crooked developers and crooked politicians. A lobbyist named Jeffrey Roberts, suspected to be a bagman in several cash transfers, cooperated with an FBI investigation. Roberts was so sure of himself that his car had personalized license plates that read REZONE.
That gave the case its name -- Operation Rezone. In addition to the 13 convictions, others have been indicted, including Brian Setencich, former Fresno city councilman and once speaker of the Assembly. The biggest fish so far is John Bonadelle, whose family's firms built a third of Fresno's new homes. Bonadelle is 81.
He has lived in Fresno for 60 years, a self-made man. He was indicted on 11 charges of racketeering, bribery, witness tampering, money laundering and mail fraud. He entered a guilty plea on one count of mail fraud in May in return for a sentence of nine months in a halfway house and $300,000 in fines and forfeitures. The plea bargain, said one of Bonadelle's lawyers, was ``a business decision.'' But to U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger it is more than business. The judge's deal is much tougher: He wants Bonadelle to serve six months in prison and spend three months in home detention, plus the fine. Bonadelle is considering the offer. The alternative is a trial.
In rejecting Bonadelle's plea bargain last week, Wanger said the case was about public corruption. The defendants, the judge said, operated on the philosophy that: ``They can't touch us. We're rich, we're powerful, we can do what we want. ``The bottom line,'' Wanger said, ``is always the dollar.''
The whole story, the runaway growth, the loss of prime farmland, the bribes, the emergence of an ugly new Fresno, is a sad one. ``Local residents,'' said the Fresno Bee in an editorial, ``have paid a heavy price through corrupt planning decisions that have turned much of the Fresno and Clovis area into a mishmash of strip malls and sprawl-causing housing developments that have stretched the infrastructure beyond its limits. . . . These crimes struck at the heart of our governmental processes, increasing public cynicism toward elected officials, staining even those who have played by the rules.'' There is another side, too. Fresno is still a place where housing is affordable -- a bungalow for $50,000, a brand-new house for $95,000, a 3,000-square-foot place with a two-car garage and a swimming pool for $200,000. It is a town where people sit outside in the Tower District on a soft summer evening enjoying life. ``I came here from Iowa a few years ago,'' said Bill Kuebler, ``because there is no snow here and an open attitude. It's comfortable. It's home.''
RAISINS PUT FRESNO ON MAP DURING THE 1920S Fresno likes to think of itself as a prototypical California city, founded by pioneers who made the desert bloom, home to the diverse rainbow of peoples who made modern California.
The official story of the birth of Fresno is to be found in its center, around Fresno County Courthouse, which is set in a park. There is a plaque that sets out the founding myth of Fresno, the site of a station picked personally in 1872 by Leland Stanford, in his capacity as a railroad baron. The name means ``ash tree'' in Spanish, although the Spanish never came to Fresno and there were no trees of any kind. ``There was nothing hereabout but empty desert,'' says the plaque.
The settlers turned this place ``into a garden'' and built a little Victorian farming city. A hundred years ago, Fresno had 12,470 people and a downtown like a miniature San Francisco, all awnings and buildings with domes and spiky wooden towers. There are four monuments around the courthouse square meant to define Fresno: a great statue of David of Sasoon, the folk hero of Armenia, astride a horse; a bust of Martin Luther King Jr.; a replica of a Toltec statue from Mexico; and a statue of three clergymen -- a priest, a minister and a rabbi -- who taught Fresnans to honor one another. The courthouse is surrounded by other urban monuments: the new and beautiful City Hall; the handsome old business district, built in the 1920s; Warnor's Theater, a 2,200-seat movie palace that looks like a Moorish dream; and Fulton Mall. The old downtown was built in the Roaring Twenties, when raisins put Fresno on the map.
Raisins made Fresnans rich -- or at least some of them. When raisin prices collapsed in 1929, the population of Fresno dropped from 80,000 to 50,000. The '20s seemed like a golden age: the time Saroyan wrote about in his wonderful, simple, complex books and plays.
On the other hand, as anyone at the Asbarez Hall in Fresno's old Armenian Town will tell you, the good old days had another side. The Armenians had come to Fresno in the '20s, refugees from massacres at the hands of the Turkish government. ``The Genocide,'' they call it.
Fresno to them looked like Armenia. The weather, the hot summers and even the dank and foggy winters, reminded them of home. The people were farmers, the crops were figs and grapes. But it was not home. ``
That first generation had a tough time,'' said Richard Darmanian, director of the Central California chapter of the Armenian National Committee. ``They were frugal, worked hard and saved their money.'' On the other hand, they were looked down on: ``Armenians could not join the service clubs, the Lions, the Rotary,'' said Darmanian.
There were no Armenian teachers in the schools. They could not buy houses in better parts of town. The racists called them ``Fresno Indians.'' The nicer people were subtler. After World War II came another golden age: Two big state and federal water projects turned the San Joaquin Valley into the richest agricultural area in the world. Seasonal workers -- mostly Mexicans -- did most of the fieldwork, and Fresno's ethnic makeup began to change. ``
Fresno was a nice place in the '50s,'' said Susan de Haan, who grew up there and used to teach at Fresno State but now lives in Idaho. She remembers when the town was surrounded by fig trees and grapevines. The town took off in the '60s and '70s. ``It just grew, grew, grew,'' de Haan said.