Fresno: A History of Burdens; A Future of Opportunities

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Dr. A. Sameh El Kharbawh; California State University, Fresno

Much of the recent debate on the development of urban downtowns in the U.S. has focused on two sets of interrelated questions: one focusing on their raison d'être in an era of economic deindustrialization, population decentralization and globalization; the other on the identities, cultures, make-up and development of their constituent communities.

In the case of California's Central Valley, those two questions come to light in a number of significant ways. Anyone who has ever been to the Central Valley is immediately struck by the unique identity it constructs out of its specific and unique historical heritage, on the one hand, and the cultural, social and economic pluralism with which it embodies (and represents) modern California, on the other.

The Valley presents an edifying study in cultural, social and economic coherence, on the one hand, and diversity on the other, built on generations of delicate and careful weaving of different histories, peoples, languages, architectures, religions and cultures.

Fresno offers a case in point. In less than 150 years, Fresno has grown from a railroad station stop in the Central Valley to a city of more than a half a million people. (Metropolitan Fresno, with a population of over a million people, is the second largest metro area- after the Sacramento Metropolitan Area- in the Central Valley.) To its highly diverse population (which includes many immigrants, from Latinas/os, Armenians, Hmong as well as immigrants from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia,) Fresno has been a land of economic opportunity. To its massive agricultural and dairy industries can be added a host of emerging industries including information technology, water technology and biomedical industries. Fresno has also served as a tourist gateway to Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia National Parks.

Yet, and despite its diversity and huge economic promise, Fresno and the broader San Joaquin Valley have consistently lagged behind both state and national trends in most development indictors- with demonstrably lower wages and incomes, higher poverty rates, less educated labor forces, and higher unemployment and homelessness rates. By comparison to San Francisco, San Jose, or Oxnard, for example, where poverty rates are about 8 or 9 percent, in the Central Valley metros of Fresno and Bakersfield, over a quarter of residents live in poverty.

The city's recent efforts to address those problems have adopted mix of business development and urban revitalization, a primary focus of which, not unpredictably, has been the economic and cultural restructuring of the downtown area. Since the 1950s, downtown Fresno has experienced a rapid and progressive decline in development. With the exception of a few hotels, banks, and office spaces completed in the late-1960s and early-1980s as well as government-funded projects (including a baseball stadium and a federal courthouse,) downtown Fresno has served, for much of the last three decades, a single function: workspace.

Aggressive plans targeting the downtown Fresno have recently been developed by the city, including the Downtown form based code, the Downtown Neighborhoods Community Plan, and the Fulton Corridor Specific Plan. Together, those plans provide a new vision for downtown Fresno- with businesses, cultural institutions, themed shopping districts, professional sports, housing and transportation (the highlight of which will be the city's High Speed Rail station) slowly populating much of the abandoned landscape of the downtown area.

Fresno is also taking a closer look at reviving some of its iconic neighborhoods, including the Tower District (the city's hub of culture, performing arts, antique shops, bookstores, and coffeehouses,) Huntington Boulevard and Arlington Heights (in which historical sediments reside much of the city's "older wealth" and architectural grandeur,) and Lowell-Jefferson (Fresno's once-popular "first suburb.")

This symposium will provide a forum for exploring these developments in Fresno, and discussing the challenges facing its cultural, economic and urban renaissance.

Topics will cover the fields of urban/social policy, economics and entrepreneurship, through themes that include (but are not limited to):

- Fresno: between preservation and modernization
- Urban entrepreneurship and economic development in Fresno
- Blueprints for Fresno's future: communities and neighborhoods

Proposals of 300-400 words should be forwarded via e-mail attachment (doc or PDF files are ideal) to Dr. A. Sameh El kharbawy ( and Josh Velasquez ( by 15 July 2011.

With your abstract please include:

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For further information, contact:
Dr. A. Sameh El kharbawy (