//Guarding What is Sacred: The Fight for Tower District

Guarding What is Sacred: The Fight for Tower District

By Haley White | thefoolscollaborative@gmail.com

Love your neighbor as yourself. – Mark 12:31

I’ve been meditating on Bible verses lately, which is weird because I’m an antitheist who has spent most of my adult life trying to scrub the remnants of childhood Christianity out of my cells and pores. As an antitheist (not to be confused with my atheist friends) it’s less that I’m fervent in my disbelief of god and more than I am continuously flabbergasted by the lengths humans will go to yield theology as a weapon against other humans  – family, neighbors, strangers – and how it appears that such behavior will continue until the day we die out as a race or readily destroy the planet from our own greed or ignorance, whichever comes first.

My antitheism is not something I talk about publicly very often. Mainly because I live in a society that values, protects, and promotes Christian thought almost as much as it values money. As a non-believer, I know I am often pitied and prayed for by well-intentioned members of various faith groups; some folks are even kind enough to tell me so to my face. Members of my own family still remain unable to wrap their brains around how I could possibly manage to be a good person, do good deeds, and find a worthy purpose in life without also channeling all of that behavior through a god-tinted lens. It is a festering, life-long wound to feel as though your attempts to “be the change” you wish to see in the world- to work, steadily and intentionally, on building traits like generosity and compassion and kindness- will never be enough to dissuade your religious loved ones from verbally and publicly pondering your worthiness, as if the only experiences us non-religious people can have in life are to be either morally bankrupt or feel like our existence is hollow and meaningless.

If you live in Fresno or its surrounding areas, it’s highly unlikely you haven’t already heard about the war being waged at the heart of the Tower District. It recently came to light that the namesake Tower Theatre (as well as the surrounding block, including the buildings that currently house Sequoia Brewing, The Painted Table, and Me N Ed’s Pizzeria and the giant parking lot at the center of the district) is in the process of being purchased by Adventure Church, a Foursquare congregation that has quietly made its home elsewhere in the Tower District for the past ten-odd years.

After learning of this plan (since the deal was kept quiet and not made public until the sale was already in escrow), Tower home and business owners, residents, artists, the local queer community, and thousands of other supporters immediately sprung into action to pressure local elected leaders to do everything in their power to stop the transaction. Dissenters have pointed out a host of cultural, historical, personal, and economic reasons for demanding intervention, while Church supporters have maintained that it is a private sale and therefore, not public concern. Church leaders have also continued to push the narrative that they’re the ones being discriminated against, even though the building in question is simply and plainly not zoned for religious assembly. By asking for forgiveness in their purchase, rather than permission upfront, the church is actually the party asking for the extraordinary favor here. But when told that their bulldozing, self-entitled actions are actually discriminatory to everyone else in the district, the church has opted to flip the script and cry persecution.

“It feels a bit ironic that we are being targeted and discriminated against for our constitutionally protected rights not only by people who themselves fight for equality but also by our local government,” Pastor Anthony Flores said in a recent news release, one where the church announced plans to sue the city of Fresno.

As one of the community organizers advocating against this sale, I generally try to steer my commentary around the devastating economic ramifications of the church’s plan to colonize my neighborhood, rather than any of my additional personal reasons for opposing the sale (say, as an artist or as a member of the queer community).  But I feel it is also important to address the ignorance, insult, and injury of their defense. Not only are they  — a powerhouse, tax-exempt Christian church in America not being discriminated against, they also have quite some nerve coming into a neighborhood comprised  of LGBTQIA+ members, artists, and other anti-homogenous types and telling us that their experience is remotely equivocal to the mental anguish, time theft, physical violence, and enduring, often legally-supported, discrimination our communities regularly face. And as history has shown, major perpetrators of this harm are often powerhouse, tax-exempt Christian churches in America!

It’d be laughable if it wasn’t so utterly out of touch.

The church clearly isn’t any real part of the Tower community they claim to love so much. They don’t comprehend this reality: the prevention of entitlement does not equal oppression. They continue to ignore COVID regulations, even though the rest of the district has remained unified in their shuttering. They don’t understand that “welcoming” queers into their fold while not advocating for equal rights is not actually affirming; it’s performative at best and dangerous at worst. They don’t trust that the residents of Tower actually know what they need to survive and feel safe.

But the majority of us in the neighborhood, we do understand all of this. And it makes this place special. I’d even go so far as to say, it makes this place hallowed ground for many of us.

In addition to my new, temporary habit of thinking about Bible verses, I’ve also been thinking about community a lot lately. What it really means. How it is one of the things in life I hold dear and sacred. I’ve been thinking about how precious it is to live in a neighborhood that feels like being in a loving, committed, reciprocal relationship. How, in pushing out assets to write city council members, I teamed up with Heather and Jag (from Rogue Festival), who now live in my old apartment. How, in collecting signatures for our community letter, I checked in with Katie at Revue Coffee and also asked her about the mask donations for Standing Rock her store has been collecting for The Fools Collaborative. How, when Rod and Jeromie put in an offer for the theatre, I instantly knew what great owners they’d be from all the money and time I’ve seen them devote to Tower’s Reel Pride film festival back when I served on the board, or from the time they helped me with last minute accomodations after a Rogue venue got rained out. This is what being part of the Tower community is. It’s not simply owning a building within the district boundaries and claiming to bestow unsolicited blessings on people. It’s working together to build, maintain, and revere the sacred space between people- people who value being good and kind and respectful to other people. Not because god told us to (well, to be fair, maybe god told some of us to), but just because we want to and we like each other and we know how beautiful and unique and life-affirming that sort of arrangement is, especially in a large city.

I’ve gone on long enough. I’d rather share some words from a few of my friends in this community who share my love for Tower and who, like me, will defend it against any potential threat, no matter what litigious, oblivious invaders we’re up against. This fight has never been about god, as we’ve reiterated 100 times, including with the hundreds of Christians and other faith groups who eagerly signed our community letter of dissent.  But this is about something far more sacred than any one building: community. Our far-from-perfect but awesome and inspiring and beautiful as is community.

TYLER MACKEY – Executive Director, Tower District Marketing Committee

This has been a real moment for unity in the Tower District, bringing the diverse businesses and community members together in common purpose to stand up and defend our long-establised community plan. Clearly the Tower is a sacred place and the thousands of supporters speaking up only reminds us how important it is that our businesses come back strong for our community. Saving the Tower Theatre is key to honoring the commitment.

ANNALISA PEREA – State Center Community College District Board President/ Tower District Design Review Committee Member

Prior to the construction of the Tower Theatre, the site was home to a community playground. This iconic corner of our district has always been, and will continue to always be, “The people’s corner.” Beyond the cultural, historical, and community impacts that would occur by the potential rezone, the irreparable harm to the financial interests of Tower District businesses, organizations, residents, and property owners would be detrimental to the long-term viability of our beloved District. I’m extremely proud of the organizing efforts we’ve seen from the community but know that we still have a lot of work ahead of us. You can count on me to stay actively involved on this crucial neighborhood issue until we find a solution.

BRANDON FREEMAN – Singer-songwriter and half of the band, Cloudship

Protecting the culture of the Tower Theatre is protecting the culture of the Tower District. Protecting the culture of the Tower District is protecting the future of art in Fresno.- Brandon Freeman

JAGUAR BENNETT, President of the board of directors of the Rogue Festival and lifelong Fresnan, who has performed theater and comedy in the Tower District for over 25 years.

The church says they will operate the Tower as a theater, but who honestly believes they have the professional experience or the taste to run a real theater? Even people of deep religious faith should be disturbed by a church determining what can and cannot be performed at the most prominent arts venue in the city. The church is not going to put a neutral producer in charge of booking. Inevitably, church leadership will want performances that are aligned with their values, meaning Christian propaganda of low artistic value. The zoning issues threatening Tower businesses also threaten the art scene. The leadership in this city has never understood how much the arts and nightlife depend on each other. The arts groups and the bars, restaurants and clubs share the same customer base and help each other. The arts bring in audiences that eat and drink at Tower nightspots—the bars, restaurants, and clubs provide the nightlife that makes people come out for the arts. It is no fun seeing a show if you can’t have dinner and drinks nearby. If this sale goes through and the church does permanently occupy the Tower Theatre, it will be a criminal failure of the leadership of Fresno. Other cities protect their historic landmarks from being treated like ordinary commercial property. I love Fresno, but Fresno does not love itself. This town has a long and shameful history of abandoning its historic landmarks. This is a make-or-break moment for Fresno. If we can’t defend the Tower Theatre from desecration, nothing is safe in this town

MIGUEL GASTELUM, Board President of The Fools Collaborative

As a gay man, it’s wild to watch a Christian church behave as though the inconvenience of having to follow the same rules as everyone else is even remotely close to the thousands of years of discrimination, conversion therapy, and murders the queer community has endured. The leaders of Adventure Church have flaunted their disregard for all the residents and businesses in Tower through this whole pandemic. They’ve proven to be terrible neighbors before this sale has even been finalized. It’s clear if this sale is allowed to happen and the necessary rezoning is granted, it will be the end of the Tower District as we know it. I grew up in the church and I know their mentality is to plant themselves in the “battlefield.” They’re not here to be good neighbors, they’re here to convert us (queers, misfits, progressives, atheists) and to reach into our wallets, all in the name Jesus. The community has made their voice VERY clear and this church is delusional if they think that they get to be the ones to tell us their “love” and presence isn’t toxic.

EMILY PESSANO – Artist/Employee at Good Company Players

If we look at the northeast and the northwest corners of Olive & Wishon we can see a huge disparity. On one corner, we see the survival of a building housing two businesses that have been staples of the Tower District for over 40 years. The businesses in this building are at risk because they choose to obey the rules and protect their patrons, performers, and staff. The owners here, as is the case with so many others in the district, have invested their time, life savings, and years of hard work to build their businesses, while complying with every city regulation related to zoning, alcohol sales, performance and dance permits, and operations limitations during the COVID-19 pandemic. On the opposite corner, we see another business—one that has been risking the health of an entire community for months. This same “business” is aggressively pursuing the purchase of a building for which it is not suited; a purchase which, if successful, will require more rules to be broken on its behalf. A rezone that injures the value and operations of existing businesses is fundamentally unfair. We have rights here, too. We pay taxes. We vote. Some of our businesses have been fixtures of the district for over 40 years and have successfully revitalized the Tower District all on our own. Even if we were to set aside all of the negative impacts the church moving into Tower Theatre would have, the fact that the church has been breaking the law and defying shelter-in-place orders while the majority of the district and its employees have been following the rules at the cost of being barely able to pay bills and stay in business, should be enough to reject this sale. This sort of behavior should not be tolerated. It should definitely not be rewarded.