//If You Build it, They Will Come and Take it Away from You and No One Will Stop Them

If You Build it, They Will Come and Take it Away from You and No One Will Stop Them

By Jaguar Bennett  | jaguarbennett@gmail.com

In May, I chanced on a Twitter conversation between two giants of Fresno revitalization, great men whom I greatly admire. One great man shared his vision of improving Fresno’s quality of life: “I want a city with taco trucks on every corner; more parks; walkable shopping; schoolyards open to the neighbors; planners who don’t worship strip malls; govt. that treats the south end the same as the north end; What do you want?” The other great man shared his similar vision: “I’d like to have a community where we all went out of our way to support our local businesses, makers, artists. I’d like us to embrace our ability to grow food in our yards and public spaces. I’d like to see cultural celebrations in our downtown at least monthly.”

I love the way these guys dream. I want to live in their Fresno. But I couldn’t help replying, “I don’t see the point of making big plans if the City won’t defend what we already have. I want a city that will resolutely defend the Tower District.”

We can’t have nice things if the City passively sits by and lets what is good in Fresno be destroyed. And that is precisely what Mayor Dyer and the Fresno City Council allow by not enforcing zoning at the Tower Theatre.

The conservative, homophobic Adventure Church has illegally squatted in the Tower Theatre in open violation of zoning laws for nearly a year now. Yet, the Fresno city government has not lifted a finger to stop it. And if the City will allow a Fresno icon and the heart of its arts and nightlife district to be destroyed, how can we expect the City to defend anything else here, ever? What is the point of trying to improve Fresno when anything you build can be destroyed at one man’s whim?

Fresno by rights ought to be one of the great American cities. Fresno isn’t just the fifth-largest city in California; it’s the 34th largest city in the nation — bigger than Atlanta, Minneapolis, New Orleans, and Cleveland. Moreover, Fresno is the natural capital of the San Joaquin Valley, an area with more population than several states. I don’t expect Fresno ever to be New York or Paris. Still, it does not seem unreasonable to expect that Fresno should have the same amenities as other cities its size. If Visalia can summon the civic self-respect to defend their historic theater from a takeover by a church, why can’t Fresno?

As the great man asked on Twitter, what do you want for Fresno? What kind of city do we want Fresno to be? If we ever want to be anything other than an overgrown hick town, we need to elect a city government that has the guts to stand up to a fundamentalist church.

Many people have dreamed of a better Fresno: a Fresno with a deep commitment to the arts and culture, sensible city planning, improved public transportation, cleaner air and water, economic opportunities for all. The stumbling block has always been finding the collective will to make this happen. Generations of Fresno leaders have chosen temporary expediency, short-term economies, and appeasement of entrenched interest over true leadership.

I have a curious object from a bygone age in front of me — a January 2006 report to then-mayor Alan Autry titled “Making the Grass Greener.” Prepared by the Mayor’s Creative Economy Council, “Making the Grass Greener” represents the last time anyone in Fresno dreamed big. The report recommends that the City protect and nurture culture and quality of life to attract more knowledge workers and stimulate economic development.

This report makes for wistful reading today. It features pictures of the Tower Theatre and Hardy’s Theatre (now owned by a church that gutted its historic interior). It recommends promoting local cultural events like Reel Pride and the Rogue Festival, both of which announced this year that they would not hold events at the Tower Theatre while a homophobic church owns it. The report has an earnest naivete that the Fresno city government will heed its vision and build a better community. All of the report’s recommendations were forgotten after the economic downturn of 2008 when the City once again decided to economize rather than invest.

It is doubtful that the Fresno city government will ever embrace the goal of making Fresno a world-class city. But it would be nice if the City would defend the cultural amenities that Fresno currently has. The restoration of the once rundown Tower Theatre by Dottie Abbate and the renaissance of the Tower District that culminated in the Tower District Specific Plan of 1991 represent Fresno’s most successful attempt at urban revitalization. But, unfortunately, now all of Dottie’s work is about to be destroyed because of her son’s inexplicable decision to sell his mother’s theater to a church.

The ongoing threat to the Tower Theatre proves that the accomplishments of the past can’t survive without a city government in the present that is willing to preserve and defend our cultural heritage. In 2022, Fresno will hold a city council election. The critical question we must ask every candidate is: “Will you protect the Tower Theatre?”