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Cracked roads and blocks of wilted grass and dirt envelop the Edison High School campus in the heart of west Fresno.
Police cars, churches and liquor stores abound.
But trees, grocery stores, hospitals, parks, restaurants, and banks remain out of sight.
Meanwhile, across Highways 180 and 99 heading north toward Bullard Avenue, there is another side of Fresno, where amenities flower and many white residents prosper.
“There’s no potholes, no broken-up cement; there’s green. You can actually breathe there. I don’t feel like I’m choking off gas,” said Alena Cotton, who graduated from Edison High this year.
“Along with everybody else who lives on the west side, you feel that. If you’re blessed enough to have a car, it really hits,” she said. “It opens your eyes.”
The injuries and killings of black men and women at the hands of police officers have made international headlines in recent weeks. While protesters have raised concerns about police brutality locally, residents of Fresno’s historically black neighborhoods say other forms of systemic racism have deep generational roots in California’s fifth largest city — as they do in many major American cities.
Bound roughly by Highway 99 on the east, Marks Avenue on the west, North Avenue on the south, and Highway 180 on the north, west Fresno is home to about 26,500 people. Latinos make up about two-thirds of the area and black people about one-fifth.
According to 2018 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, over half of west Fresno lives below the poverty line, while the rest of Fresno hovers around 27%. West Fresno residents earn about half the median salary as the rest of Fresno. Fewer residents graduate high school or own homes. And, on average, they live about 20 years less than residents in wealthier parts of the city, according to a 2012 Fresno State study.
That’s not by accident. Residents told The Bee unrelenting disinvestment, neglect and a lack of representation have held back generations of black and brown residents.
During her time at Edison, Cotton said she endured several instances of blatant racism, including a teacher calling her the n-word multiple times. She fought hard to secure what students in other neighborhoods take for granted, like helmets for her school’s football team and restorative justice counselors.
But fighting tooth and nail for equal treatment while achieving a 4.9 GPA took its toll. Cotton was diagnosed with acute stress disorder, constantly fought off illness, and ended up in the emergency room several times throughout high school.
“I’m seeing and living the cracks. I’m seeing and living what it feels like to be underfunded. It’s part of me, part of my family,” she said. “But it’s very exhausting. It sucks a lot of energy out of me.”
Cotton is the latest in a long string of west Fresno residents who have poured their hearts into securing a better life for the community. While they have made progress, residents feel that without champions on the north side of Shaw Avenue, the divide between the two Fresnos will grow.
Fresno neighborhoods ‘neglected’
Kimberly McKoy, program director of Fresno Building Healthy Communities, grew up with a constant stench in the air.
Hyde Park, where she played as a child, wasn’t a park at all, but some grass atop a dump where people tossed out trash and burned tires.
“We knew we could smell the pollution in the air, but we could also smell it coming from the ground,” she said. “We were surrounded by pollution.”
Like thousands of southwest residents, she grew up with acute asthma, which also afflicts her 8-year-old son. Since 2012, she has fought to improve west Fresno’s air quality by pushing to fund parks and fight polluters.
But McKoy is up against centuries of discriminatory city planning.
From Fresno’s inception in the 1800s, white homesteaders positioned the city’s landfill on the west side of the railroad tracks. Factories, meatpacking houses and slaughterhouses were all placed in west Fresno. White residents refused to lease, rent or sell property east of the tracks to the Chinese immigrants who built them.
Through the 20th Century, the city cornered Mexican, Japanese, Armenian, and Italian immigrants and eventually blacks into the west side. Many immigrants moved north, but black residents were denied the opportunity to live anywhere else through redlining.
The practice originated in Congress in the 1930s through a program to extend low-interest, long-term loans to new homeowners. black neighborhoods in hundreds of cities, like west Fresno, were marked red on federal maps and labeled undesirable. Government entities and private banks then denied mortgages to those residents and discouraged investment in those areas.
The city squandered almost every chance to correct history, experts told The Bee.
In 1967, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development infused millions of dollars into Fresno to develop housing, business and clean up dumps on the west side. They mandated cooperation between city leaders and a resident group to distribute the funds. But it didn’t last long.
“The city felt really uncomfortable with having residents take that much control and actually wanted to halt the funding for it and instead take the money and use it for all of Fresno,” said Fresno State sociologist Tania Pacheco-Werner, who specializes in unequal neighborhoods.
Around that time, the city pledged to curb sprawl in the general plan, but carved out crucial exceptions that allowed for the development of Fashion Fair Mall and later, River Park. Many shops once located in west Fresno left the area or closed.
“Leaders say, ‘If we allow growth in this area, all will somehow magically benefit.’ What we fail to see is that historically people have tried that and it’s not true; it doesn’t happen,” Pacheco-Werner said.
About a decade ago, HUD gave Fresno millions in Community Development Block Grant dollars to service neighborhoods in poverty that could have helped revitalize west Fresno. The city instead used the money to fund police and code enforcement, City Council President Miguel Arias said.
Fresno is in the final stages of paying back tens of millions of misused dollars.
In 2019, south Fresno residents and councilmembers clamored for gas tax revenue from Senate Bill 1 to build sidewalks and fix broken roads. A bitter political battle ensued, and the money was split evenly across the city.
But it’s not just about repairing past neglect, Arias said. Warehouses that generate a lot of diesel truck traffic like Ulta and Amazon, and high-polluting businesses like Cargill Meat Solutions and the Darling meat-rendering plant before them, continue to be placed in south Fresno, home to a majority of Fresno’s black and brown communities.
After cutting deals with city leaders who wanted to boost the local jobs market, Amazon was exempt from paying taxes, addressing local pollution or even hiring from these neighborhoods.
“We were neglected, neglected, neglected, time after time after time,” said Debbie Darden, chairwoman of the Golden Westside Planning Committee.
Businesses abandon west Fresno
West Fresno used to be a vibrant, growing community, according to Darden. In the 70s, she and her friends would walk to Kirk Elementary School and spend weekends picnicking at the lush Cosmo Park.
“It was just a dynamite park,” she said.
But the city tore down the green haven to make way for Highway 41. The freeway never touched the space, and a storage unit now sits on the lot.
Highway 41 — like the 99 before it — also destroyed entire blocks of homes, uprooting black families who lived there. According to Darden, the houses were demolished decades before the highway was even built.
Another hub of west Fresno lay off South Elm Avenue, starting on C Street and San Benito. Where a dilapidated storefront now sells items for 99 cents, Safeway once supplied west Fresno with fresh, affordable groceries.
A realtor, barbershop, drugstore, veterinarian, gas station and several small grocers lined the strip, mostly owned and run by black business people.
But in the 70s, the Fresno Redevelopment Agency labeled the area blighted and tore down middle-class single-family homes, according to Bob Mitchell, a retired Fresno police officer turned community activist. Multi-family apartments eventually replaced those homes, but the area never rebounded.
“All of that caused our community to not exist in a fashion that communities exist,” Mitchell said. “You lose your businesses, you lose your employment, you lose the circulation of money staying within the community, so you don’t move forward and upward. You begin to depreciate.”
The community has struggled for years to get anything from a bank to a Walmart in west Fresno, which business leaders have attributed to its poor infrastructure, low-income levels and limited rooftops.
But Darden says, “you’re dealing with a two-headed coin.” Housing developers demand more businesses to build in west Fresno, and businesses demand housing.
Residents told The Bee they don’t just want a big box store. They want to own capital.
“We want to be able to see our assets we can be proud of. That belong to us. We don’t own anything,” said Laneesha Senegal, executive director of Helping Others Pursue Excellence.
Key to that goal, according to Mad Illustrators owner Myrick Wilson, are banks that will provide reasonable loans to black entrepreneurs. West Fresno is teeming with payday lenders, while its only bank is in Chinatown.
“We have a lot of things in west Fresno: police suppression, churches. But we don’t have financial institutions that empower us to rebuild west Fresno,” he said.
“How many dreams are extinguished by not having a clue of where to start?”
A way forward
Like Edison and Gaston Middle School before it, another educational institution promises to uplift the west side: Fresno City College’s satellite campus. Construction is slated to begin later this year.
“For the first time in 50 years, people will be able to go from Head Start to college in their neighborhood,” Arias said.
Other developments are underway, thanks in part to a $66.5 million investment through California’s Transformative Climate Communities. A 10-acre park on the west side of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard between Church and Jensen Avenues will break ground later this year.
Surrounding the park, Sylvesta Hall and development partner Jim Shehady plan to build apartments and senior citizen living, with market-rate single-family homes further out.
A grocery store, dry-cleaning, movie theater and other stores will form part of a commercial strip along Jensen Avenue and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard.
The developments are not without opposition, according to Arias. Community members fear gentrification. But he believes the city has to do everything possible to reinvest.
“Any step we take that sets us back will take us back 10 years,” he added.
David Paredes, a west Fresno advocate and co-chair of the local Democratic Socialists of America, said that to move forward, the heavy police presence that has plagued his neighborhood for years must end.
“It’s important to be fighting for a good community but also a sustainable community that isn’t impacted by the current institutions that are constantly oppressing us,” he said.
Paredes believes parks and proper infrastructure are key to west Fresno’s advancement. He and his neighbors formed West Fresno Peacemakers to install a playground at Tupman Park, a green space with a few picnic tables. They organize monthly events, including a march for peace recently, where youths created art, shared plants and “felt solidarity among our neighbors.”
Growing up, he resented west Fresno for its notoriety and neglect. But as the years passed, he grew to love the culture. He teems with pride as he describes the women selling elote, the panadero selling pan and the seeming suspension of time on the west side.
“Not everyone is on the go go go,” he said. “We’re all just kind of living together.”
Despite west Fresno’s notoriety for crime and gangs, he said he feels safer in his neighborhood because people feel more trustworthy, the relationships deeper.
“In west Fresno, it’s a fight for survival,” he said. “We’re not trying to one-up each other but protect each other’s homes. We all understand we’re in a struggle and we can’t be against each other.”
McKoy, from Fresno Building Healthy Communities, wants to ensure the next rounds of city, state and federal dollars benefit her community.
“I don’t want my son having this conversation with you in 20 years about the disinvestment in Southwest Fresno,” she said.
Manuela Tobias is a reporter with The Fresno Bee. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.