The first time I visited Fresno was sometime in early 1994. I left my house one afternoon — ostensibly to do laundry — and just kept on driving. After going almost 200 miles, and realizing that I probably would be washing no clothes that day, I decided to bed down in Fresno. I was dazzled by the array of cheap motels from the 50’s. Later, I was less thrilled by the bars. However, I did end up going home with the only two boys I was attracted to as well as a bartender. Eventually, drama ensued, I felt uncomfortable, and I left to roam the streets of Fresno. I liked it, somehow.
Three years pass. I have a rental car all week so I can look for replacements for my “fire bomb”. So why not make the trek back to Fresno, right? It is, after all, one of the strangest places I’ve ever spent time in, and it’s a nice perspective break from the intensity which is Planet SOMA. Plus they have great thrift stores there. So off I headed on Saturday morning, this time carrying clean laundry. I’d really planned on making it an extended road trip, which would ultimately include Bakersfield on Sunday. This was not to be, as we’ll discuss later. I arrived about 3, and found my particular motel of choice, after realizing that most of the coolest ones looked as if most of their residents were in fact actual residents, as in long term. I began to re-familiarize myself with the environs.
Then came the dinner and night life. I ate at Bob’s Big Boy, just because I could. I was not impressed, although the staff was really nice and they had lots of Big Boy merchandise for sale. Then the nightlife: I made my way to the Red Lantern bar, where I’d met the two boys last time. And exactly like last time, there were very few patrons who set the ‘nads racing, although I was impressed with one long-haired boy at the end of the bar. I made a side trip to the Express, hated it (again, just like last time), and came back to the Red Lantern, where I somehow made many friends in a very short period of time. (“New meat in town” syndrome?) Long hair was still there along with another fiendishly cute boy. As things would go, they turned out to be a couple (five years) and yes (again) I went home with the only two boys in town I was attracted to. Gotta love Fresno.
Afterhours at the bar, combined with extremely fun sex until 7AM, followed by some uncomfortable moments (I was, it seems, their first three-way) took its toll on me. Bakersfield was canceled and I kept the room for one more day, mainly to get some sleep. Of course,the thought of hooking up with the two boys again crossed my mind, but they didn’t answer the phone all day. How can fags not have answering machines or voice mail? Also, I was determined not to have a complete repeat of my last visit and I wanted to see more of Fresno while not hungover or comatose.
Which I did. Fun town, nice Sierra backdrop on the east side, excellent thrift stores. Took many pictures.
It must be the lack of Interstate Highways or the abundance of cheap land for expansion. If not, then strange quirks of the economy have kept so much of inner Fresno trapped in time. It’s a good thing.
Motel Drive in Fresno is truly a sight to behold, by day or night. This stretch is a piece of what was Highway 99 before the freeway bypass was built. Actually, you can see a pretty good bit of this automotive history on any of the old strips of the cities along Highway 99, including Sacramento, Stockton, and Bakersfield.
Most of the places on Motel Drive have pretty much become low-income housing of a sort and have started to resemble concentration camps. On my last visit, a fire at the Town House had also damaged and adjacent motel, leaving at least one person homeless. The Sands, once one of the more lush and luxurious of the bunch, sits vacant behing a fence. I fear it may be gone soon.
On the south side of Fresno, the old part of Highway 99 is known as Golden State Blvd. It’s even seedier than Motel Drive to the north, but there are sites to be seen all the same.
More things to see in Fresno:
Tower District (Olive Avenue near Broadway)
Centered around the deco Tower Theatre, this area is home to many restaurants, bars, and coffee houses, and is the closest thing Fresno boasts to a “bohemian” atmosphere. During my 1997 visit, people were pretty upset that Strabuck’s was trying to enter the area. I don’t blame them. Of course, by 1999, the Starbuck’s had landed on Olive. Score one for the generic corporate masses. The Tower is officially becoming “cutesy”.
In the Tower District, you can still find a couple of great live music venues, at least one amazing used record store (and I mean actual vinyl here), and an interesting, if disturbingly Christian, used bookstore. There’s also a really nice residential area of bungalows and 1920s apartment buildings surrounding the Tower District.
And then there’s the Chicken Pie Shop. It looks to be an absolutely amazing diner. I wouldn’t know for sure, though, as I seem to have a knack for arriving right at closing time.
North Blackstone Avenue
“The Strip”. Lots of neon and 50’s architecture if you look closely enough. Also one of the last remaining Bob’s Big Boy restaurants in captivity. Best by night.
Fresno is a major mecca for thrift stores. Downtown, in the 700 blocks of both Broadway and Van Ness are the places to be, near Inyo Street. There are about eight stores in this area, most of them worth at least a look. My absloute favorite was the AmVets store on Inyo at Broadway. Also worth checking out is the Thrift Center at 820 East Shields, a few miles north.
Fresno’s downtown is located to the southeast, rather than in the center of town. It’s pretty much a dead zone, with little retail or street life, and most buildings vacant. There aren’t even many (occupied) office buildings. But those empty buildings are definitely worth a look.
See renovated theatres like Warner’s (or not-renovated ones like the Crest), empty department stores, and the ghostly Fulton Street pedestrian mall, a veritable relic of misguided 1960s attempts to “revitalize” downtown.
East Belmont, East Tulare, and Kings Canyon
The major commercial strips of the inner-city east side are wonders to behold, from the old chain-store prototypes (which now house Mexican supermarkets, tacquerias, and more) to the amazing food. I could drive them for hours.
All stucco and chrome and generic. It’s Anywhere USA, despite the obvious planning which went into the Riverpark development at Blackstone and CA-41.
A suburb of Fresno with a nifty old downtown, a large collection of strip malls, and a great view of the Sierra. Popular pastimes include visiting the many antique stores and driving really slow.
Went back to the Red Lantern for beer bust Sunday night, received a note from a nice man who wanted to “help me out of my boots”, declined, went home and slept. Woke up early, ate at McDonald’s, talked about sports with a farmer (that was intersting…), and experienced downtown Fresno and many more sites on the way home.