Off to Fresno

Took a road trip this weekend and didn’t even take the camera. It was kind of nice for a change, although taking the camera wasn’t really an option anyway, since I haven’t gotten it fixed yet.

I just love Fresno, and I’ve yet to find anyone who really agrees with me on this one. It’s such a strange place, physically and psychologically.

I’ll restate the basics first: Fresno is (I believe) the largest American city not served by an Interstate or US highway. There are no VHF television stations there. Test marketing and surveys are often done here because Fresno is apparently one of the most typically American cities to be found.

Which is surprising to me, simply because I find Fresno so very odd. While progress has moved northward, the southern and middle sections of the city has remained virtually unchanged physically (although the demographics have changed considerably). Fresno is like a lab, possibly the best place around to study the history of urban development since the 1950s.

Downtown Fresno was deserted by traditional business decades ago, but Fulton Street bustles with local, largely Latino-owned shops and restaurants. Old department stores have been transformed into bazaars selling electronics and counterfeit Nikes. The former Safeway on Ventura Street looks exactly as it did in 1965 (avocado, orange, and purple interior intact), the only changes being a new sign out front and a large map of Mexico above the meat department.

Old shopping centers from the 1950s flank the wide boulevards, set at approximately one-mile intervals. These centers often house some of the same stores they did on opening day. The clientele has changed, but the stores opted to adapt rather than to flee.

The economic malaise which has gripped Fresno and much of the Central Valley over the past few decades has allowed much of the inner city to look just the way I remember cities looking when I was a kid. Malls and “big box” stores are not in evidence (although they do exist in the northern part of town). The Baskin-Robbins in the dying Manchester Center still has simulated wood paneling. There are still local supermarket chains and drug stores.

Sadly, I must admit, too many of the Denny’s have been converted into the terrifically annoying faux 1950s “Denny’s Diner” concept, which looks like some sort of “laverne and Shirley”-inspired nightmare. We are not amused.

Maybe it’s just comforting in a strange way. More tomorrow, including queer bars, strange radio stations, and the drive-in I finally managed to eat at over five trips and six years…