Tucked in between the Tower District and the Mural/Cultural Arts District is one of Fresno’s very first subdivisions called the Lowell Neighborhood. The neighborhood gets its name from Lowell Elementary School, which is named for abolitionist poet James Russell Lowell. The neighborhood’s boundaries form a triangle: Freeway 180 on the north, Divisadero on the south, and Blackstone on the east.
Older neighborhoods have a depth and complexity that both attracts and repels different groups. Lowell was developed during the time before planning and zoning made cities more homogenous. There are mansions, mid-sized homes, bungalow courts, and apartments all on the same blocks. This meant that higher-income kids and lower-income kids grew up together.
A perfect storm of bad decisions hit the Lowell Neighborhood starting in the late 1950s. Freeway 180 was planned to go right through the neighborhood, leaving a wake of abandoned houses and lots. New plans designated the area as multi-family, allowing homes to be demolished and replaced by lower-quality apartments. The City stopped proactive code enforcement, which meant properties could deteriorate, unless someone complained.
Once a neighborhood starts declining, it can be difficult to reverse. Home ownership declined as rentals multiplied, school test scores dropped as student transiency increased. When the middle class leaves for greener pastures, concentrated poverty fills in behind.
But all is not lost! What is the opposite of concentrated poverty? Diversity of income levels. Some middle class people decided to move back into the neighborhood. H Spees and his family bought a cute log cabin-styled bungalow in the neighborhood. Randy and Tina White bought a beautiful home on Van Ness. Dozens of families followed over the next few years. The neighbors relocated to Lowell to intentionally help to turn around the neighborhood. I bought my home in Lowell in 2010 to personally join this revitalization effort.
One of our neighbors, Dr. Don Simmons, made a statement one time that really struck a chord with me (and I’m sure many others). Don said that if you measure our neighborhood by income, it is very poor compared to other neighborhoods. But if you measure our neighborhood by the quality of our community, we are rich compared to other neighborhoods.
How can you measure the quality of our community? We have a Lowell Neighborhood Association that meets twice a month. We have the Lowell Community Development Corporation. Neighbors and the City of Fresno Parks Department have renovated one of Fresno’s oldest parks, Dickey Playground. Lowell neighbors have been involved in a design review committee since 1991 and were instrumental in creating the new Downtown Neighborhoods Community Plan which was just adopted unanimously by the City Council.
On an abandoned CalTrans property under Freeway 180, the neighborhood, along with help from Fresno Metro Ministries, AmeriCorps, Gazebo Gardens, City of Fresno, and PG&E, opened the Lowell Community Garden. Many of the people who have moved into Lowell to help the neighbors and neighborhood have potlucks on Sunday nights.
Fresno Urban Neighborhood Development Corporation has beautifully restored several homes in the neighborhood. The Fresno Housing Authority has invested in Lowell through a new development and a renovation of one of the worst offending apartment complexes. Fresno City College fixed up a few houses with the help of a training program for their students.
Fresno State focused 10 colleges within the university on the neighborhood for one year, including Lowell within actual curriculum, from Construction Management to Engineering (starting a Lego Program after school) and Peacemaking to Public Relations. The year of Fresno State saw a 30-point jump in Lowell Elementary’s test scores!
I love my neighborhood. It’s not perfect—not by a long shot. But that’s one of its best features. We have a reason to work together to make improvements. When good things happen, we all get to celebrate the victories. We’ve had 400 people show up to neighborhood meetings. Our neighbors have been actively engaged in downtown revitalization issues as well as efforts to battle against substandard housing. We hope that you can wish us well along this journey to transform one of Fresno’s oldest neighborhoods. Or maybe you’d like to join us?