I am not aware of a local contest for “The Most Interesting Man in Fresno” but I have to believe that Steve Skibbie would be the odds-on favorite. A resident of the Lowell neighborhood, a professional photographer, family man, and a veteran of countless neighborhood committees, Steve has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Fresno and is one of Downtown Fresno’s (DTF) true evangelists. To spend a couple of hours with him is to realize that there is not only much more to Fresno than you ever knew, there is more here than you ever could know.
Not that Steve doesn’t try. His Facebook wall is a veritable rotating art gallery of the spaces, scenes, goings on, and neighborhoods of DTF he has brilliantly photographed through the years. Genuine and optimistic, Steve’s winning personality gains him access to places normally closed off to the public and he seems to know ahead of time when something interesting is going to happen. Scanning his news feed, I often mutter to myself things like “I meant to go to that”, while gazing at a photo of the cool event he is invariably attending and shooting.
All this is to say, I have always wanted to interview Steve and ask him about his favorite places and spaces in Fresno. In the spirit of this column, I was particularly interested in some of his favorite “hidden gems” in the city. Unfailingly obliging, Steve drove me to several buildings that he has always enjoyed, most of whom are hidden in plain sight, and some of which I will profile in subsequent columns. Ironically, however, the building we lingered at the longest is probably the worst candidate for “hidden gem” we could find: Fresno’s iconic and patently unhidden Pacific Southwest Building. You know, the tall one with the antennae on top and the wraparound “Security Pacific” signage. The 1925 edifice is indistinguishable from Fresno’s skyline. For years, it was Fresno’s skyline.
Like many residents of Fresno, I had never actually been inside, but felt like I knew the building perhaps too well. But as my only experience of it is from the picture window of my car on 41 or gazing upward while walking Fulton Mall, I was only too happy to go inside for a different perspective
After taking in some of the beautiful ground floor rooms, Steve and I ascended the service elevator to the top couple of floors. I suspect he was awaiting my reaction, because he grew silent. When we reached the top and walked outside along the perimeter of the two uppermost floors, I quickly learned six things about Fresno that I did not know before.
(1) Fresno is a city. You don’t see it until you’re on top of this building, but Fresno is a city. Actually, a relatively large city. 34th largest in the country. Metro population of over a million. Up here, it finally sinks in that Fresno has a larger population than Cincinnati, New Orleans, Sacramento, and a host of other cities that only seem larger in our imaginations. Seeing Fresno from your car, it tends to look like so much suburbia, with downtown kind of an afterthought. From atop this building, you see the grid laid out before you, how and where Fresno grew, where re-development is taking place, and just how large Fresno is. Steve said that he had been up here with people before, and that many locals say the same thing I said: “I feel like I am seeing Fresno for the first time.”
(2) Fulton Street is Fresno’s main street. Up here, there is no doubt about it. It is recognizable at once. Regardless of your position on the hotly debated forthcoming re-opening of Fulton Mall to vehicular traffic, it is plain to see that Fresno’s most vital downtown street was pedestrianized with the creation of Fulton Mall. With apologies to Tulare and Fresno streets, Fulton is unquestionably the city’s downtown axis. It’s spine.
(3) The redevelopment of DTF is not coming. It is already here. Every block has a story of fresh energy being injected into once vacant lots, decaying properties, and purposeless buildings. It has now reached the point where even people like Steve can’t keep up with all the change. With this change also come some of its familiar mixed blessings, such as rising property values, pseudo-gentrification, occasional speculative investing from ghostly out-of-towners, and the inevitability of ruffling sentimental feathers. These are all part of the change that is here and that is coming. Redevelopment is in its infancy and there is still time to catch the train of change. But that train is leaving the station and accelerating.
(4) The rooftop pool at the Radisson Hotel is still there. It looks great. Nobody uses it.
(5) The view from up here is beautiful. If all goes according to plan, a new restaurant and bar/lounge will occupy the top two floors of the building. When this space debuts, it will be a can’t-miss Fresno experience. The views from up here are gorgeous, particularly in the late afternoon and the interior spaces are just as beautiful as the view.
(6) There are a lot of trees in Fresno. Way more than I ever thought, and I always thought we had a lot. Curiously, they seem to be faring better than I would have expected in this drought. Fresno is not going to top many lists of America’s greenest cities, but when you consider the city’s emergent bike culture, Fresno’s highly enviable recycling record, and the sheer volume of mature trees, this isn’t exactly an environmental dead spot.
Descending the service elevator to Fulton Mall, we marveled how something as simple as a trip up 15 floors could change our perspectives so thoroughly. Sometimes Fresno’s “in plain sight” experiences deliver the biggest punch, were we to only look more carefully. That is becoming harder with all of the changes taking place in DTF, but thankfully, it looks like the Pacific Southwest building is going to be here for all of it. Just be sure to ask people like Steve Skibbie to show you around.