In his Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig once said that the only way to really see America was on a motorbike, because to drive across the country was merely to engage in television watching. This observation strikes a chord with me, a native of the San Joaquin Valley, because if Pirsig is correct, than I suspect there is no greater “driving as television” city in America than Fresno.
First, Fresno is flat and ridiculously easy to navigate in most parts. Driving here is like sitting in a recliner and pointing your remote at where you’d like to go. Google will be releasing its self-driving car in coming years, but this technology is decades behind Fresno in the domain of automatron driving.
Second, Fresno is a large, sprawling city dominated by stoplight-timed intersections that allow everyone to move through town at a breezy 45 mph, more or less. If you ever lived in another city before moving here, you now realize how spoiled we are to live in a city with a metropolitan population of over a million people that, by comparison, still has no substantial traffic or parking problems (and no, waiting to turn north onto Blackstone from westbound Herndon is not a real traffic problem).
Third, Fresno as a city grew in lockstep with the growth of the automobile. Take Blackstone Avenue, stretching ever northward, and steadfastly clinging to its identity as one of America’s truly great drag strips. Slowly cruising its six lanes on a warm evening with neon signs floating by is the whole point of Blackstone; the businesses that belong to the signs are the sideshow. Even Fresno’s most recent sprawl northward into the foothills and eastward toward Sanger presumes a deep—almost affectionate—connection between citizen and car. Yes, this is true for most of California and we especially associate this with Los Angeles (remember Walking in LA, by Missing Persons? Nobody does it, apparently.). But in Fresno, almost all of the things we see here are seen from the comfortable, temperature controlled world of the automobile—for better and all too often, for worse.
But Pirsig’s main point was that when you watch television, you are at increased risk for missing things—crucial things that make the landscape what it is, that can only be seen when you really look for them. To watch a travel documentary about London is not to visit London. In this way, too, Pirsig could have been describing Fresno. After moving away from Sanger as a child only to move back into this region as an adult ten years ago, I remain astonished at how many pockets of interest there are in this city, and how much more there is to see than meets the eye. Sure, part of this is my own maturation and my deeper appreciation for how cities work. As a parent who is raising children here, I also have a vested interest in seeing this city flourish and in discovering all it has to offer. But more than this, Fresno is a city that demands to be seen with fresh eyes and with an appreciation of the history and beauty that is here were we only to look closely.
Take this shoddy-looking gas station at 485 E. Barstow.
What if I told you that this was not only an interesting gas station, but that it was in its own way, beautiful? I freely admit to liking everything about this seemingly ordinary and threatened building. I like how it is set a full 100 feet back from the street, allowing drivers to ease in and out. I like its scale, which does not impose its will on the lot, but is recessed and humble, in keeping with the similarly designed structures around it. It invites residents of the nearby apartments (including the inimitable Crystal Tree complex across the street) to walk in and enjoy it (it was probably a small grocery store when it was first built). I like that whomever designed it decided to opt for a Cliff May-style pitched roof with walls of glass and a Spanish-style stucco exterior. I also like that it came from an era in architecture when corporations were true patrons of the arts and would rarely just build a functionalist building without attempting to make some sort of a statement, even if that statement was “less is more.” All the stuff that vies to make it recede into indiscriminate ugliness and ordinariness, including the removal of its handsome wood shingled roof, the ugly stickers on the floor to ceiling windows, the addition of a hideous rain canopy near the pumps (honestly, do we really need these in Fresno?), and the typical liquor store loiterer vibe, still cannot prevent me from embracing this as an understated little structure that gives me joy.
And here’s the thing: Fresno is full of these kinds of little happy surprises. Full of them. Part of what I will hope to reveal in forthcoming articles are examples of this region’s joys—both hidden and hidden-in-plain-sight, whether they be good architecture, well-planned neighborhoods, pleasant public spaces, or places where you might want to take a second glance.
Look closer. Look beyond the television view from your windshield. See your city. Fresno is waiting for you to find her.