Portraits of Neighborhoods Through the Eyes of a Resident
By Richard Stone
Neighborhood: Parkside, the area including and bordering Roeding Park
Docent: Al Williams
“Parkside” is an area mostly defined by the homeless men and women who live there, folks our guide Al Williams used to call “The Great Outdoors People.” Al is a high-profile advocate for the homeless and has spent much of the 34 years he’s lived in the area on the street. Currently, he and his fiancée Sarah make every effort to lodge in motels at night, but after a recent job lay-off they are basically back living the life of the homeless. So it was that we met in Parkside’s social center, the McDonalds at Olive and Highway 99, where we talked about Al’s ’hood.
Al is very chauvinistic about his home base, the area extending from the Southern Pacific tracks at Weber Avenue west to Hughes Avenue, and from McKinley Avenue to Neilsen Avenue just south of Belmont Avenue. “To the police and the media, we’re just a jungle of gang violence and drug activity,” Al says. “There is some of that; but this is an area where people look out for each other and care for each other for real. To me, it is a paradise in the middle of the hell that is Fresno.”
Al evinces pride in the self-sufficiency of his neighbors. “We’re not dependent on the Mission or the Pov [Poverello House] for our meals. We have to scramble every day to get our food, and we take care of each other, we share.”
Al also notes that a lot of people on the street have some income, be it from odd jobs or Social Security or veterans’ benefits, and could pay for housing if the city would guarantee the $1,000 or so usually required for deposit. “It would make sense, if they really wanted to help us get off the street. But it isn’t done.”
Aside from Roeding Park, there is little of high aesthetic or commercial appeal in the vicinity. There are a few pockets of small residences (mostly, according to Al, occupied by Hispanic families). But the area is dominated by downscale motels, a few small businesses and vacant lots often occupied by shanties and tents almost invisible from a passing car.
Over the years, Al says, the McDonalds has become more tolerant to the homeless population that looks there for amenities such as restrooms, air conditioning, coffee with refills and a safe haven for socializing. Some of the other local businesses are actually hospitable. On the walking tour they give me, Al and Sarah wave in at their friends at the donut shop across the street. And we stop in at Mendes General Store, where owner Helen Myers welcomes us warmly into her landmark western wear store, established more than 50 years ago. (While we are there, noting Sarah’s dilapidated pants, Helen fits her out with a new pair. Al tells me that Helen is like that, quietly charitable whenever she can help.)
We also stop off at a friend’s down the street, found sitting with his pit bull puppy Baby on a couch at his makeshift campsite. Anthony speaks with us freely and amiably, as do others we encounter along the way. A few are a bit incoherent, and Al says that there are several people with mental health issues on the street. “They function…get dressed, find food. But they’re not able to make appointments weeks in advance and get down to the mental health office to get properly treated. If there was a real concern for them, there’d be outreach workers sent to them here.”
We don’t walk all the way down to Hughes but, Al tells me, the Choyce Market is down there, one of the few places left that gives credit. The Jane Addams School is also in the area, but Al says he doesn’t know much about it. “The only kids I know of are a couple of newborns, living with the moms in cars.”
The other major institution is the park itself. Al calls it his Plaza Suite, because (if you have to sleep outside) it has the most amenities—grass, shelter from the rain, restrooms. “They’ve made it illegal to sleep out anywhere now—they can move you out at any time—so why not find the most comfortable place?”
The park is also the site of two weekly meal providers. One is a Wednesday dinner offered up by a church group (“good food if you can sit through the religion”) and the other is Saturday’s lunch provided by Food Not Bombs, local heroes for their constancy and egalitarianism. The Saturday noontime gathering also brings Needle Exchange (providing clean hypodermics to users, to protect them from disease—a practice now allowed by the state but still not endorsed by our morality-driven but results-impaired Board of Supervisors). Dr. Marc Lasher’s remarkable Free Clinic also operates on Saturdays, and sometimes a bike clinic that gives away and repairs bicycles.
Asked for a long-term assessment of the area, Al remarks that there is a big turnover among the 75-or-so homeless who typically inhabit the nonresidential part of Parkside and, of course, the motel population is notoriously transient. His feeling is that the area suffers from benign neglect, a policy of letting conditions gradually deteriorate, making sweeping “urban renewal” seem palatable. Except for the major arteries, streets are left unrepaired and there is a lack of overhead lighting. “It took me five years just to get sidewalks with wheelchair access down here,” he adds. “It’s no secret they’d like to expand the park and the zoo, and I guess we’re in the way.”
Still, to Al, Parkside is home, a place where he is known and appreciated. “Despite what the police and newspapers say about us, despite what it may look like to others, this is a real neighborhood.”
Richard Stone has been writing for the Community Alliance for several years. He would like to call your attention to his new Web site (http://partnershipinunderstanding.wordpress.com/) featuring selections from his 30 years’ worth of manuscripts.