“Down There” in West Fresno

“Down There” in West Fresno

A recent comment from a Fresno City Council member rang an old, all too familiar bell. When District 1 representative Annalisa Perea referred to West Fresno as “down there” in an interview with Fresnoland reporter Gregory Weaver, she was echoing a century-old attitude—and policy approach—that local officeholders have held since before segregation officially began through redlining in the 1930s.

In her 2020 article for CalMatters, “How Fresno is confronting its history of racism,” Manuela Tobias wrote, “From Fresno’s inception in the 1800s, white homesteaders positioned the city’s landfill on the west side of the railroad tracks. Factories, meatpacking houses and slaughterhouses were all placed in West Fresno.”

No City Council member lives across those tracks today. Only one, Luis Chavez, lives south of Highway 180, but still he’s at the top of District 5. Mayor Jerry Dyer had to move into Fresno just to run for office, so he has dipped his toe into the city at its northernmost tip with a new home beyond the Copper River country club, as far from West Fresno as any mayor has ever lived.

That boundary of railroad tracks has since become triple-walled with the addition of Highway 99 and high-speed rail. The original concentration of industrial polluters has only increased, with new warehouse distribution centers now added to garbage dumps, slaughterhouses and rendering plants. Life expectancy rates for residents have fallen to 20 years below that of people living in neighborhoods like the mayor’s.

The change Tobias reported on was the groundbreaking work of local residents who wrote the Southwest Fresno Specific Plan adopted by the City in 2017. Though weakened at the end by some Sacramento skullduggery (a story for another day), the plan enshrined firm commitments to reducing emissions of precursors to ozone and PM2.5 and deadlier, directly emitted toxic and hazardous air pollutants, including diesel exhaust, a commitment now being called into question at City Hall.

Strangely, a trio of Tower District residents now dominate the Fresno City Council, and the health of West Fresno residents rests disproportionately in their hands. Perea, Miguel Arias and Nelson Esparza each live on an edge of their respective Council districts—the ones closest to the dining and entertainment center regarded as home to many of the city’s political progressives.

In Weaver’s May 19 article, Arias and Perea revealed the literal distance they feel from the impact of their decisions and the lengths they’re willing to go to in support of industrial development. The pair argued they back the proposed Elm Avenue industrial rezone in order to make possible a climate change measure designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by replacing diesel garbage trucks with electric ones, but that the switch must paradoxically lead to increased ground level air pollution.

Perea and Arias also wrongly argued that without an upzone from mixed use zoning to industrial use, Elm Avenue businesses won’t be able to secure financing for electric vehicle purchases. A local lender shot down that argument in Weaver’s article by pointing out the loans would be secured against the vehicles, not the property.

The hidden agenda, as usual, appears to be plans for industrial expansion that could avoid public health impact and mitigation review under the California Environmental Quality Act. Of particular concern is the handling of nonrecyclable plastics by Mid Valley Disposal. A nearby recycler, the Cedar Avenue Recycling and Transfer Station, has a history of spontaneous combustion in its piles of plastics and electronics, and the markets for plastic have collapsed due to its history of deception and environmental harm.

West Fresno representative Arias scrambled for some high ground in August when he stridently demanded more community outreach in response to the City’s proposal to study composting of sludge at its wastewater treatment facility southwest of town, according to Tim Sheehan reporting in the Fresno Bee.

Politically, it’s easier for Arias to attack the City for its failures than the developers behind private ventures, so the public project provides him with an easy target and a platform on which to act correctly, demonstrate concern. More significantly, the move will distract from—and likely mute opposition over—the air pollution growing in the heart of District 3 where warehouse expansion is booming and public health protections largely ignored.

Arias lives—and breathes—farther from District 3’s industrial pollution sources than any of the area’s previous Council members; he’s actually north of Highway 180 and east of Van Ness Avenue. Perea lives in a southeastern pocket of District 1, safely insulated from the dust and diesel of sprawl development west of Highway 99.

Esparza lives in a neighborhood north of City College. It’s a lovely spot west and upwind of the three freeways that dominate the lives and health outcomes of his District 7 constituents. His former staffer, Council Member Tyler Maxwell, likewise has settled into an upwind corner of his district, far to the northwest of District 4’s noisy airport and adjacent distribution centers.

Like the mayor, representatives Garry Bredefeld and Michael Karbassi live in the sprawl north of Herndon Avenue, another significant line of separation. No elected City official has to face the impacts of the coming $400 million Highway 99 expansion stretching from Clinton Avenue to south of Highway 180—which they recently approved without a word.

Sadly, Fresno voters were misled into supporting Measure A back in June 2010, which raised the threshold for adding two more City Council districts from 540,000 residents to 650,000. Direct representation for impacted neighborhoods is a distant hope.

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