Members of Southwest Fresno H.E.A.T. are raising concerns about high-density development, the displacement of longtime residents and the misallocation of funding that was intended to improve their community. Brunette Harris can often be seen at Fresno City Council meetings demanding to know what is being done with Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) money that she says should be used to help the residents in southwest Fresno, not developers.
Earlier this summer, I talked with Harris, Bobbie Parks and Diane Smith, all members of Southwest Fresno H.E.A.T., at one of southwest Fresno’s neighborhood parks. Hyde Park has no picnic tables, no BBQ pits, the lawn was dead and it sits on a hill that was once a dump. Across the street, to the west, we could see smoke spewing from Darling International, a rendering plant that neighboring residents would like to see relocated.
Community Alliance (CA): Tell me about Southwest Fresno H.E.A.T. and what it does.
Bobbie Parks (BP): In 2004, we began to become concerned about our community. We began meeting regularly—the name H.E.A.T. came up because everyone was heated up, everyone was concerned and we wanted to know what we could do to save our community. H.E.A.T. stands for Hope, Effort, Appropriate and Thriving. We will not give up on our community and we have hope.
Diane Smith (DS): Basically what we do is attend City Council meetings, we go to planning commission meetings, we get the documents that have been issued in regard to the revitalization and the Redevelopment Agency. We read all of the information, we question it and then we try to provide the information to the community to let them know what is going on. We are gatherers of information and then we provide that information to the community so that people know what is going on so we can come together and try and put an end to the displacement of individuals. I do not have a problem with revitalization or development, but I have a problem when it is going to displace people who have given their lives and livelihood to southwest Fresno. There are many people that have lived here for years, they have moved from one location to another because they were putting in Highway 41, so they moved someplace else and they wanted to stay in southwest Fresno. These are the same people that are being displaced once again and whatever the city or county wants to give us for our property is not going to be sufficient for us to buy anything somewhere else. So, we are just going to be a community that is solely displaced.
Brunette Harris (BH): To add to what Diane was saying, it is not that we are only concerned about being displaced, we are also concerned about what they are giving for the property. The city states in their paperwork that they are going to give them “just compensation” and when you talk about just compensation, that is what you paid for it back in the day. They are not going to give you fair market value. We are also concerned because the city and redevelopment are the same. They are the same thing. They (the city) sit on the board of the Redevelopment Agency and there is a conflict of interest going on.
CA: Brunette, can you give us a concrete example of how this has happened in west Fresno?
BH: They want to put a multimillion dollar golf course—and that is not gone, that is still in the works. We are in the middle of all that. We are in the middle of downtown and the multimillion-dollar golf course. Plus, we are in the middle of Chandler [Airport] being expanded into a larger airfield where people can fly in to attend these golf tournaments. We understand that when they come into this area they are not going to want to look at this area, but the money that was given, the CDBG dollars that were given by the federal government that were supposed to help our community, the city has taken those funds, they have recaptured the funds and put them elsewhere. If you come into southwest Fresno, you will know that the funding was not put here. We don’t know where that money went.
CA: Let’s talk about the CDBG funds that you are saying were meant for southwest Fresno, but you are saying that money has been spent elsewhere. Where has it been spent?
BH: They recapture it and put it into other areas where they see fit to put it. Anyone who has been in southwest Fresno can tell you that money has not been put over here. We don’t have anything. Now, they’re putting in what I call high-rise apartments and we haven’t had anything like that over here in this area. So, when you bring in things like that we are not compatible with all of that. Here you have the high-rise apartments and the lofts and stuff like that. What you have is what they’ve got in the Bay Area. We are trying to get them to understand that this is not the Bay Area. We are down in the Valley, so when you put high-rise apartments up and it gets hot, that’s not healthy. We tried to explain that to them, but they are not listening to
One of the first things that the CDBG funding states, that the federal government states, is that you must have community input. We don’t have community input! The city does their plans and after they do their plans they come out and have a little meeting and show us what they are going to do. That is not community input. You are not supposed to put something together, then bring it to the neighborhood, and tell the neighborhood this is what you are going to do. We don’t have a voice and we don’t have any representation. We have Cynthia Sterling who sits on the City Council and recused herself [because of a conflict of interest], but the City Council still allowed her to vote on different issues in this area. We didn’t have any representation, period.
CA: Some people think that the development in the northern part of downtown, you mentioned the lofts [the Iron Bird and Vagabond lofts], some people think that is a good direction for the city to go in to revitalize areas with retail on the ground floor and residential above. Are you saying you have a problem with that and if so, why?
DS: I believe for that particular part of town, because it is so close to downtown, that if they want to revitalize it that way, then that is appropriate for them. They do have a lot of businesses there and it is within walking distance, but some of the decisions that they are making do not seem like they would be applicable to this area here. This is an agricultural area. We are standing up on Hyde Park and looking at farmland (to the south); they are saying that urban sprawl has got to stop. Urban sprawl does need to stop, but we are in a suburban area and the people that bought over here bought to have land so they could raise their kids on their property so they wouldn’t have to play on the streets.
Now, to come in and say this is what we want to do, we want to put apartments all over the place, we want to put high-rise lofts in so that we can have businesses underneath, that is not compatible with long-established single residence homes. The city seems to think that is appropriate, but I disagree. There are some areas of town where it is appropriate—the downtown area around the Fulton Mall, that is fine because that was a business area, to begin with. This (pointing to the neighborhood around Hyde Park) was all residential. There are some agricultural and some businesses like the rendering plant, which we don’t particularly care for, but you don’t have a lot of lofts and businesses. We had stores, businesses that were locally run, but they have slowly disappeared and not been replaced by anything substantial.
CA: As you mentioned, we are standing at Hyde Park (named after former Fresno Mayor Floyd Hyde). Hyde Park is a hill, there are no park benches, there are no BBQ pits and I’m told that it is the site of a former dump. Across the street is the Darling Rendering plant, which you can see spewing some kind of smoke into the air; there are homes next to the park and agricultural areas nearby. Southwest Fresno has a unique manner of development that is different from any other part of Fresno. How would you like to see it developed? Instead of higher-density development, what would you like to see done with the CDBG funds?
BH: First of all, I would love for the community to be able to come out to a meeting and state exactly what they want done with those funds. We have a lot of elderly people on fixed incomes and their houses need to be fixed up. That is what the funding is for, but the city has taken the funds and they are making loans out of the funds. The “G” in CDBG stands for grant and that is something that is given, especially to an area that is blighted. The federal government gives them money to bring that area up. They didn’t give the money to make a loan out of it and that is what they are doing.
I know a lot of elderly people would love to have nice homes, built so they would be comfortable in the winter and summer. Most of them have swamp coolers and when it gets real hot, that swamp cooler just shoots out heat. I would like the elderly to have a nice center where they can go to where they can enjoy themselves. Those funds are meant for the community, but we haven’t seen any of it. Now what we are seeing is what the city wants done with the CDBG funds; they are widening California Street and anyone that looks at California Street knows you can’t stop that street from becoming a four-way lane. And we have Edison there, we have a lot of apartment complexes and people don’t seem to understand exactly what the city is doing.
BP: West Fresno was thriving and a community that was developed, there was a lot of businesses and from the time that I have been here most of those businesses have closed. I feel that the CDBG funds are federal money and that it is there to rebuild communities. At this time, there are a lot of elderly and low-income residents and a lot of work needs to be done to the homes and also to bring in more businesses. There should be more youth centers. Our children need to be kept busy after school. There should be playgrounds and youth centers for them to go to.
DS: I believe that the CDBG money, the way it is given supposedly to end blight, that the community should have some say in it. I just don’t feel that the city, the City Council or anyone else should make a decision without community input. We may not be engineers, we may not be developers, but we have common sense about what we want in our community.
Over by Chandler Airport, they extended the airfield by 300 feet, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but now what you have is a cul-de-sac. What used to be West Avenue is no longer there. They’ve closed it off and fenced that area in and made it a part of the airport. Was anyone in the community made aware of that? Not that I’m aware of and I live right over there. I was at a meeting recently and asked city officials about that and they had no clue as to what was going on. The kind of thing we have over here is that we have a lack of information, nobody is telling people what is going on, they (the city) is just coming in and doing things and
expecting us to accept it.
CA: Somebody mentioned Running Horse, the golfing development in southwest Fresno. Would somebody like to elaborate on what that project was about and where it is at now?
DS: Running Horse was supposed to be a part of the PGA, and when I asked questions about how many golf tournaments are you going to have here each year, no-body could answer that. It was like one tournament a year, so what is the point of building an extremely expensive golf course, displacing homeowners, for maybe one PGA tournament once a year? The whole point of that was the enormous golf course, the multimillion dollar homes and the expansion of Chandler Airport, so people with expensive jets could fly in.
I live right in the middle of that, so that meant that my entire community would be wiped out. They are saying, oh no, that is not going to happen, but when you are putting in multimillion homes and you have homes that were built back in the 70s, it is not compatible. My feeling was and I told them this before, put a wall between us, I don’t care, they don’t need to look at me. All I want them to do is leave me alone. Even though that has gone through many changes including bankruptcy, noth-ing is happening with it. The property looks worse than it did before, nobody is cleaning it up, it is a fire hazard. It is a lot of vacant land with a lot of weeds that makes southwest Fresno look bad. Somebody needs to be held responsible for that and needs to clean it up.
CA: Let me summarize what I hear you saying and please react to it. There are development plans that are taking place in southwest Fresno that are displacing the current residents with people that will be moving here to live in higher-density housing, mostly apartments. There is a large development next to a proposed golf course with very expensive homes and that project will displace residents that are currently living here. What I hear you saying is that you would rather the money that is designated for the area be given to the residents to improve their housing rather than to displace them.
DS: I’m for development and redevelopment, but not at the expense of the people that reside here. What I would like to see is the city actually working with the community and developing plans that are going to be feasible and workable for everyone in the area. Nobody should be displaced and the city should give the community an opportunity to give some input in deciding what their community is to look like. Every time they (the city) has a meeting, they are bringing their plans to the table and since we are not engineers or developers they just say that we don’t know what we are talking about and they will take our ideas under “advisement.” It is never taken under advisement.
The city and county should do what they are supposed to do with CDBG money—actually come to the community, sit down and look at what the community is looking like at this present time and then say these are the things that we need to see done and ask the community how do you want to proceed with this. We have all of this vacant land over there? Would you like to see small businesses and those kinds of things? Yes! Would you like to see the homes that are there remain there, but be brought up to standard? Of course! The goal is to give the community some say so in what our community is going to look like.
BH: We have tried our best to get in touch with the federal government and let them know what’s going on. The City of Fresno needs to be investigated, just like the little town of Bell. What they did with those CDBG funds, how they went about doing it, they didn’t have community input, we did not have representation, and we would love for the federal government to get up off their butt and investigate the City of Fresno.
CA: And if they did that, what do you think they would find?
BH: They would find that they misappropriated money and a whole lot of people who sit on the City Council would be locked up, plain and simple as that.
Note: An audio version of this interview is available at www.indybay.org/newsitems/2010/08/03/18655250.php. The audio version was first broadcast on KFCF 88.1 FM and includes additional questions and responses. Southwest Fresno H.E.AT. meets every Saturday 9 a.m.–11 a.m. For more information, call 559-930-5563 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.