Edited by Richard Stone
Stephen Barile, a past contributor to the Poetry Corner, is a Fresno native who teaches writing. He lives near downtown. Here, he gives a bit of Fresno history with some social commentary thrown in for free.
“What’s a subway doing on the prairie?”—Los Angeles Times, September 26, 1909
In 1906, a hundred yards Northwest
Of the Southern Pacific Railroad Depot,
The Fresno Street Subway was contrived
As a safe crossing under the railyard.
A concrete and riveted steel underpass,
Portal to the other side of town.
Two lanes for autos, a streetcar lane,
A footpath, the railroad tracks overhead
Separated the meritorious from social evil
And lawlessness of the Westside of town,
The subway made it easier to get there.
If the Mayor had his way, he would have closed
The grim subway by filling up the hole.
Miscreants stole the electric lights
From the footpath on opening day,
When the entire Russiantown settlement
Rode the trolley car for free.
Great crowds gathered on the tracks
Through the chasm to the Jericho slum,
Mount Vesuvius Dump, the neglected ghettoes.
Chinatown, boisterous and violent tenderloin
With brothels on China Alley and Fagan Alley,
Day laborers attended to sidewalks
For the sunrise bus to the fields
To chop cotton, for the price of a bottle
And a flea-bit hotel room; a fire trap
Where oilers stumbled out of cheap bars
To mid-afternoon sun with the low-downers.
Nights were darker than the subway
At the deepest; the wanton and lewd,
A housemother who paid a hundred dollars
To the police court in lieu of fines,
And 25 dollars for every arrest;
The cops armed with pistols and clubs
Raided scurvy gambling dens filled with smoke,
Tipped off by inscrutable stool pigeons
To the so-called games of chance
Among pinchbeck tragedians of the Fifth Ward.
Fearful opening, a janitor was murdered
Underground by a crazed fruit peddler
Who shot four times then beat him with the gun.
One ill-fated afternoon, at 5:15 o’clock,
The ferocity of both sides of the tracks met
When two streetcars collided at the very bottom.
Sunlight was darkened at the entrance
By a 32-foot, double truck, passenger trolley.
Rapid speed with which the cars descended
Was too great to be lessened by a hand brake.
And a swift messenger, Streetcar No. 20
Revealed a path of light for the righteous
On the steep, asphalt ascent to F Street.