Image by Tim Knopf via Flickr Creative Commons

Poetry Corner: Fresno Street Subway (Underpass)

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.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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