Earlier today I mentioned a video that a public-private alliance in Fresno, California, has produced to explain why they want to bulldoze a historic, artsy downtown pedestrian mall and re-open it to cars. Described that way, naturally the project sounds like a sacrilege. But I said that I’d become convinced of the logic behind their plan, in part based on what we’d seen in a number of other revived-downtown cities across the country.

Just now I log onto the Internet after a long airline trip to find a slew of messages from people saying: That video is the explanation? There is so much they left out! So for anyone who wants more details on the respective (and sometimes complementary) roles of cars and pedestrians in healthy downtown, I offer these.

1) If you’d like to go into this in the most detail-immersed way imaginable, I encourage you to read the latest version of the Fresno General Plan. It’s right here, in a multi-hundred-page PDF. I wrote briefly about it last month here, but if you want to see the full story, be my guest!

2) If you’d like an elegant journalistic description of the artistic and urban-life stakes in the decision, please read the extensive and beautifully illustrated story, by Mimi Zeiger, on the decision in Landscape Architecture Magazine. You can read it via an online app of the magazine here. I wrote briefly about it here. This is a look at the opening spread.

A presentation of the Fresno mall drama (Courtesy of Landscape Architecture Magazine)

3) I am a fan of the Fresno Bee and its site. You can sign up there, for modest charge, and prowl around in their coverage. (Deceptively important bonus media-market point: Fresno is far enough away from the big centers of L.A., San Francisco, or even Sacramento that it gets little attention in their print or broadcast media. The Bee makes local politics and policy a front-page specialty, and goes into it in depth.)

4 & 5)  Here are two messages that have come in, one from a person far removed from Fresno and another from a person who lives and works there. They’re a useful juxtaposition of some of the earlier “how to save a downtown” themes.

First, from the outlander. This reader lives and works in Louisville:

I thought the video was interesting because although I've never been to Fresno, I'm familiar with two of the examples given in comparison—South Bend and Louisville.

On arriving in South Bend in the mid-1980s, I borrowed a bicycle and figured that if I rode towards downtown, I'd find a store to buy some dorm-room food. Wrong. Downtown was nearly vacant and had almost nothing to offer. The resuscitation of downtown has been unsteady since then, but has generally proceeded in a positive direction. The 800-pound gorilla that is Notre Dame is finally starting to reach outside of its campus and improve the neighborhoods between downtown and the campus that sits just Northeast of it. That, frankly, was long overdue.

Another project with some transformational potential is the relocation of a Catholic high school to a former hospital campus (which abandoned the area for the suburbs). Both of these are big-money projects that don't seem to be exactly the sort of organic growth that Fresno seems to be hoping for. The South Bend metro area is continuing to relentlessly sprawl towards the east and northeast and if the core is going to be improved, the University is going to play a role. If I recall correctly, it became the largest employer in the city in the 1980s, with the closing of a Bendix facility.

The Louisville pedestrian mall was built on 4th Street between Liberty and Muhammad Ali, and is visible in the opening scenes of the movie Stripes. (Louisville joke: What was Muhammad Ali's original name? Answer: Walnut Street.) I've worked near there for more than 20 years. The Galleria was a fading urban mall in the early 90s, built on Louisville's original retail corridor. But it survived until the last department store (Dillard’s) pulled out.

The replacement is a Cordish development that has all of the positives and negatives of their work in Baltimore, Kansas City, and I'm sure every place else. Bringing them to town is sort of like comparing Times Square now to the early 1980s. It's better by every objective measure, but … The complex has become a focal point for some area activities, though, particularly the Ironman triathlon, some Derby events, and other sports-affiliated gatherings.

No one, however, would contend that it single-handedly has revitalized downtown Louisville (something that is still definitely a work in progress, but which is unquestionably happening). In rough order, that would be because of:

1.       The de-industrialization of the riverfront and its conversion into a park that is the epicenter for almost every outdoor event for more than a few thousand people which does not involve a football or horses.

2.       The continuation of a vibrant downtown restaurant scene. Louisville long has been one of the best per-capita restaurant cities I've been to, and the best restaurants in Louisville have always been in or near downtown. No matter how far the city sprawled, people have been willing to drive in to them. This has only accelerated with an explosion of hipster-driven (there's no other way to describe it) businesses and restaurants on the East market corridor.

3.       People are realizing that they want to live near where they like to eat, and maybe even where they work. One-term Mayor Dave Armstrong tried to make downtown residential development a focus of his administration in the early 2000s. It's taken some time, but the older neighborhoods east of downtown and the even-older ones just south of it have been booming since I moved here, while the wind has gone out of the far-suburban areas, with a few exceptions.

4.       The downtown arena. That's a whole other can of worms that was definitely over-sold economically. It exists, however, and has definitely provided some support to the area.

As an older Gen-X’er, my first impressions of a lot of cities were pretty grim. It's nice to see some momentum going the other way.

South Bend skyline, from across the river (Wikimedia Commons)

Procedural note: In quoting readers' views about cities I haven't yet reported on myself, I realize that I'm inviting the inevitable back-and-forth: "City X is terrible." "No City X is great!" For an example, see the earlier clash-of-the-titans between Tampa and Asheville (here and here). Still, I find these exchanges interesting rather than otherwise, and I've been to Louisville often enough and recently enough to recognize what this reader says. And we plan to return.

Now, one more from a Fresnan, about the plus and minus for that city.

My spouse and I have lived in Fresno for eight years. I've read each of your installment with great interest, particularly the essays on downtown and the Tower District [JF: Fresno's nascent bohemian district], where we bought a charming 1920s bungalow back in 2007.

The real estate market was still near its height, but compared to other places we've lived, we got a deal. I've always said that in any other city, the Tower District is the kind of neighborhood we wouldn't be able afford on our salaries. Its abundance of historic homes and walkability would simply put it out of our reach.

The Tower Theater, center of the Tower District in Fresno (James Fallows)

Alas, while the Tower is a desirable location for some, many Fresnans think living down here is a fate worse than death. (Of course, I think living in a McMansion around the corner from a Walgreen's and an Outback Steakhouse is a fate worse than death, so it goes both ways.)

I hope that your optimism about Fresno is warranted. And I do detect the proverbial 'buzz' you picked up on during your stay. Still, the Tower has not improved markedly since we arrived, and while I like to believe that the recession was the major culprit, I'm increasingly inclined to think the creative class (or whatever term you prefer) is just not big enough here, and that it may not be for a while. Perhaps high speed rail will help, should that actually come to pass.


* To read about and sign-up for our new American Futures email newsletter, see here. Or just go straight to the sign-up here. And another procedural note: Back in the golden age of blogging, maybe three or four years ago, people on this site could post more frequently, briefly, and casually. The guiding idea in those days was "thinking in public" and supporting an ongoing conversation, rather than producing self-contained posts each of which dreamed of "crushing the Internet" through social-media sharing. As a tribute to those hallowed traditions of America's past, I'll plan to return for a while to the practice of shorter, breezier, and evolving-conversation postings. Perhaps even about boiled frogs and beer.