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Wednesday March 11, 1998

You can't run a city hall of the future
without confronting the ghosts of its past.

Howard Hobbs, Daily Republican Contributing Editor

FRESNO, CA - If you become interested in urban redevelopment, the place to be, is Fresno, or even Berlin, Germany. That's where local government redevelopment is a growth industry people can't seem to de-fuse.

To walk through the heart of Fresno's once-and-future All-American City is to come upon devastation and chaos played out on an enormous and historically compelling public stage.

The man behind the curtain had extensive influence in both Fresno and in Berlin. He was former Fresno State professor Karl Falk. He began compiling his own ideas of urban redevelopment while Falk, of German-American citizenship, was working for Adolph Hitler in the Berlin Reichsministry of Propaganda and Re-Education between

Falk's imagination was given a free-hand in the late 1950's when he manipulated an appointment for himself to head a Fresno City & County planning board which was empowered by eminent-domain authority. Falk had a vision of knocking-down Fresno's traditional commercial downtown area and redeveloping it through the aegis of his First Federal Savings & Loan Association. He would have a stake in it. He wore several hats in the process, including that of financier who obtained federal financing of the Fresno redevelopment and housing relocations projects.

What he saw in his mind was Fulton and Mariposa streets removed and the space where the streets were as a parkland with rolling hillocks, small streamlets, heroic stone sculpture, and a public address system over which public announcements and martial music could be played to public crowds. All this would extend southerly for a half-mile from the front of Karl Falk's First Federal Savings and Loan at Fulton & Tuolumne streets.

Soon, Fulton & Mariposa streets, the vibrant nerve-center of Fresno commerce since 1880, was plowed into piles of irreducible rubble. After that, every viable business fled from downtown Fresno to suburban malls. The Fulton-Mall was allowed to sink slowly into decay, abandoned at night except for the homeless sleeping in its alleyways amid the ruined splendor of mall sculpture spray-painted with the grafitto suckit.

In the daylight, today, Fresno's night people flee the onslaught of thousands of government employees who rush into reconverted office spaces for government expansion. Government workers ultimately crowd the void of what was once a busy commercial zone buildings. Commercial warehouses have converted into a hundred square miles of storage for active Fresno County welfare cases.

In its best and brightest days, Fresno's economic power was recognized as emanative from private industry and not from government initiatives. Faith in shrewd private sector business was so strong then, that a steel archway was placed over downtown's Van Ness Avenue on which it proclaimed Fresno "The Best Little City in the U.S.A."

That was understood as an unchallenged claim of economic pre-eminence, not the size or purchasing power of local government. In those days, it was considered an unpardonable sin to even bring-up the idea of a joint business venture with Fresno City Hall. A baseball stadium, even then, was not the appropriate purpose of local government public bonding power.

In a September 1963 Savings & Loan News, Falk's by-line credits him as a housing-urban renewal expert, chairman of the Fresno City Housing Authority, chairman of California Governor's Advisory Commission on Housing Problems, and immediate past president of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials. Falk made a startling admission in the story. He wrote '...Savings and loan associations have a large stake in revitalizing their communities...for...broadening investment opportunity...the economic functions of the central city are changing rapidly...cultural activities, recreation and amusement...show a desire to remain in the central city when the environment is congenial.'

The ghostly arch still stands at Van Ness and Railroad Avenues in muted silence awaiting the restoration of its abandoned pledge.

The only other city like this is, ironically, Berlin, Germany. And like Berlin, today, Fresno is still being subjected to a City Hall building-boom and still so intense and feverish that you can walk for blocks without getting out of site of government construction projects.

Walking in downtown Fresno after closing-time for government offices is an unsettling experience not easily forgotten. Its not unlike visiting a deserted cemetery in the middle of the night. The silence is deafening. Emptiness is overwhelming. The experience of such a void in the center of Fresno is a ghostly reminder of what Brian Ladd writes about in his new book, The Ghosts of Berlin. Before proceeding with your after-hours walk through downtown Fresno, you are well advised to read it, carefully.

Ladd writes the story of Berlin's decline and incipient post-war redevelopment that pretentiously rises out the ashes of previous Nazi and Soviet central planning debacles.

Like Fresno's impossible dream, downtown Berlin, once a nerve center of private capital and the crossroad of thriving private sector businesses, is now just a huge public-works project full of bulldozers, parking lots, and new urban blight of empty-headed government interference in private sector economic dynamics.

Fresno's downtown will make a new life for itself not from metropolitan cafes, retail stores, repair shops, offices, banks, savings and loans, medical services, major department stores, markets, hotels, theaters, open-air farmer's markets, it once enjoyed of the pre-redevelopment years.

Fresno redevelopers know better. Downtown has a non-industrial model that has pocket change flowing from government workers in federal courthouses, state courthouses, prisons, jails, city and county offices and the corporate offices of an electricity provider and into City tills.

In short, City hall planners ultimately see downtown ownership of production and distribution of goods and services in the hands of local government. A form of state ownership and control not unlike the business model of Hitler's Third Reich.

The Fresno and Berlin economies are not completely the creatures of market forces and individual initiative because of market interference in the private sector continuously set in motion and reinforced by City Hall using tax resources as an investment, metaphor. The similarities to 1930's Nazi Economics are startling and undeniable.

Fresno City Hall isn't just interesting from an architectural or urban planning model. Its City Council references to investment of public resources raises fundamental issues about who, at City Hall, will take responsibility to curb urban renewal initiatives, e.g. business parks, baseball stadiums.

In designing a new Fresno community for the millennium, which remnants of Fresno inglorious past does one keep, and which are best thrown away? And what does one do about a past that is, to a great extent, distasteful rather than inspiring?

The areas that will make up the new downtown Fresno of the 21st Century are surprisingly dense with powerful reminders of the muddle of the 20th Century.

In Berlin, for example, along the street called Wilhelmstrasse, just a few steps from the chaos of Potsdamer Platz, there is a grassy mound surrounded by a parking lot. Underneath it are the remains of the bunker where Adolf Hitler spent the last days of World War II, and where he committed suicide in April of 1945. Berliners argue about what to do with Potsdamer Platz, and the restoration of buildings.

Fresnans can quarrel over what the history of Fresno means to its future. But, unless Fresno City Hall has the courage and determination to face-down its ghosts of the past, whatever they want to build, whatever they want to tear down, whatever they want to call any public space, Fresno will find history slapping them in the face.

In Fresno and in Berlin you just cannot argue about a redevelopment project without someone bringing up the name of Adolf Hitler or that of Hitler's propagandist, Karl Falk.

Copyright 1998 HTML Graphics By The Fresno Daily Republican Newspaper. All rights reserved


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