Sculptures and PeopleNovember 10, 2016
Outside a Payless ShoeSource in the Fulton Mall, a six-block pedestrian mall built in 1964 in downtown Fresno, there sat, until a redevelopment plan went into action this past spring, a much-rubbed, sometimes tagged casting of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s La Grande Laveuse (The Washerwoman) (1917). Sited down a side street leading to an underground parking garage and flanked by hedges holding nesting sparrows, it was easy to miss. Across from the sculpture were two benches toward which the sculpture mutely gestured—sometimes empty, sometimes occupied by sleepers, most often by people sitting, smoking, pausing, and looking. The whole arrangement was theatrically incongruent, and emblematic of a place that brought a certain wildness and elegance to downtown.
The new plan for the Fulton Mall is part of a larger effort to redevelop the downtown area, making it attractive to young professionals. It includes a flurry of new loft and townhouse building, in addition to preparations for the construction of the high-speed rail line; when complete, the pedestrian mall will be reopened to car traffic.
The Fulton Mall was commissioned as part of a master plan to revitalize a downtown that was increasingly unable to hold the center in the face of sprawling growth to the north. Victor Gruen, hired by the city to develop the master plan, envisioned a car-free downtown and commissioned landscape architect Garrett Eckbo to design it. Paule Anglim, the San Francisco gallerist and expert in postwar art, pulled together a collection of twenty-two works that populated the mall. Along with the Renoir, these include a 60-foot, wooden clock tower by Jan de Swart, the Dutch-born, LA–based sculptor; two works by Claire Falkenstein, known for her monumental scrap-metal public sculptures; a large bronze and aluminum work by Peter Voulkos; and a number of works by Fresno–based organic-modernist sculptor Stan Bitters, whose work ranges from architecturally scaled reliefs and slabs for hotels and businesses to smaller sculptures and fountains.1 The sculptures are presently undergoing restoration and will be reinstalled upon completion of the project, although not all will return to their original positions.
Eckbo’s design constituted a classical take on civic space at midcentury, flush with Modernist ideas of rationality and a “scientific approach.” But, believing in “one world,” his philosophy integrated a specificity in relation to place. He tried to create spaces “in full harmony with the subtle and complex forces of the natural landscape from which [man] has come, and of which he is an integral part.”2 He understood that the mall must acknowledge and temper the landscape of the hot, arid Central Valley and the particular stresses of living there, as well as incorporate the beauty of the farmland just outside the ever-pushing city limits, and the presence of the mountains just beyond that. In this urban sculpture garden, forms inspired by the winding San Joaquin river, irrigated refuges, patterns of soil, tread, and dust all found their way in via the rendering of surface textures, meandering pathways, water features, and colors. His design made the most of the valley’s strange light, too: the clarity that comes from the sun shining so fiercely through the air, bouncing off of office windows and filtered through shade trees, giving the space a transporting, subterranean quality—a rather rowdy cathedral.
Around the sculptures and over the fifty years since the mall was built, the city changed: grew younger, flipped its demographics, and continued to build sprawl.3 The consequences of this building and lack of density weigh particularly heavy on the public life of Fresno, complicating the idea of an easily enacted citizenship. It’s a city usually driven, not walked, both encircled by walls and inscribed by a desire for escape. In a city of stark inequality and high poverty, security is a major preoccupation. Makeshift, patched, or gated barriers shield private homes from dust, heat, the thunderous eight-lane city streets, and the city’s much-maligned transient population.4 Combining security and fantasy, new housing developments named “Copper River Ranch” or “Tuscan Estates” continue to pop up in the northern part of the city as developers find new ways to say “McMansion.” In Fresno, you are always lurching from desperate to opulent; perhaps a desire to overcome that sense of estrangement is why people lingered so long and aimlessly in the Fulton Mall, where the facades had some substance.
Karen Tongson, focusing on the demographic shifts taking place in the suburbs of the Inland Empire in Southern California, writes that the new inhabitants must “make do with a suburban world designed to keep them at bay or to expel them from its boundaries. They are the relocated: the queers, immigrants, and people of color who know that inhabiting the suburbs promises privilege but experience it otherwise.”5 The highways leading from the Bay Area to the places that workers can now afford to live—Hollister, Los Banos, Merced, Fresno—are also lined with pop-up suburbs, where daily existence is increasingly mobile and atomized, small bodies walking along the hard shoulder. The violence of Tongson’s word “relocated” is doubled, experienced as a profound tearing (from roots, in the social fabric), but in language seeming to flatly self-enunciate in the tone of the human-resource department, severing the pain of white-collar workers from themselves. How does citizenship work in these thirsty suburbs-without-cities, where public spaces are few and far between? How to contend with this lack of contact? Can you afford to be a citizen? Or to put it another way, can you afford to live in a place in which your citizenship—including simple acts such as walking to a neighborhood store or using a public pool, as well as more visible forms of enactment such as protest—can easily be asserted? And, given the increasing pressure on the housing market in places where this life density is still possible, for how much longer?
The Fulton Mall, as it was before redevelopment started, had failed in the measures by which public spaces and downtowns are increasingly judged. It was deemed unsafe, inconvenient, and, most of all, unproductive, with the mainly Latinx-owned and frequented stores making up only 50 percent occupancy and described as “a drain on the city.”6 Defending the intangible qualities of space is hard by these measures. Capital doesn’t see all that. It is not surprising that the anarchic incongruity at the heart of the city of Fresno and the “wild things growing where they shouldn’t” within Eckbo’s generous plan should also be relocated.7 Advocates of leaving the mall intact and restored argued that the pre-mall Fulton Street, open to car traffic, was already failing, but the powerful narrative of failure and the positioning of the plan as a “smart business decision”8 cleared the way for its redevelopment. In online literature about the plan, the use of signifiers such as “low income” (the current users of the mall), “new audiences” and “millennials” (whom they hope to attract), and “creatives” (a nebulous catch-all for anyone working in the culture and technology sectors) reveals a familiar rationale: the instrumentalization of artists and young people in gentrification. Mayor Ashley Swearengin stated, “We can envision cafes, entertainment venues, lofts, and locally owned businesses filling up scores of once-empty spaces.”9 This formulation of emptiness has been a precursor to the egregious resettling of many places that are anything but—Detroit the obvious example.
I visited the Fulton Mall early last year, right before the redevelopment plan was due to start, and at the same time as a last-ditch litigation attempt to halt it, led by the artist Bitters, was going through the courts. I was struck by the theatricality of the space, and its non-emptiness. The mall had the feeling of a permanent film set made for the performance of civic life—one steeped in magical realism. “I woke up feelin’ like, I was on the moon”: This film came with a soundtrack, the strains of Chedda Da Connect coming from a boom box strapped on the back of a bicycle slowly weaving through groups of people walking. The Payless Renoir and retro-futurist forms like George Tsutakawa’s Aquatic Ovoid (1962), crouching down a side alley next to a store selling quinceañera dresses, added to the effect. The mall was full of people: Kids clambered over Bitters’ no-longer-working water features, young families shopped, skaters skated, men with dogs on ropes bummed cigarettes, old men in Stetsons smoked cigarillos in the shade.
In his 1993 film Claiming Open Spaces, filmed in Columbus, Detroit, and other cities, Austin Allen argues that African Americans and other communities of color are alienated by urban planning that fails to account for how they use public spaces. The film opens with an account of how Franklin Park, in Columbus, went from being a neighborhood park that was disregarded by the city but beloved by the local African American community to being seen as an asset ripe for redevelopment as the site of the 1992 AmeriFlora horticultural festival. During this redevelopment, the local community was denied access. The ways in which they used the park—as a gathering place for families and groups of teenagers, a place to show off lowrider cars, a place to be, and be seen—were delegitimized and criminalized as loitering or suspicious behavior; that history was not represented in promotional spots about the city.10
There’s a moment in the film when a teenage girl, reflecting on why she values the park, explains that it is somewhere she and her friends can hang out without being watched or made to feel unwelcome, as she fears she would at the shopping mall: ”You know you don’t need to be there unless you have money.”11 This sense of unease in anticipation of trouble is not accidental. Embedded within public architecture are messages about who is welcome and what kinds of activities are acceptable. Before its redevelopment, the Fulton Mall had become one of the few public spaces in Fresno where people could go and simply be, without needing their presence legitimized by shopping, eating at a restaurant, or driving a car.
In the computerized renderings of the redeveloped mall, figures move purposefully through a generic urban environment complete with bicycle racks, trees, and security cameras.12 The architectural theorist Douglas Spencer likens this smooth new way of making, mediating, and performing space as the “spatial complement of contemporary processes of neoliberalism,” likening it to “scenography.”13 I would add that the way these spaces look comes in part from the way landscape is experienced by driving, re-creating in concrete the motion-blurred landscape perceived by the driver. In 2013, landscape theorist Jonny Aspen described this “staged urbanism in which there is no room for irregularity and the unexpected” as “zombie urbanism,” outlining a set of physical characteristics increasingly seen in the “global creative city” and zoning in on how they reproduce a watered-down version of civic life in which spectatorship replaces participation.14
The dense sculptures of Stan Bitters most embody the atmosphere of friendly unruliness in the Fulton Mall. Their organic knobbly-ness sets them apart from the usual mannered quality of public art. Dancing Waters depicts proto-human bodies spinning around in a dance. Another work, originally a water fountain but since dried up, sits adjacent to a CVS pharmacy at the entrance to the mall on Tuolomne Street; it consists of a gaggle of alien-like sculptures, stubby ceramic forms with carved details and blobs approximating features in the rough area of a face. Poised like a goofy family grouping, it’s an echo of what Tongson identifies as the “bizarro Goth doubles” of the White nuclear family, represented by the Addams Family on television.15 Like those then-subversive images beamed into isolated suburban bedrooms from the 1960s onwards, these rough, weathered representations of difference suggest an openness, reflecting the weirdness of the city while welcoming all people into the space. I can’t imagine how the sculptures of Bitters and the people of the mall will fit into the new Fulton streetscape.