Saturday , May 25 2024

A Tale of Two Cities: Part Two

Between school, bills, and five kids, there’s not much room in the budget for single mother Brandi Blanco.

"You know one kid needs shoes; you don’t have it. It’s whether or not you buy toilet paper or shoes. It’s a toss up," she says. 

Every city has poverty, but Fresno has it worse than most. And by worse than most I mean that in 2012, it was worse than every other metropolitan area in America but one. About one out of every four people in Fresno are considered poor. According to the US government, it’s a family of four making less than $23,850. That’s not a lot of money.

Fresno State’s Dr. Matthew Jendian says the poverty is even bigger than the statistics show.

"When we say 25% of Fresnans are living in poverty– how many are living at or just above the poverty line? It’s a far bigger number," Jendian says, "and that makes it a much bigger issue."

Dr. Jendian has studied the root causes of Fresno’s poverty since the mid-90’s. There are many causes. Cheap farm labor is huge. But Jendian points at another factor. He says for decades, the city and developers devoted their attention and money to stretching the boundaries of Fresno.

"The city of Fresno believed at the time that growth was good and that growth outward would be good for everyone," he says.

But Jendian says that growth led to a massive socio-economic divide. And as the money and opportunities moved north, the older parts of town were essentially abandoned.

"In sociology we use the term ‘social triage’ to refer to the abandonment of the socially and economically weakest sectors of society," Jendian says.

Rici Skei knows all about this. She grew up in southwest Fresno, when she says crack cocaine was tearing her neighborhood apart.

"It was horrible," Skei says. "Daily despair and devastation. Sirens. Gang violence. "

Now, Skei and her husband Phil live in downtown Fresno’s Lowell community, where they are doing what they can to make a difference. Phil is the pastor of onramps covenant church. He and Rici moved downtown in 2006, where they are raising their two kids. He says Lowell has its problems, but it’s made huge progress.

"Really you have a community that’s intervening," Phil says. "And it’s not from the outside; it’s from the inside. We have wonderful partners throughout the city, but it’s this community that’s carrying the vision forward."

Fresno leaders have acknowledged the city’s past mistakes, and are now throwing money at the problem. The Lowell Community Development Corporation’s Esther Delahay says hundreds of thousands of dollars are now being pumped into the neighborhood– community development block grants… HUD grants… funding from the neighborhood stabilization program.

In fact, Delahay and her husband live in a home that was bought by the city as a foreclosure and then remodeled. And now, a new 2035 general plan will require roughly half of future development to be focused on existing neighborhoods. Dr. Jendian supports the idea, calling 50/50 development a radical shift in policy.

"If you want to compare that to prior plans that got us into the state that we’re in… you’re looking at 95/5," Jendian says. "So to move to roughly half is– I would use the word revolutionary phenomenon."

Still, the city of Fresno has taken on revitalization before. It’s taken on poverty, and failed.

"The question is, the plan isn’t going to implement itself," says Jendian. "So is it going to be implemented? And is it too little too late?"

In Lowell, the positive changes are coming… slowly. New properties sit next door to condemned buildings, but to parents like Blanco, the changes are clear to see.

"The streets are cleaner," she says. "There aren’t as many drug deals– not that there are not, because of our neighborhood. But it’s nothing like it used to be."

Obviously, there’s a ways to go, but a little optimism never hurt.

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