When Fresno’s original settlers located along a new railroad line in the 1860s, many of them were Chinese, expert brick makers who began building a city. Soon, however, they were relocated to the west side of the tracks.
Racially segregated residential enclaves were common in California in the 19th century. Chinatown was established here around 1872. Most of the cultural and ethnic communities in Fresno got their start here.
West of the tracks became a lively, thriving and inclusive area that offered goods, services and entertainment day and night. Outcast immigrants from around the world lived in Chinatown. They were entrepreneurs who ran shops, hotels, theaters, restaurants, and service businesses. They were farmers of figs, grapes, cotton and wheat. From the late 1800s to the mid 1950s, Chinatown was a vibrant live-work play environment.
On the other side of the tracks, life was different. It was a place with a firm hierarchy of political and social power. A select group of white men controlled City Hall, business and the police. The wives of these
men controlled home and church. But these men were familiar with the Chinatown tunnels, an underground maze built to avoid the searing heat, but also to house brothels, opium dens and gambling parlors.
With urban renewal in the 1960s, Chinatown lost both businesses and residents. Historic buildings were demolished. Buildings became vacant. Vagrants began to congregate. Other attempts for improvement have been haphazard and poorly funded. Chinatown has suffered decades of neglect.
And now there’s high speed rail (HSR) being built, and Transformative Climate Change (TCC) monies providing almost $30 million of investment in Chinatown in the next three years. While some think of HSR as yet another nail in the coffin of Chinatown, property and business owners see it as an opportunity to plan for an influx of people in the neighborhood - people of the region here to hop trains for the rest of the state, and people coming here by train.
But there’s a new challenge. HSR construction has closed the three primary streets into Chinatown. Property and business owners have formed the Chinatown Fresno Foundation, and will soon form the Chinatown Fresno Partnershiare gathering together to form a business association to combat the negative impact of lost customers and decreased sales. They are gathering partners and leading the way to improve the attraction, experience and economic success of Chinatown.