I was invited to speak Wednesday evening at a meeting of the San Joaquin Valley chapter of the American Council of Engineering Companies. Chapter President Lydia Zabrycki extended the invitation. I was happy to accept. The meeting was held at the San Joaquin Country Club in Northwest Fresno.
My charge: Review some of what I’ve seen over the years as a journalist; predict what might be coming to Fresno and the region in the near future; answer any questions.
It was a most enjoyable evening. The California branch of ACEC has a mission statement: “Professional engineers and surveyors dedicated to building a better California.” The engineering professionals in attendance clearly have the public’s best interests at heart.
The Q & A period was more like a seminar on local public policy. Thank you, Lydia and ACEC members, for an amazing hour of give-and-take.
Below are my prepared remarks. Lydia thought I was much too pessimistic in my prediction for Veterans Boulevard. Some audience members groaned about my prediction for Jeff Tedford. I didn’t mention California’s Bullet Train. Some audience members did. I wondered if the Bullet Train would be America’s first 13-figure ($1 trillion — $1,000,000,000,000) capital project. One audience member said: “No – because it will never get built.”
Engineers know their stuff.
MY REMARKS: Thank you for the opportunity to speak tonight. My name is George Hostetter. I am a reporter and a regular contributor to CVObserver.com. That means everything going forward is on the record.
I spent my working career in the newspaper trade. I rarely interviewed engineers. But I got a good piece of writing advice from a childhood friend who graduated from Cal with an engineering degree. If what you write isn’t meeting your vision, get a bigger hammer.
My friend was joking – I think. But I took his point to be: Keep trying. I’ve been asked tonight to review some of the things I’ve seen as a reporter in the Valley. If I start to bore you, please hand me a bigger hammer.
I graduated from Fresno State in 1979 with a journalism degree. You may recall what Joe Namath supposedly said of journalism students. In the mid-1960s, when Joe was playing football at the University of Alabama, a cheeky reporter asked him: “Hey, Joe, what’s your major? Basket weaving?” “No,” Namath is alleged to have replied. “Journalism. It’s easier.”
I can see Joe’s point. But journalism, the craft of viewing life’s complexities and telling others in a timely, accurate and compelling fashion what they weren’t able to view for themselves can be challenging.
In the spring of 1979, I served on the staff of a now defunct Fresno State weekly paper called “Insight.” Professor Roger Tatarian was the advisor.
I don’t know if any of you had the honor of meeting Roger Tatarian. He graduated from Fresno State College and had an illustrious career with United Press International. He was UPI’s editor-in-chief before joining Fresno State’s Journalism Department.
Roger Tatarian was a remarkable teacher. He also could call a young know-it-all’s bluff.
We were preparing “Insight’s” pages for the printer one night. As I recall, several editors, myself included, got to talking about what able journalists we already were. Mr. Tatarian listened. He finally said, “Go to your typewriters.” (We used manual typewriters at the time.) “You have five minutes. Give me 200 words on the Leaning Tower of Pisa falling over.”
“What?” we said. “You’re wasting precious time,” Mr. Tatarian replied.
I’ve thought often about what he was trying to teach us that night. A dose of humility, to be sure. I suggest that his key points dovetail nicely with my duty to you.
The first point, of course, is change. Sometimes it’s slow. Sometimes it’s sudden. Sometimes it’s just over the horizon. The journalist’s job is to report it all.
I’ll give you three changes in the Fresno landscape that fascinate me.
There is the transformation of Uptown Fresno.
Uptown Fresno is the neighborhood to the north of what used to be Fulton Mall. These days it’s called the Cultural Arts District or the Mural District.
I learned to call it Uptown in the mid-90s when I was a business reporter at The Bee. City officials and some local business leaders at the time created a committee charged with re-energizing the neighborhood on the northern edge of traditional Downtown – hence the name Uptown.
The area had some valuable assets, such as the Fresno Metropolitan Museum. But Uptown was rundown. The thinking was Downtown would never flourish if Uptown didn’t find a new lease on metropolitan life.
As I recall, Ed Kashian, Jim Patterson and Dan Ronquillo were among those on the Uptown Committee. At least I remember those three being part of the group that traveled one day to Pasadena some 20 years ago to learn from that city’s top brass how they created the success story called Old Pasadena. I drove down to report on events. The key takeaway was that neighborhood rebirth takes lots of money. What doesn’t?
Well, Uptown today is a totally different place than it was in 1998. The Met is gone, but all around it is positive change. Residential projects have been built on Broadway, Fulton and L Street. Many of these projects include retail space. There’s a new art gallery. There’s a new pocket park. The Assemi family and the now-defunct Fresno Redevelopment Agency get much of the credit. So, too, does City Hall.
The backstory is too rich to describe tonight. I simply note that when I was at The Bee and walking to and from City Hall, I sometimes stopped atop the Tuolumne Street Bridge and gazed at the steady rebirth coming to Uptown. I walk those streets now that I’m semi- retired. I continue to marvel at what Fresno did to Uptown.
A second change that took me in unexpected directions is Fresno’s demographics.
I was born and raised in Lindsay, in Tulare County. I have three older cousins who lived in Sunnyside and attended Roosevelt High School. They are Geoff, Mike and Steve Thomas. Some of you may have known them back in the day.
When it came time for college, Geoff went off to Harvard. Mike to Princeton. Steve to Brown. Watching all this from Lindsay, I used to think that just about everyone in Fresno was like Geoff, Mike and Steve. I viewed Fresno as one vast land of dynamic activity. Excitement and opportunity and public engagement were everywhere in Fresno because that’s what I found at the Thomas Household on East Liberty. I assumed there was an accepted hierarchy to community life. I assumed there was broad agreement as to community values. While I wasn’t a direct part of the community that was 1950s and 1960s Fresno, I was, through family, an admiring supplement to it. And it all would last forever.
Of course, it didn’t. For starters, my assumptions were wrong. Not about my cousins. But I was ignorant of the ways of the world. The America of any era never stands still. The population of Fresno in last third of the 20th century and the early 21st century exploded. Political decisions and world events led to another round of heavy immigration. Today, Fresno is a city where power and influence reside with a Garcia or a Vang as much as a Thomas – perhaps more so.
This transformation is far from complete because it can never end. It has been far from easy. Conflict was, and is, the name of the game. Sometimes that conflict is organized and legal, part of the democratic process. Sometimes not.
I admit that I sometimes despaired about the direction of life in Fresno. I’ve been mugged twice on Fresno’s streets.
But I’ve come full circle in a way. I’m no longer as sentimental about Fresno as I was 50 or 60 years ago and seeing things as a kid in Lindsay. Fresno continues to have serious challenges when it comes to the assimilation of all of its people into a broad community fabric of ordered liberty.
At the same time, I’ve come to believe that the vast majority of Fresnans, regardless of background, see American life as my cousins did. They seize the day, and do so in ways that do our Nation’s founders proud. For that, Fresno’s major institutions – it’s municipal and county governments, its nonprofits, its places of worship, to name just a few – deserve much of the credit. Just as they did back in the 1950s and 1960s.
The third change in Fresno that I continue to find fascinating is water. To make a long story short, I’m talking about the Recharge Fresno infrastructure project started by Mayor Ashley Swearengin and the City Council and continued to this day by Mayor Lee Brand.
Recharge Fresno includes the new Southeast Surface Water Treatment Facility, new pipe systems bringing water to treatment plants from the San Joaquin and Kings rivers, and new distribution pipes throughout the city. Then there is the “purple pipe” system, which someday should deliver as much as 25,000 acre feet of reclaimed water to customers for things like landscape irrigation.
Recharge Fresno and its backstory of water in the Great Central Valley is an epic tale. I once suggested to then-Public Utilities Director Tommy Esqueda, now a Fresno State vice president for water policy, that someone should write a book about this $500 million project and its long-range impact on our region.
But the bottom line, in my opinion, is this: Recharge Fresno will solidify Fresno’s status as the San Joaquin Valley’s principle city and will help catapult Fresno into the first rank of innovative mid-sized American cities. And it is in mid-sized cities, with populations in the 250,000 to 750,000 range, where, I’ve been told, America’s capacity for nimble and positive change in municipal affairs in the coming decades is most likely to occur.
Now, per my instructions for tonight, I give you a half dozen quick predictions of future issues in Fresno and the region that will challenge journalists:
- The Fresno City Council will try rent control. City Hall, as it should, has moved aggressively to enforce building codes in private residential rental housing. The next logical step for increasingly powerful progressives is using government’s coercive policing powers to dictate rents.
- Recreational marijuana will come to Fresno with the Federal government’s blessing. I’m talking about retail marijuana, institutionalized and regulated. It will be a social disaster – but only a temporary one, I hope.
- Urban growth in Southeast Fresno and Sanger will collide. Not to the degree of Northeast Fresno and Clovis, but nearly as intense. Growth in West Fresno and Kerman won’t collide.
- Fresno will try on “Sanctuary City” status to see if it fits. But the issue will fade nationally before Fresno must come to grips with the designation. That’s because grassroots proponents of Sanctuary Cities will realize that the concept is really an unequal two-way street that leads to new versions of American Manifest Destiny. No one needs a rogue nation with the most powerful military and most potent economy in the world holding no respect for the sanctity of sovereign borders.
- The large-scale development of the Southeast Growth Area will take off. The development of the nearby Reverse Triangle, or Prosperity Triangle as it’s sometimes called, will continue to speed along. The people-moving infrastructure out there will see heavy investment. On the other side of town, Veterans Boulevard will remain largely on the drawing boards. That means WEGA – the West Growth Area – will take a backseat to SEGA.
- If Jeff Tedford leads the Bulldogs to at least 10 victories in the 2019 season, he’ll depart for greener pastures. He’ll be 58 at the end of the 2019 season. He’ll see no reason to spend his last 10 years as a collegiate head coach simply padding his career record with ho-hum victories over San Jose State, UNLV and New Mexico.
I close with a return to Mr. Tatarian’s Leaning Tower of Pisa challenge.
Yes, the news of human events is always changing and often in surprising ways. So, too, Mr. Tatarian knew, is the delivery of news.
Mr. Tatarian was a newspaper man. He was born in 1917, when newspapers ruled the media world. He grew up to see radio, then television, shake the newspaper industry to its core. He saw manual typewriters give way to computers.
Today, the old newspaper industry is all but dead. Old fashioned newspapers are still available, but every company with a print edition and no desire to commit suicide has hitched its wagon to the digital world. That’s the future.
That future is too uncertain for me to predict. I just know I am a part of it. I retired from The Bee in October 2015 as part of a corporate downsizing. A week later, I was writing as a free-lancer for CVObserver.com, founded by a young law school student, Alex Tavlian. Some months ago, Guillermo Moreno, a young law school graduate, took over.
Under Guillermo’s direction, CVO is focused even more than before on video. The consumer demands it. On top of that, Guillermo is chief operating officer of a local Talk Radio station, KGED 1680. The online news site and the radio station complement each other.
This synergy is not new to the media world. What is new, I propose, is the relative ease of entrance of hard working, risk-taking, market disrupting entrepreneurs like Guillermo in potentially immense numbers. The Fresno Bee will endure. It won’t suffer the fate of the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Mr. Tatarian’s hypothetical exercise. But The Bee will never again dominate the local news market as it once did. The competition will only grow.
And if the number of media outlets figures only to grow and evolve at dizzying speed, what does that mean about the training of new generations of journalists?
Well, there won’t be any training, at least not to any centralized standards. And perhaps there shouldn’t be. That’s not the way free speech works.
Yet, I hope tomorrow’s journalists, regardless of their platforms, realize that a broad education in Western Civilization is helpful to their craft. I leave you with this example.
For two years after retiring from The Bee, I was advisor to The Collegian, Fresno State’s student-run newspaper/online outlet. I also taught one class of aspiring reporters.
In a couple of those classes, I tried the Roger Tatarian test. It never worked as I had hoped. Some of the students had never heard of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.