Chinatown is one of Fresno’s oldest neighborhoods. From the city’s earliest days as a stop on the Central Pacific Railroad, to the 21st century, Chinatown has been a diverse community made up of immigrants who, in many cases, weren’t welcomed in other parts of Fresno. Locked in by railroad tracks on the east and Highway 99 to the west, the neighborhood is also the subject of renewed attention this year. Two of the state’s highest profile projects, high-speed rail and cap-and-trade, call it ground zero. We spoke to business owners old and new to hear what they have to say about all the activity.
Ofelia Hemme owns a restaurant and barber shop on Kern Street, in the heart of Chinatown. She has been working in the neighborhood for over 40 years.
Three years ago, she opened her restaurant, Ofelia’s Cocina. They serve Mexican food, their most popular item being their wet burritos.
Ofelia describes the entree as “an asada burrito with green sauce and cheese, melted cheese on top.”
Next door is Ofelia’s and Sons Barber Shop, which she opened 25 years ago. And before that, Ofelia worked at a number of Chinatown establishments: a bakery, a meat market, a tortilla shop.
“For 20 years, I’ve been around here, before doing business,” says Ofelia. “I always like this area.”
Ofelia has seen Chinatown change. She says the area struggles with a large homeless population and a bad reputation that Ofelia says isn’t accurate.
“I just tell people, don’t be afraid to come do business here, it’s not that bad,” says Ofelia. “If you hear bad things, forget about the bad things. Come and experience it yourself and you will like it.”
Now, the area is facing a different kind of change. Two state projects are affecting Chinatown: high-speed rail and cap-and-trade money. These projects are creating new opportunities, but also mean a new set of challenges.
“We see a lot of changes, and it hasn’t been that good, but like I said, we’ve been faithful, we were here and whatever happens we’ll still be here.”
One of those challenges is access. From outside Ofelia’s restaurant, a section of Kern Street is closed, blocking access from Downtown Fresno. This new closure is to accommodate high-speed rail construction.
Ofelia, like other Chinatown business owners, hopes that these projects play a role in revitalizing the area. But it will take years before they are complete.
Construction of high-speed rail is taking place along the existing Union Pacific railroad that separates downtown from Chinatown. The work has closed three streets that would connect the two neighborhoods, and two of those streets will eventually close for good.
Toni Tinoco with the California High-Speed Rail Authority says that they have been doing outreach in Chinatown for months.
“We’ve even attended some of the Chinatown community meetings that they have on their own where they’ve invited us to come speak, talk about some of these closures and understand what’s going to come for the next year and a half or two years,” Tinoco says.
The Central Valley corridor of high-speed rail is supposed to be running by 2025.
Next to Ofelia’s restaurant is China Alley. Another upcoming change is that the historic alleyway will be repaved using cap-and-trade money from the state.
The Transformative Climate Communities (TCC) program designated how the cap-and-trade money can be invested in areas of Fresno. In Chinatown, TCC money will go to improving roads and greenery in the area. Another major TCC project will be a mixed-use housing development.
The Fresno Housing Authority will use $10 million of TCC money to develop their first housing project in Chinatown.
“We started working with community members and business owners to talk about how our development matches up with the revitalization goals of Chinatown,” says Preston Prince, CEO of the Housing Authority.
The project will create 57 housing units. They are planning a four story building with three floors of apartments and townhomes along Mariposa Street.
“This is really going to be a neighborhood, a little higher density than most, but a neighborhood many people would like to live in,” Prince says.
The housing development is projected to be complete in 2020, and other TCC projects have to be completed by 2021.
Besides future improvements to Chinatown, TCC had another impact. The collaborative process of deciding how to spend the money motivated many Chinatown business owners to get involved.
“Prior to this process, there was no organization in Chinatown that was intact,” says Morgan Doizaki, a Chinatown business owner.
Doizaki runs Central Fish, a Japanese market in Chinatown that has been in his family since 1950. He and other business owners are trying to keep the momentum by establishing the Chinatown Fresno Partnership. The partnership would assist Chinatown property and business owners and help revitalize the area.
“We’re forming this organization, we do have a stronger voice,” says Doizaki. “We have plenty of people in the community moving forward to claim back what we used to have a voice on.”
It hasn’t just been longtime business owners who see Chinatown’s potential, but new ones as well. Arthur Moye is the CEO of Full Circle Brewing Co, a role he’s held for the last year. During TCC meetings, he says he had to temper his enthusiasm when working with longtime business owners.
“It was a humbling experience because I’m just optimistic by nature. So coming in cheerleading, you know they are like, ‘who are you, who’s your family, my family’s been here 100 years,’” says Moye. “I had to change the strategy as to how to speak to the community and really just listen.”
Moye hopes a partnership helps businesses stay informed and prepare for the changes to come. But even with high-speed rail and TCC projects, the area still struggles with a homelessness.
“It’s very dense and not representative of the population elsewhere in Fresno,” Moye says. “So that draws down property values and safety, and not always safety but definitely the perception of safety.”
Despite these challenges, Moye is still optimistic.
“You know there’s an urban scene that’s brewing here,” says Moye, “And it’s Downtown and Chinatown.”
In Moye’s words, maybe Chinatown is just coming full circle.