Note: This piece was researched and written between January 2015 and July 2015.
UPDATE: As of March 2016, state lawmakers will analyze a new plan proposed by the CHSRA for the first segment of the high speed rail line to go from Shafter to San Jose, CA, instead of Madera to Bakersfield. This new plan comes partially as a result of the resistance the Authority has been met with in the Central Valley.
It was January 6, a usually hot day in downtown Fresno, when the official groundbreaking event for California’s future high speed rail took place. The ceremony was an invite-only event held in a vacant dirt lot that may one day be home to the Fresno station of the nation’s first high speed train. Across the street, where the old Del Monte plant was just demolished, is the site where Fresno was founded as a railroad town. Today, in the same spot as its founding, many hope the new high speed rail will be a rebirth of the city’s, and the state’s, depressed economy: “Welcome to Fresno, the state’s and the nation’s capital for high speed rail,” announced Fresno mayor Ashley Swearengin, “This project establishes Fresno as the central cog for connecting Northern and Southern California.” Governor Jerry Brown also spoke of welding together the many sectors of California, of finally making the mythical Golden State a unified reality, as the guests—businessmen and women, local politicians, journalists, a few members of the general public, and plenty of police—sweated and smiled in the midday heat, “We are gonna go to Fresno, we are gonna go to Bakersfield, we are gonna go to Southern California and Northern California. And that pulls us together. We are one people. Whatever our differences or divisions, we do have a common destiny as Californians. And when we look back at all the great things we’ve done, we have a greatness going forward.”
That unification has a ways to go. High speed rail in California has come riddled with controversy. From anti-rail hardliners to dedicated high speed rail advocates, the project has raised a cacophony of varying opinions on just about every major issue in California: the necessity for an improved transportation infrastructure, dire environmental issues like pollution and drought, and economic struggles and poverty across the state. While the answers for how high speed rail will impact these problems differ, a single question has crossed all boundaries of opinion: Why this particular route through the Central Valley?
The California High Speed Rail Authority (HSRA), the state agency responsible for developing the new system, has an extensive website with links to studies, reports, and maps showing that the current alignment, which will extend 800 miles between the “mega-regions” of the state by its completion in 2029, is the most reasonable and profitable for all. They argue that the current route services Central Valley population centers per Proposition 1A's requirement of the Authority for it to receive federal funding. Many disagree, arguing that the train should run as close as possible to Route 99 or the I-5, with connections to Central Valley cities, rather than between the two. According to the digging of engineer Rita Wespi, co-founder of the non-profit organization CARRD (Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design), HSRA’s claim that it already studied the feasibility of an I-5 route in 1996 and determined it was not viable, is actually untrue. In an email she explained, “The HSRA once posted the 1996 report which summarized the conclusions [that] Fresno-Bakersfield along the 99 is the way to go, but they didn’t share the appendices which show the work. I had to beg for those parts of the report. It’s in those tables in the appendices that I found the consultants were told to remove the I-5 options from the comparison tables, even though they had presumably done the analysis. They essentially knew the answer, but didn’t report it. So...you could say that technically they did study I-5; they just didn’t disclose the results.”
This is significant because all subsequent Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs) are based on this incomplete report, thus rendering the current EIRs inaccurate. Wespi analyzed the 1996 High Speed Rail Corridor Evaluation & Environmental Constraints Analysis Final Report (which was available on the HSRA’s website for a period of time, but without the appendices) and its Appendices (never available on the HSRA’s website) from which she determined that “the I‐5 corridor between Tracy and Bakersfield was excluded from the HSRA’s detailed corridor evaluation studies. It appears the I‐5 corridor was actually studied at some point between May 1995 and February 1996, but was removed from the final report prior to its release” (click here to see Wespi’s full analysis). So, they nixed the I-5 and eventually the 99. Among other reasons, neither route is straight enough for the rail to run parallel to, said Frank Vacca, the HSRA’s chief program manager. Vacca is sure that in order to meet the 2 hour 40 minute non-stop running time between San Francisco and Los Angeles that Proposition 1A (passed in 2008) requires, this is the best route: “What’s the goal of this program? The goal is to tie together San Francisco and Los Angeles. So I’ve already got two points. And what’s the other goal of this program? To tie regions together. It’s taking the Central Valley, which has been isolated since California’s inception in the 1800s, and tying it to the major population centers of Los Angeles and San Francisco. So a key part of this program is changing the economy of this state and that region. So now I’m in San Francisco, Los Angeles and I wanna be in the Central Valley. Now I’ve got 3 points. You start building [the alignment] based on what the program objectives are, what the areas are where I can have the least impact and still meet my objects of being in the Central Valley and meeting the trip time requirements.”
But the fact that this route will make the trip time is disputed by some experts. Richard Tolmach, President of the non-profit California Rail Foundation, is a supporter of high speed rail in California - but not the way it’s planned thus far. Tolmach believes the HSRA’s claim of adhering to a 2 hour 40 minute time uses “dream train” assumptions: “One obvious question is why [Vacca] is refusing to disclose the inputs used in his model run that ‘validated’ the 2 hour 42 minute running time between Los Angeles and San Francisco,” Tolmach said in an email exchange with me. When I met with Vacca, he explained that there was no question that the train would make the time when traveling nonstop on the current alignment. He had HSRA Information Officer Annie Parker direct me to this memobetween himself and Authority CEO Jeff Morales as evidence. The memo indicates that a 5-car train was used in the computer program test-run. ”It IS a ‘dream train’...” Tolmach wrote in response when I sent the memo to him, “Nobody who is trying to produce a profitable high-speed train service would choose a 5-car train because it is nearly impossible to obtain a profitable load. The likely reason such a short train was used is that they can claim faster acceleration and deceleration. On the face of it, they aren’t trying to make realistic assumptions, but rather are trying to win the argument at any cost. They duck the kW rating by talking horsepower instead. The main way the requisite travel time is achieved, if their math is real, is by shortening the route with a Palmdale-San Fernando Valley tunnel...or multiple tunnel bores, to deal with the known pressure problems [of running a train through a long tunnel].” Tolmach says this new tunnel could raise the cost of the project by 50% or more. This potential plan is one that has already caused much uproar as the high speed rail begins to enter the more densely populated areas of California. In reaction to the many issues he sees with the current design, Tolmach created his own alternative routeand published it in Cal Rail News in 2011.
But it is in the Central Valley where the high speed rail has made its first marks. When the invite-only groundbreaking event occurred in Fresno midday on a Tuesday while most were at work, many uninvited protesters still arrived to make their voices heard. There were those who believe the cost of construction would leave younger generations of Californians paying off the debt created by such a large public project; there were those who chanted their support, believing in the jobs and economic benefits the train would bring to the Valley, an area that has experienced some of the worst fallout from the recession; there were those the media has labeled “NIMBYs” (Not In My BackYard), who want to keep the Valley primarily agricultural and fear that high speed rail will bring coastal California’s urban sprawl here; there were those who believe taxpayers’ money would be better spent on improving conventional rail and existing roads, but most importantly focusing on the water issues the Valley is faced with after 4 years of severe drought; there were a few claiming high speed rail was part of a socialist plot by the government. But all felt the general public should at least be invited to the groundbreaking ceremony for what is probably the largest public infrastructure project in the country, and one that has drawn comparisons to California’s most iconic state project—the Golden Gate Bridge.
“We gotta build! We built the first oil wells, planted the first wheat fields, we built the dams.” Governor Brown said with conviction, going on to call the naysayers to the project “pusillanimous,” or “weak of spirit.” At this, the invited crowd cheered with hoots and hollers, drowning out the chanting of the protesting public. But still they were there, people of all walks of life who had come to share their opinions. Naysayers or not, all came with the same understanding of what a historical moment this was for the state and the nation, each coming to claim the future of their California. Whatever the problems with the planning and studying of high speed rail feasibility, the project is going forward, and it has already had real impacts on real lives.
In The Name Of Progress
The Tachi Yokut tribe defends their sacred burial grounds
“The fact that the High Speed Rail Authority is only looking at the tribes through an archeological perspective is faulty from the beginning. They’re saying, well, you’re only significant because of the data you can provide for history. No. We’re a living breathing culture that still exists. It’s not only significant because of the past, it’s significant because of the present. And that’s a hard sell.”
- Shana Brum, cultural specialist and archaeological technician for the Tachi Yokut tribe
In 1970, the wind blew across a dirt lot beside the San Joaquin River. A borrow pit for the construction of a segment of State Highway 99 gaped open towards the sky. The past had been dug up, and the people resting there had been forced to return to the light of day. The builders of this new superhighway necessary to the growing need for fast and efficient transportation from northern to southern California had become gravediggers. This place was not just dirt to be transported for the building of the freeway, this place was a cemetery. More than 500 Yokuts, the original peoples of the Central Valley, were buried here between 1,800 and 3,000 years ago. But now their bones were gathered by archaeologists and brought to be displayed at California State University Sacramento for a fascinating exhibition, a wonderful display of California “prehistory.” It was not until 2009, just less than two decades after the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) had been enacted, that Central Valley tribes were able to recover their ancestors’ remains and rebury them.
Lalo Franco, cultural expert for the Tachi tribe, remembers well the many instances when his ancestors were dug up for “essential” construction projects: “Caltrans needs to borrow dirt from someplace to build their freeways and build their roads…so the borrow pits are a big deal to us. Out at the Navy Base [in Lemoore], as a result of a borrow pit for one of the runways there, they uncovered an Indian cemetery from a pit they dug up in Laton. All the remains were brought to the base to build up the runway. And years later there was a fuel spill from one of the jets and as the Hazmat people were digging, they discovered human remains.” History has already repeated itself with California’s newest transportation project: high speed rail. The Authority’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR) does not include borrow pits in its Area of Potential Effect (APE). Perhaps even more troubling, the Authority has already disturbed important burial sites to Central Valley tribes due to the somewhat lax requirements concerning tribal consultation.
Though hiring a tribal monitor on-site is not required by state or federal law, Sarah Allred, a senior environmental planner and designated tribal liaison for the Authority, says that HSRA and the Federal Rail Administration (FRA) have chosen to make provisions for tribal monitoring: “As we move through the cultural resource investigation, we do record searches, we consult with the Native American Heritage Commission (NAHC), and we consult with the tribes…pre-fieldwork stuff to identify potential resources or sensitive areas. I’m fairly aggressive when I’m reaching out to the tribes [because] knowing about this stuff early is important.”
However, because the tribal consultation guidelines don’t explicitly spell out how to compensate California federally recognized tribes, which are sovereign entities, payment for tribal monitoring can get a bit complicated. Typically, tribes are paid as employees of the cultural resources consultant out in the field. But this can lead to the hiring of “loose cannons,” as Lalo calls them: “They’re individual families or people that are not affiliated with a tribe but are descendents of Native people here. A lot of contractors would want to hire them because they’re gonna go out there and work for money. Versus us, we have a responsibility to the tribe, we have people we are accountable to. We’ll give the archeologists hell if we see something unethical or something out of line. They don’t want to hire people like us.”
Despite Sarah Allred’s claim of aggressively reaching out to tribes, Lalo believes the communication that has occurred so far between the Central Valley tribes and the Authority has been inadequate, taking state-tribe relations “10 steps back:” “It kinda threw us for a loop because for the last twenty years we’ve been steadily developing relationships with the county, with builders and developers, and finally figuring out how all this works. When Shana [Shana Brum, archeological technician and cultural specialist for Santa Rosa Rancheria] came on board, with her reports and her research, we’ve been able to now go to the county and tell them why we’re so passionate about being involved and what’s at stake…The tribe is not opposed to the high speed rail project as long as it does not impact and destroy any more cemeteries. We want to see a complete end to that. And in 1990, when the Repatriation Act [NAGPRA] was passed, that was a happy day for us. Because now human remains that were in museums, that were considered nothing more than research material—‘Indian bones’ is what they were called—were being recognized as remains of human beings that once lived. So for me it was very important especially because ‘Indian bones’ was what I heard all my life. If anything, we support [high speed rail], we want to be a part of the process and be able to help with the tourism and economy of the county. But not at the expense of destroying our ancestors’ resting places. [The Authority] sees us as standing in the way of progress when we are asking for no more graves to be dug up…They are just going backward for us, putting the cart before the horse, lying to us, deliberately trying to discourage us [from being a part of the process].”
Lalo’s distrust of the HSRA began when one site significant to the tribe was declared by an Authority archaeological report as an “insensitive” area. Shana says that the tribe had made it clear to the Authority that this area was in fact the opposite—after all, they had found the remains of 7 native individuals there just this year. The Authority denies this claim, citing the environmental impact studies they do before any major ground disturbance takes place to determine area sensitivity. These studies include geo-archeological analyses, which Sarah Allred described to me: “This is kind of a needle in a haystack, but [the Authority’s hired archeologists] are professionals who understand geology and geomorphology to the extent that they can identify potential buried land services that could have harbored potential archeological sites. With this study we can say hey, this is a depositional area so there could be something underneath, so we’re gonna require monitoring during construction in the event that something could come up. Or the decision could be made that we would investigate ahead of construction if we felt that the sensitivity was really high.”
Shana, however, believes these kinds of tests are essentially useless: “These are all wetlands so you’re not going to get the buildup of paleosols that you’re going to get in another type of area because of the nature of the Tulare Lake, since it was so shallow and it oscillated so much. [The Authority's archaeologists] went through and did all these geotechnical and geo- archaeological studies and said there are no paleosols, so this area is not sensitive. It’s a predicted model that does not work. And yet they are using it to discredit our history, the history that we’re bringing and reporting. [She points to a spot on a map that the current alignment goes through] Right here we have an ethnographically recorded village. And yet they’re saying to us, no, don’t worry there’s nothing there.”
The damage done to the site that Lalo and Shana described to me occurred before Sarah Allred had become tribal liaison, a fact they believe the Authority is using as an excuse to duck their questions about it. But the injury there has already happened, and now they fear it may happen again. Like many burial and village sites in the Central Valley, this particular location had been disked and ripped by centuries of farming, which means significant remains may be deeper in the ground than anticipated. However, the archaeologists only dug up to a certain depth, says Shana, which means most of the shovel test pits may not have even gone below the plow line. The final nail in the coffin of lost trust between the Tachi tribe and the Authority occurred when a very technical field report revealed, due to Shana's close reading, that the Authority had in fact disturbed a site with sacred items and probable human remains—yet this report was not given to the Tachi tribe until 6 years later. The Authority denies this happened as well. “How do we know that that’s not going to continue?” says Shana, “We have the Federal Railroad Administration, the California High Speed Rail Authority, then we have their design-build contractors and then somebody who’s supposed to be making sure the design-build contractors are complying and then the contractors hire an archaeological firm and it has to go back through all these different steps to come back to us. Yes, Sarah Allred calls us, she sends us emails. But she is not the one in charge.”
The law is clear that archaeological sites cannot be wantonly destroyed but, as Shana laid out, the bureaucracy of getting information from the contractors on the ground to the tribes themselves creates a grey area of what proper and timely communication and action is. “It’s just hard. It’s not like we’re saying if you wanna go through this area you give us this money or that money! No. It’s just we are trying to take care of the people that we are supposed to take care of. There’s no way to stop [the construction of high speed rail] and we’re not trying to.” Shana said, shrugging. “We’re simply trying to protect the dead. And to be barred from a simple courtesy that anyone else would expect… Anybody would think you don’t go through cemeteries. If you even suspect that there’s something there, you take care of it with respect. That’s all we’re asking.”
Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) requires Federal agencies to “take into account the effects of their undertakings on historic properties” and consult with Indian tribes to whom those historic properties have religious and cultural value, giving them a “reasonable opportunity to comment.” The HSRA has made an expected move when it comes to consulting with those who may hinder its movement forward: bombard with paperwork and bury under bureaucracy. But Sarah Allred insists Section 106, though heavy with paperwork, does get needed results for both sides, “Section 106 is like a recipe. It’s a very systematic way for how we deal with things, and it works. Mitigation of an archeological site is conducting a data recovery excavation, writing reports and curating the artifacts and all that stuff. But what does that mean for the tribes? So I ask the tribes to think of ways to mitigate that will be meaningful to them.” An example of “creative mitigation”, Sarah says, might be something like the Authority funding the creation of a record (i.e. book, website, documentary etc.) of the tribe’s history. But what about sites that creative mitigation won’t remedy? First, they must be identified as adequately significant: “Archeology is all about provenience, so the way sites are considered significant is whether or not they’re intact, and whether or not they have information to inform the larger prehistory of the area.” Sarah explained, “Does this site have data that will inform us so that we can say that however many thousands of years ago this is what it looked like? If it’s all jumbled, then there’s going to be limited data potential.”
Even when the “significant” sites are identified, it’s not guaranteed that they will be left undisturbed. After all, the rail can’t snake around every piece of land that’s important to someone. Thus, Section 106 requires an archaeological treatment plan that spells out exactly how the lead agency will resolve adverse effects to these areas: “We prepare drafts [of the archeological treatment plan], send them to [the tribes] and ask for comments. We don’t often get feedback. They’re maybe not as good at reading everything, but I have to say it’s a lot of documentation. I feel like a lot of times I’m flooding these tribes with documents and I feel like sometimes for them it’s hard to stay on top of all of it and understand it all. But we do our best to spell everything out and make it available and solicit input.”
One windy and cool afternoon at Santa Rosa Rancheria, Shana holds up a 4 inch thick final archaeological survey report from the High Speed Rail Authority for the Fresno to Bakersfield section of the alignment. She was given only 15 days by the Authority to go through the entire report and give the Tachi tribe’s comments on all significant areas to them that will be impacted by the current plan. Shana believes the mountain of paperwork is not only nearly impossible for a single person to surmount, but that the foundation of state and federal law’s approach to negotiations with the tribes about culturally significant sites is, quite simply, wrong: “The fact that the High Speed Rail Authority is only looking at the tribes through an archeological perspective is faulty from the beginning. They’re saying, well, you’re only significant because of the data you can provide for history. No. We’re a living breathing culture that still exists. It’s not only significant because of the past, it’s significant because of the present. And that’s a hard sell.”
Lalo emphasizes how hard they have been trying to convince the Authority how much these sacred sites matter to them. This land holds centuries of Lalo’s history, of countless lives lived by the Yokut people, the first people of the Valley: “The San Joaquin Valley is our original home. We call our land the Basket Home—Amash Pa’an. Everywhere we walk, we walk on the bones, the ashes, and on the dust of our ancestors. So that’s the reason we’re so passionate about the land. The very bones of our ancestors are scattered all over and that’s where we believe we need to return. That’s why our graves were very shallow. Only within a couple of feet were people buried. And they were not buried in coffins to keep the dirt out, they were buried in tule mats so the dirt got inside…Our belief is that our body feeds the earth, nourishes the grass, which nourishes the deer which nourishes the people. So we are part of a sacred cycle of life and death. And that’s why our valley is very important to us.
But that is not all. When Lalo and Shana deal with the apparent minutiae of the Authority’s unending paperwork and miscommunications, the pain of the violent injustices that also come with this land whose future they fight so passionately for gushes to the surface: “We’re just barely recovering as Native people from the traumas of the California gold rush. Let alone what the missionaries have done…It just makes me angry that we could not, in my father’s time, my grandfather’s time, worship in peace.” Lalo says, shaking his head, “It took the Indian Freedom of Religion Act [of 1978] to finally recognize we had a religion. And [before that] look what happened. All of a sudden people appeared. And, at first, we said, let them come. We assumed they’d turn into Indians, that they’d take off their ugly looking clothes eventually and start living in tule huts. But then we realized they had their portable religion—‘you shall have dominion over the land’ as it’s stated in Genesis. So that’s what we’re dealing with. How do you change the minds and the hearts of people? How do you get them to understand and to feel passion without them thinking you’re a radical or a militant? So, for us, it’s a lot of patience, a lot of looking inward, relying on our spiritual connection to find the right words. It hasn’t been easy. But if we do nothing, then nothing will change.”
“I asked you once, long ago, if you knew why the coyote and the moon were the symbols of our tribe…This symbol, the coyote and the moon, is the tribe’s protector and spirit guide. The coyote may be small, taking his rabbits and game and living off the bugs, crickets, and fruits of the Valley, but he is also cunning. The coyote adapts quickly, living off the land and enduring harsh conditions, he changes with the land…he is a survivor. Decades ago the Tachi Yokut tribe was pushed here and there, moved from one side of the great San Joaquin Valley to the other. We were pushed all the way to the edge of the mountains and when oil was discovered in Avenal we were pushed back to the scrub brush. We were forced to walk for many, many miles, and many of our people died. But we still lived on, adapting to whatever land we called home. We survived, like the coyote. Do you see? Do you now know why everyone should know the origins of our tribal symbol, the coyote?” - from a brass inscription outside the Tachi Palace
The Fight for Fresno
Where hopes for the future and fears for the past rest on high speed rail
"We had come to this dry area … and we had paused in it and built our houses and we were slowly creating the legend of our life. We were digging for water and we were leading streams through the dry land. We were planting and ploughing and standing in the midst of the garden that we were making."
I met Jessie waiting for the media tour before the official high speed rail groundbreaking event in downtown Fresno was to begin. He stood where the future station will be built, watching the police and sheriffs walk by. I asked him if he lived around here and what he thought of all of this. He said he thought it was nice, he liked the sheriffs’ uniforms, those hats were hats you didn’t see much. He had a soft voice and gentle eyes. He told me he went to high school in a little town 15 miles south of Fresno, and there he used to be a good reader. He told me of the blue graduation gowns they had when he graduated, rubbing his fingers together as if he were feeling the soft silk again. A policeman then came up to us and asked us to move, politely, because they had to move the police car up where we were standing. We walked away and Jessie said he had to go, the friend he was staying with is a truck driver and was picking up a load of pork rinds soon, and Jessie sure does like the taste of pork rinds with some bread.
On this day in early 2015, months after the first demolition had occurred to make way for construction of the high speed rail bed "in a blighted area of town," the official groundbreaking event took place in another area of Fresno that could be described the same way. First home to Chinese railroad laborers who built the foundations of the city, Fresno was founded by the Central Pacific Railroad in 1872, right beside today's groundbreaking ceremony. On one side of the tracks, what came to be called Chinatown grew into a multiethnic community as immigrants continued to settle there: the Armenians, Japanese, Mexicans, Portuguese, and many others. At the same time on the other side of the tracks, downtown Fresno became where the majority white population resided, separated from Chinatown by the steel border of the railroad. The new high speed rail tracks will one day run parallel to these very tracks.
Fresno’s center has a long history of misfortune along with a legacy of failed development strategies. Disinvestment had begun as the city sprawled, decades before the 2008 recession hit. Many hope high speed rail will bring the city new glory out of the current "blight" in this part of town that has the biggest need for the revitalization that high speed rail promises.
The word “blighted,” implies an affliction, a disease, a rotting of something—in this case the heart of Fresno, an impoverished area landlocked between 3 freeways that includes both Chinatown and Downtown. And when one has a diseased organ, there are two options: revitalize, as the politicians vow high speed rail will do for depressed population centers in the Valley, or replace it.
I listen to the rhetoric of Governor Jerry Brown and District Representative Jim Costa praising the importance of perseverance and hard work to complete this historic project, driving home the point that the naysayers' voices will be forgotten or scoffed at years from now after this vision towards a great future of California has been realized. Costa stands on the podium and announces: “For the last two centuries, the secret of California’s success has been our ability to make dreams become reality…[This project] is essential to keeping the California dream alive.” I look around at all the suited guests sitting on chairs meticulously arranged over this empty dirt lot; I hear the protestors shouting and shaking outside of the surrounding fence while the speakers speak atop a ribboned stage. I think of Jessie long after he has disappeared into the wide grey streets and I wonder what will become of those like him who live in this broken down area. When the high speed rail station is built, will the heart of Fresno be revived or replaced? Costa tells the crowd, “This project will have profound effects on California’s future, as did the construction and the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in the 19th century.” I think of whose California they were working to build then, reminded of the importance of all voices, naysayers and supporters alike, to be heard equally, so that the California dream we're working towards this time around is not of just one man.
Voices of Chinatown
At first glance, Chinatown appears largely abandoned, primarily inhabited by the homeless and drug addicts. Most of the flat-faced storefronts, the ones that are open, have barred windows and graffiti scribbled on them, generally a closed-off feeling to them. But inside, there is a group of people who believe in their side of town looked down upon by the rest of the city. Here, there exists a community, an entirely different world than meets the eye.
Kathy Omachi of Chinatown Revitalization Inc. stands in the headquarters of the volunteer group that works to salvage historical artifacts from Fresno’s Chinatown. It is an old building that doesn't look like much from the outside, but the interior is chalk-full of old artifacts from this area, artifacts that you might expect to see in a museum: pikes from the original Transcontinental Railroad, albums of picture brides, old Buddhist sculptures, evidence of everyday life when Chinatown first came to be.
There have long been legends passed down from generation to generation of Chinatown locals about the underground tunnels here that were used for illicit activities and business. These legends have been proven true: Kathy Omachi leads tour groups through Chinatown’s underground. While above ground small businesses flourished alongside Buddhist temples, Methodist churches and schools, below the surface, particularly during Prohibition, outlawed recreation like gambling, drinking, and prostitution prospered. Many artifacts have been found in these tunnels and old buildings significant to Chinatown’s history, and the country’s: from old dominos used for gambling to steel picks used by Chinese workers during the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. Surely much more waits to be found.
However, this history is not sacred to everyone. During the demolition of the old Del Monte plant, an abandoned building bought by the Authority to make way for the future Fresno station, a tunnel was uncovered that Kathy and many Chinatown residents believe is one of the storied remnants of past life in Chinatown. The tunnel has since been covered over and all that remains is a flat vacant lot with no hint of what was found there just a few weeks before its burial. The Authority’s archaeologists determined that, though the tunnel was old, it was not historically significant. Kathy disagrees, and worries much of Chinatown’s history will be lost during the construction period: “When I tell people why I do this, I tell them it is because you have to know, and you have a right to learn about, where you come from.”
Paul Pearson owns a southern style restaurant in Chinatown called Chef Paul's, the name he goes by. A savvy businessman, he’s previously owned 3 full restaurants, and had sworn he’d never own another one again. But then he established Chef Paul’s here in Chinatown because he saw the great potential of this part of town: “This isn’t my first rodeo! I personally think this is a great area - you definitely can’t beat the rent. I believe that if you make a good product, people will come for it. But I also believe that you have to do something to attract people to an area with a bad reputation [like Chinatown].” One of the walls has been repainted and is now a colorful mural that his wife Rose, better known as “Pinkie,” recommended he use for the restaurant. Inspired by a painting in their home, it depicts a New Orleans street scene, full of life and activity-perhaps a vision of Chinatown's future that Chef Paul sees. Though Chef Paul completely renovated the building his restaurant now occupies, he decided to keep the original flooring of the place: “I want people to know they’re in Chinatown… I personally believe that this area is going to come back. Not just because of high speed rail, but mostly because of the years of hard work people have put in around here. We’ve got to just convince people that this is the place to be.” A place rich with history, community and pride, those who reside here hope that the HSRA will decide Chinatown is worth investing in, not just buying out.
Mr. Nadar Ali, 84, and his wife Mary have been married for more than 60 years. Mr. Ali, a retired principal for Fresno Unified School District, opened Salaam Seafoods here in Chinatown in 2003. He believes the high speed rail will revitalize Chinatown and bring more people to the area: “It'll have a great impact [on Chinatown] if they do what they say they're gonna do. People will still be able to come over here on Tulare and Ventura Streets [via planned overpasses] and that should really help business…I’m not a person who sits by and watches the world go by. Being raised on a farm, a dairy farm, you have to be innovative and disciplined…We just got approval from the city to build a drive-thru and that will really help business. It’ll be open all night so more people will come over from the Chukchansi Park [the baseball stadium in downtown Fresno] and the high speed rail station once it’s built. [High speed rail] should bring more traffic to Chinatown.”
Morgan Doizaki stands under a portrait of his great uncle, Akira Yokomi, who established Central Fish Company, a Japanese grocery store in Chinatown, in 1950. The road closures during the demolition of the abandoned Del Monte plant across the street from Central Fish caused the company to lose 50 percent of its business. Now that the road has reopened, Morgan hopes business will increase with the influx of construction workers to the area. However, he is unsure what will happen to Chinatown once the Fresno station is fully established (due to be up and running by 2022): “I can play devil’s advocate for both sides. It could really bring a lot of business to the area as more tourists come to Fresno on the rail, or it could cut us off even more from the rest of city.” Downtown Fresno is wedged between 3 freeways (the 180, 41, and 99) and Chinatown is sealed off from the rest of west Fresno by the 99 highway. The high speed rail will run along the freight tracks parallel to G St., along Chinatown’s eastern border.
Rosie Torres opened her flower shop, Rosie’s Flower Shop, in Chinatown 11 years ago: “I started floral designing when I was really young. I was a single parent for many years. I was really young, I must have been about 19 or 18. So I went to vocational class to learn a trade and from there I took off. I learned, I got my certificate, and I started working with a florist many years ago. I worked for several different places for many years. I decided to open this place….well, my mom got sick and I took care of her for a year or so and she said, ‘why don’t you do it for yourself this time?’ I wasn’t sure, I just wanted to do what I had to do and take care of her. But she kept saying, no try it. And we knew this building was vacant at the time. And she said, ‘just give it your best.’” When her mother passed away, Rosie purchased this building and began her shop. “It took me a lot to save, and to struggle, and to get where I’m at to be able to open my own business. The surrounding businesses are family owned and they work just as hard. To be able to get to the point of opening your own doors, it takes a lot of time, a lot of energy and money…a lot of dedication. And for something like [high speed rail] to come into our area and to take a lot of our businesses that have worked so hard, y’know some of them have been here 50 years, 100 years…it’s very sad. And I know we’re in modern times, progress and all that…ok fine, but still a lot of historical things are going to be taken away. And a lot of these businesses are owned by older people and they will no longer be able to open their doors. And that’s sad. And that’s the only drawback that I see. The people that have worked so hard are going to lose a lot.” Of 9 businesses bought up in Chinatown so far by April, only 2 have been relocated to their new locations by the High Speed Rail Authority. Chinatown owners also claim the appraisal prices for compensation have been on the lowest side.
Sen “Cindy” Hopper, owner of the Takshing Chinese Herbs store, went to school in Taiwan to learn herbalism. She and her deceased husband founded this shop in Chinatown 26 years ago. She says she will leave Fresno and close her shop if the disruption caused by road closures for high speed rail construction causes her to lose more business. Many Chinatown businesses may not be able to survive eight years of ongoing construction in this area.
Lynn Ikeda's family founded a Japanese confectionary and gift store called Kogetsu-Do more than 100 years ago in Chinatown. Almost every morning she arranges freshly made manju pastries in the glass counter. She makes each mochi and manju from scratch, a dying art that has been passed down from generation to generation within her family. Her store is one of two Manju-Ya stores in the Central Valley. Lynn worries that the construction of the high speed rail, with its many road closures in Chinatown, may put her out of business: “My family built this and worked really hard. It’s something no one could understand unless they were there. Seeing your family work so hard and making products that the public will enjoy and remember…I just hope we can continue to survive.” Her family’s shop is one of the oldest in Chinatown. When her grandparents were forcibly relocated to a Japanese American internment camp near Jerome, Arkansas during World War II, they rented this shop to a Chinese family who cared for it until their release.
Voices from the Unions
“I was on a roller, working nights in Chowchilla on the 99. It was maybe 2 years ago. A pickup truck hit the side motor, and it was about 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. He hit his side mirror—at night the glass sparkles all over the place…I turned to look back and he didn’t even stop, he didn’t hit his break lights or nothing. He just kept going. He shattered his driver’s side mirror so there’s no way he could have not known he’d done that. But he kept going like nothing happened.” Mark Fagundes, a member of the Operating Engineers Local Union No. 3, shows me a model of a scraper, a piece of heavy operating equipment that weighs over 200,000 pounds, he says. Mark has been in construction for 28 years, building parts of highways 168, 41, and the 180—all major routes through the San Joaquin Valley. He stands up and selects another model: a roller, similar to the one he worked on, “I think last year we had 6 [on-the-job] fatalities. Every year it’s getting better because the contractors are big on safety. Back when I started out, there wasn’t much safety. But now there’s a lot ‘cause with the price of insurance so high the employers get a break on it for all the safety stuff they do—and almost all of ‘em drug test now, so they get a break on that too. I remember when I started out, when I was working with the blade operator I’d be standing right on top of here,” he places his finger on another of the many construction equipment models placed around his desk and on his computer, “under the bar while he drove me to the next area. Now you don’t do that. You don’t do that no more, “ he laughs, “But ya I’ve done that. You’d both get fired for doing that now.”
Mark still works “out in the field” as he calls it, but the gig that has brought me to his Fresno office is his job of coordinating the union’s apprenticeship program in the Fresno area, which is a free training program for future heavy equipment operators, or “journeymen,” and the next project he hopes to get his members on board with is high speed rail. Applicants for the apprenticeship must score high enough on an evaluation that tests basic math and English skills, but most importantly the test assesses for excellent hand-eye coordination. The wage is good—apprentices start at $19.50 an hour and receive a raise about every 1300 hours they work, a benefit of being part of the union. Mark says the union supports the coming of the high speed rail: “Any job that brings us work we’re gonna support. Because that’s our pocketbook. For every 4 journeymen they have to have 1 apprentice, so that’s gonna bring us work. That’s where our guys make their money.”
The High Speed Rail Authority aims to create jobs in an area of California that most needs it: the Central Valley. In January 2014, the state’s unemployment rate was at 8.1 percent with Central Valley counties having the highest percentages: Fresno County at 13.6 percent; Kern County at 12.3 percent; and Kings County at 14.9 percent. Mark knows the kind of work high speed rail will bring could make a big difference: a multi-year project like this one creates more job stability and can jumpstart a lifelong career: “When people wanna get into [construction] I’ll tell them it’s not just a job—it’s a career. It’s something you’re gonna do the rest of your life. And you’ll make a good living at it. I tell people I get paid to play in the dirt and have a picnic every day for lunch. At a lot of the career fairs I do I tell the kids that the main thing is to do something that you like. ‘Cause even if it pays a lot of money but you don’t like it, it’s not really gonna be worth it. You’ll be miserable, you’re gonna hate going to work. I love going to work. Running equipment is a lot of fun. I’m a construction equipment operator but I’m not running the same piece of equipment every day. Or I could be running the same piece of equipment every day but doing something different with it. If you don’t mind being outside and you don’t mind traveling, it’s good work. I’ve gotten to work all over California. So you have to pick something you like. And one of the good things about the training center is that if they have someone that fails, they sit down and give them a list of other apprenticeship programs and say, look I don’t want you to feel like you’re a failure, you’re just not cut out for this. But maybe you’d be a good electrician, or a carpenter or laborer. Don’t feel like this is the end of the line for you. I mean, ‘cuz we all fail at something. We all make mistakes. But we pick ourselves up and go on to the next project.”
The Hanford Stakeholders
Where farmers and landowners both fear and look forward to the coming high speed rail
In the late 19th century the region of the San Joaquin Valley now called Kings County was known as Mussel Slough country, and it was largely unsettled by whites until the transcontinental railroad arrived. In 1866, Congress authorized the Southern Pacific Railroad to build a line through the area, a wide, dry plain good for nothing but cattle ranching. Today, the city of Hanford, Kings County seat, is surrounded by productive farmland. When the first railroad came, part of this land was set aside for homesteaders, while the bulk of it went to the rail men. Settlers in the area, who had spent much of their money and time in building their houses and farms, began to file for the homesteads, anticipating increases in land value with the coming of the rail. To encourage more settlement and development along the rail line, Southern Pacific advertised the homesteads at a cheap price. However, when settlers came to purchase the land, they discovered the base price was much higher than promised, with Southern Pacific claiming the construction of the railroad had brought the property value up. However, many settlers believed it was due to their own improvements of building irrigation canals and housing. So, the settlers protested against the railroad, but to no avail.
In a final maddening move, Southern Pacific changed the railroad route despite homestead rights having already been granted, a move that left many stranded after investing so much into now less valuable property. In 1878, a group of men came together to form the Settler’s League and petitioned President Rutherford B. Hayes for what they were guaranteed, and now, as they saw it, swindled out of. This protest, too, failed, and soon Southern Pacific began forcibly removing settlers in the way of the railroad’s path.
On May 11, 1880, the tensions between the settlers and the railroad men came to a head. During a pro-settler picnic in the town center of Hanford, it came to the attention of the picnic goers that four “railroad men” were kicking settlers off railroad land. A group of settlers went to meet the railroaders and soon a bloody confrontation occurred: The groups opened fire at each other, leaving 2 railroad men and 5 settlers dead. The anti-railroad sentiment was so much at the time in this part of California that many considered the settlers who instigated the deadly incident heroes and those killed, martyrs.
Today, high speed rail is the new revolutionary mode of transportation coming to or through Hanford, depending on the way you see it. The bloodstained Mussel Slough tragedy, which is long forgotten by most Americans, has resurfaced as quite a relevant topic to some. A group formed in Hanford, called Citizens for California High Speed Rail Accountability (CCHSRA), has called for the halt of high speed rail construction. Some have labeled this group NIMBYs and obstructionists of progress, while others have hailed them for their strong stand against the Authority. They are the loudest voices in Hanford, leading the whole of Kings County to be branded as anti-rail hardliners by many media outlets, which some members of the group certainly are. The Mussel Slough tragedy, too, came to solely characterize the area when news outlets seized upon the story, ignoring the many moderate voices, and later novels dramatized and exaggerated the events. So, when I traveled to Hanford, what I learned was not what I had learned to expect.
We looked out at the wide expanse of dirt rows stretching towards a horizon of walnut trees, and there I could finally catch a glimpse of what the future here might look like. The late afternoon sun was still hot—it was turning to summer in the Central Valley—and I wiped the sweat from my forehead so I could better survey the land that would serve as the foundation for a huge bridge, bringing California’s future high speed rail line over the Kings River. I could see it, the sloped bank, perhaps landscaped with trees, the columns growing steadily taller as they lift the bridge that will carry the nation’s first high speed train over the river. The incline for that bridge will begin right here, on this stretch of Brad Johns’ property in Hanford, land that has been farmed for three generations by his family.
Brad’s house will be demolished soon after November 1, 2015 when the High Speed Rail Authority takes possession of his property to make way for the electric rail. But surprisingly, Johns can’t wait:
“It’s just a blessing beyond your wildest dreams…Hanford will turn into the hub because we are the county seat, we have Lemoore Naval Air station in our backyard, we have all the prisons. [Hanford] will be turned into a transportation hub and an urban center, leaving farmground on the outer edges for farming. People will be drawn to where the water is, where the people are, where the shopping centers are, and Hanford is gonna be it.”
Brad is one of the few Hanford farmers, perhaps the only one, who wholeheartedly supports California’s high speed rail project. While many of the surrounding area’s farmers fear lowball compensation for their farms and dairies as the Authority gathers land throughout the state, Brad sees it as a “gift from the government:”
“Believe me, I am not unhappy about this situation at all. Eminent domain is a tax tool. If you wanna use it good, great, if you wanna use it bad, then the Federal Marshall shows up and you get pulled off your property. That’s your choice. It is a democracy.”
Eminent domain gives a public entity, in this case the High Speed Rail Authority, the right to purchase private property for public use. There are two main provisions: take the compensation and as long as it goes back into your business, it’s tax free. The other option is a 1033 exchange, where instead of paying cash, the HSRA finds the owner another property out of the rail line’s way. In a 1033 exchange, the value of the original house, including its property taxes, goes with the owner to his/her brand new house elsewhere, a process that has the potential to allow landowners to gain a superior property at no extra cost to themselves. “The only thing that changes in your life is your address.” says Brad, “This is a gift from the government because they want you to move out of the way of a mass transit project for the public. So this is a one time get out of jail card. This is your ace in the hole saying, thank you very much will you please move and if you do we will help you.”
The eminent domain process begins with an appraisal of the property. Eminent domain action depends principally on "just compensation." The appraisal process has created much opposition in the Hanford area. Some fear that their land won’t actually be utilized if funding doesn’t come through and the project is halted. Almost all farmers and landowners feel they have personally not been treated with adequate respect by the HSRA, whose appraisers have trespassed on properties to make their estimates, done roadside appraisals (taking pictures of the property from the road without notifying the owner) or simply ignored owners' claims of the value of certain aspects of their land not immediately accessible to the eye (i.e. underground irrigation, wells, etc.). The HSRA's shoddy history of community relations is a major reason why much of Kings County has turned against the project.
Just a few miles from Brad's house, the Brownings live in a simple and beautiful house on Cairo Ave. Ross and Phyllis lease their land out to farmers. Though their house was originally in the direct path of the alignment, the rail is now set to be built about 100 yards away, passing in a diagonal direction so that it will cross in front of their property across the street. The High Speed Rail Authority has had no correspondence with them as it does not view them as being directly impacted. But they both know the rail will change their lives irrevocably: “We found out it was coming right in front of our house. And I’m thinking, which is worse? Being in a situation where they have to buy your house, or being across the street where you’ve got the collateral damage of having to look at it every 6 minutes or however often it goes through,” says Phyllis, shrugging.
The only reason they found out how close the rail would come to their property was by attending a CCHSRA meeting: “We never received any word directly from the Authority that our property was affected.” Ross explains, “We heard that there was going to be a meeting at the school. Phyllis saw the ad in the paper and said we oughta go to this. So we go, it was on a Saturday, and they had some maps…So we could see on the map that it was going near our house, but I couldn’t find how near ‘cause I couldn’t find the scale on the silly map. So then we attended a meeting held by the HSRA in Hanford to tell us more about [the project]. We found out who their regional manager was and I said, heck with it, I’m just gonna give him a call and see what’s going on. I call him and ask, I just wanna know is my property affected? I hadn’t heard a word yet. He looks and he goes no, you’re not directly affected but yes, you are impacted. I say well what does that mean?”
They continued their effort to get more information about the project and its impact on their property, which led Ross and Phyllis to end up joining their friends and neighbors in CCHSRA, which made a point of providing accessible information to the community that they had gleaned from the Authority or from their own research. But Ross and Phyllis are not the anti-rail hardliners I expected to meet. “[HSRA] created and designed this when they’d never been in the area. And they would say we can come right down this road here and the landowner would say no you can’t that’s my property, I built that road. What makes this teeny road I drive my tractor on a transportation route? And they don’t answer! We go to all these meetings and ask all these questions and they won’t say a word…But we’re not against the train. The idea of the train is kinda cool.” Phyllis added to Ross’ explanation, “They’re just not building it right. They need to put it down a transportation corridor where the government already owns most of the right-of-way so it would be less costly on the people.”
The first completed segment of the rail will be between Madera, Fresno and Bakersfield and it goes through some of the most agriculturally intense land in the Valley. The Central Valley alone produces a quarter of the nation's food and a fifth of the nation's dairy products. California as a whole produces more than half of the country's vegetables, fruits and nuts. Naturally, the biggest question is, why start here? Why not start in the largest urban centers of the state, Los Angeles or San Francisco? The answer: federal funding. The Authority would only be able to secure federal funding through the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) if it began construction in the Valley, mandated by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) for two main reasons: a) the flatness and relative “emptiness” of the land makes it easier to build for less and run necessary testing with minimum consequences and b) by law, ARRA requires all funds be spent by 2017, which wouldn't likely happen if construction started in densely-populated areas.
Opponents of the project don’t buy these reasons though. Rather, many think the Authority didn't expect to meet much opposition in the Valley and believed they could purchase land cheaply and easily. “They’re running through some of the best soil in the world.” Ross says, “They thought they’d just come roll on through 'cause we’re just a bunch of dumb, hick farmers anyway. They thought Kings County would have the least resistance, but they’ve had the most resistance here.” A lot of it comes down to the fact that many wealthy farmers in Kings County have not only the desire to resist, but the means. Ross and Phyllis, both retired, are clear that they believe in the idea of high speed rail in California. It is also clear, though, that they fear the change it will bring too: noise, urban sprawl, a tarnished landscape, a small town culture turned into just another suburb people come to for the Walmart.
With Laton and Hanford as they are now, Phyllis is surrounded by her life’s history. She grew up on this land. She remembers the old schoolhouse down the street that was demolished after an earthquake wrecked it, the bully who lived across that field whom she was terrified of, how all the kids would ride the bus to school in Kingsburg. The bus stopped to pick them up at that tall palm down the street, just a few yards away.
She remembers the pumphole that would fill up when her father irrigated the crops and how in the summer they’d swim in it, the water clean and clear. And after they’d jump into the nearby mud hole and cover themselves with mud until they were caked in it, they’d jump back into the pumphole to rinse off.
Her family was very poor and they rarely ate out but, when they did, they would go to a burger place in Hanford where they could get six burgers for one dollar, which was as many as they were. Sometimes after that they’d even get dessert at Superior Dairy. Since its opening in 1929, Superior has served the biggest homemade scoops of ice cream in the Valley, and people still come from all over for a taste.
She remembers the 1950 flood when she was only 7 years old. Her mother rushed her and her siblings from their home in a speeding car while only her father remained to face the water. She can still feel the fear at the thought she might never see him again. Four years later the Pine Flat Dam was completed and it has controlled every Kings River flood since.
At 6:30 in the morning I’m driving on Highway 43 to meet Mike Monteiro, whose work days start at 7 am. The fog is ghostly through the farm rows and it flows like water over my windshield seemingly growing thicker every minute. Headlights appear suddenly and literally out of nowhere, a brightness expanding out from the wall of white before me. I quickly realize it’s dangerous to watch for the oncoming headlights because your mind and your steering wheel subconsciously drift towards them, their brightness being mistaken for clarity through the fog. But the blue nothingness surrounding is mesmerizing as well, so I must squint to keep my concentration on the yellow line in the center of this two lane highway. It shows itself only briefly a couple feet ahead of the front of my car. Being a Southern Californian, fog is something I see as weak, easily burned off by mid-morning and never so heavy you can’t see. But here in the Central Valley winter it is strong and impermeable. It determines a work day’s starting point as cars and trucks have to pull off the road when it becomes too thick to see at all, pitch white, and I know Mike will be stuck in it like me so I don’t worry that I’m late. When it lifts a little, I feel like I’m seeing the world for the first time.
Mike is another CCHSRA member and objects to the “NIMBY” branding of the group. Like Brad Johns, he is third generation in the Hanford area where he and his brother run one of the 3 dairy farms that make up their company, Lakeside Dairies. When I arrive, Mike shows me around the dairy with pride. He explains the water recycling process, he points out the solar panels that power 75% of the dairy’s needs, the new-style rotary milking barn, the soft green fields of wheat grown for silage. He’s a self-proclaimed country boy and a “diehard farmer.” His brother is the “cow man.” Like the Brownings, he fears what change the rail might bring.
The current rail alignment will cut off the Monteiro’s maintenance and fueling plant (“the shop”) from the cows’ grazing fields and pens (“the dairy”). The Authority has plans to build an overpass (for 10 million dollars that is not yet in the budget) over a lightly traveled country road so that the shop can be connected to the dairy. But, even if they do build the overpass, Mike worries how he will run business during the actual construction:
“That’s going to be a major problem during construction, getting from here to the dairy. We’ve voiced our concerns to the Authority and we’ve gotten a lot of disrespect. We want people to understand that we’re not NIMBYs. It’s not that we don’t want the project in our backyard. We just have a lot of concerns because this is our livelihood here. We need those concerns addressed and they’re not getting addressed properly or respectfully…This is the best farming area in the U.S. and possibly the world. We don’t nearly have the population out here and the density to support high speed rail…So when word come out it was going to be right down the Valley and do the damage it’s doing to so many farms and businesses, and the cost that we’re gonna incur to build it, people became concerned.”
Not only does he worry about the cost to his business, but he also worries about what kind of sprawl the rail could bring: “This Valley needs to stay farmed, it needs to not be covered up with houses. I think high speed rail [will cause] that. I’m hugely against the idea of sprawl here in the Valley. There’s valuable soil here…It needs to remain a farming valley. The main thing that I think [HSRA] is trying to do is move people from the high population areas in San Francisco and the San Jose area and move ‘em down to the L.A. basin.” In Mike’s opinion, politicians’ rhetoric of “saving” the Central Valley (both economically and environmentally) with high speed rail is insulting and insincere.
For most, a change in address, or a major disruption in business operations, can be one of the most stressful events in their lives, particularly if the land is more than just land: it is history, a connection to generations of a family’s experience and identity. Though he fully supports high speed rail, Brad Johns, like the Brownings and Mike Monteiro, is not exempt from this impact.
The Johns family came to the Central Valley from Texas during the Dust Bowl.
Brad and his wife will be moving to his father’s house, a house just a few miles away from his own, and one that stores many memories—of celebration, struggle, and tragedy:
Ultimately, “the heart’s gotta go and the head’s gotta kick in,” Brad says. That doesn’t make it any easier for him to walk into his father’s house. But Brad comes from patriotic men and he believes making way for the train is something of a duty of his, and his neighbors’:
“The Valley has some of the worst air in the country…That’s not a political issue. It’s a moral issue. [High speed rail] will improve people’s health. It’s the right thing to do. [Furthermore] we have a skilled workforce that is coming back from war that we owe a debt of gratitude to. And what better way to pay them than giving them a future. Giving them a high-tech job, a high-paying job, a steady job on a state of the art project…There’s an old Portuguese saying in this area, and this is truth, ‘if the deal isn’t good for everybody, then it’s not good for anybody.’ With this project, nobody gets hurt.”
“The real problem is that too many people—including some who claim to be experts—don’t recognize that California is a collection of distinct regions, of unique histories and experiences, of varied people gathered under one name. It has no single homogeneous core—unless it is hope. To paraphrase poet Gary Snyder, the state is a fiction, but the regions are real.” - From Gerald Haslam’s The Other California: The Great Central Valley in Life and Letters
I start off on the 101 going north. The land to the right of me is mountainous and green, lush hues of blue above and chaparral covering the foothills. The sea sparkles a rich cerulean to my left while the sun beats down on my neck through the window. This is familiar territory. The view goes by fast, but not unappreciated even though I’ve seen it many times before. Soon, the highway twists away from the sea and I am surrounded by rolling hills of soft brown and green, cows grazing on the thin grasses. This drive to Fresno is no longer a new adventure for me…I’ve driven it many times now, so I know what lies ahead. I feel the vastness stretching before me already though and I know I need a cigarette to keep that long road at bay. For the first half of the drive I tend to blast music—Alice in Chains has been my choice this time. The harshness of the electric guitar goes well with the velvet hills rolling for miles beyond this thin highway. An hour goes by like this. But once I hit the 41, I require silence. Here the land has become flatter, it is not as lush—the coastal mists don’t reach this far inland. The 41, this stretch of it anyway, is a single two-way highway through a wide expanse of flat land. I keep the windows down and smoke another cigarette to keep myself alert, the wind that crosses through my open windows sometimes shaking the car with its strength. The air is noticeably cooler, I have entered the Valley, and winter here is cold for California. I watch the land extend before me, the sky melding with the horizon in a distant smog.
Over 150 years ago, this land was called “a plain of absolute desolation” by American botanist William Henry Brewer. As I enter Kettleman City, Chevron and In-n-Out signs towering above the thin line of traffic, and enter the downtown strip that is only about 80 yards long with rows of mobile homes and small houses spanning away from it, I look out at the dry brown land extending further beyond that to oblivion and I guess I can understand Brewer’s sentiment. The land becomes distinctly cracked and dusty as I move north of Kettleman City through Stratford, past Lemoore and into the outskirts of Fresno. Yes, the Central Valley appears desolate especially to an outsider who looks out at the endless flat plain and sees only dirt and periodic towns that are dwarfed by the infinite open space. It may appear barren, unpeopled and unvisited to such an outsider. But I do not see this.
This drought-stricken land was once a lake large enough to resemble an inland sea. It was called Tulare Lake and it was the largest body of freshwater west of the Great Lakes, its volume swelling and shrinking with the seasonal snowmelt from the high Sierras. In 1862, at its highest recorded level, the lake covered 486,400 acres. Today the old lake bed has been replaced by farmland after years of stream diversion for irrigation that began in the 1870s. By the turn of the century, Kings River, the lake’s largest source of water, was irrigating more land than any other river in the world except the Nile and the Indus. The diversion of water for agriculture caused Tulare Lake’s demise. The water slowly dried up, along with its surrounding wetlands and oak woodlands. I feel I can see the Tulare Lake’s ghost as I drive through the gradually rising slopes towards Lemoore. Its legacy is left only in the productiveness of this Valley’s land.
Things will change here now, once again. Perhaps agriculture will give way to technology. Perhaps high speed rail will bring business and a different kind of wealth to this Valley, clean up the air and make it more livable for those who are not from here as California’s population swells to 50 million strong. Or perhaps it will be a huge failure, one of history’s great boondoggles. I do not know.
But let this be a record of what fears were felt and what hopes inspired. Let this be a reminder of the excitement of creating something new, but mostly the fear that comes with change. We are afraid of what will be lost and what may be lost: our community, a genuine connection to land and place, a true knowing and respect of family and family history.
I can’t help but feel a kind of sadness driving this long road alone. The wideness of the Valley isn’t so much lonely as it is overwhelming: overwhelming in its limitlessness of space and time. These concepts are different here. An hour drive is a quick jaunt. The closest hill is a trick of the eye—it is not close at all. This big land is as immeasurable as it is beautiful to a sole traveler, and I feel my powerlessness here. There is just a road. A weightlessness that only comes with driving, open windows and hands only occupied by the wheel, passing by and through places like a bird, through the smells of the air and the air in different atmospheres. A stillness while moving, the blur of the scenes gone by are feelings that stay with the driver, are there always and always are there and so they are still. A rock in a stream, the azure surroundings ever-changing and complex but the rock is witness to it all, the things slipping by, rushing by, floating by, getting by. I see the light through the glass, reflections through water, the slanting light across the windshield smudges and small cracks that distort the reality so slightly but inform what I see. The light that comes through the windows through the sides of my eyes and bounces between the shadows of my eyelashes, all of these things creating together an experience of a journey, of places and living things that are still in reach if I just pull off the highway and stop.
One day this vastness will be shrunk, and the wide land won’t feel so wide, and we won’t feel so small in it and that will change us all I’m sure, though I don’t know exactly how. When high speed rail takes 400 miles and makes it 100, our notions of time and space and place will change with it. Our notion of the bigness of this golden state will change with it. Some will fare well and some ill, some will survive and some won’t. There will be losses that can never be regained. But let us remember this moment in time, before so much is lost or gained, or simply different. Let us remember and let us all feel what was felt by those whose lives were first touched by high speed rail.