Sweet Home Fresno--Another Guest Post By Elaine!

Elaine has written about where she lives; I wrote about Fort Wayne for her blog.

I'm not from Fresno. Really. I grew up in Southern California, and it's still home.

However, I've lived in and near Fresno for longer than I've lived anywhere else. A  lot longer. And, even before that, I spent several summers in the area when I was a kid and my dad was a produce inspector and got sent here to inspect the grapes and cataloupes.

I've always found Fresno to be...odd. It's a big city (over 500,000 population in the city limits as of last year), but in a lot of ways it seems like - and is run like - a small town. It's a very conservative place, both politically and religiously. Not so much as it was fifteen or twenty  years ago, but official Fresno still hasn't quite figure out that it's the 21st century as far as I can see.

Despite all that, Fresno is very diverse culturally. Last time I looked there were over 100 languages spoken by students in the local school district. The city has long had a large Armenian population, it has the second-largest Hmong population in the United States, and a growing Asian population. There are parts of town when more of the billboards are in Spanish than in English. All this diversity has enriched the city a lot.

All the diversity also means that although Fresno is the buckle of the California Bible Belt, there are significant Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist and Sikh communities. Not that this necessarily sets well with some of the more conservative Christians in the area, but they are the type of people who don't really like anything or anyone different from themselves. And you find them everywhere, not just in Fresno.

I suspect that part of the reason that Fresno has remained so conservative politically has to do with the fact that it is right in the middle of the number one agricultural county in the United States, with its crops worth $5.3 billion dollars in 2007, the latest figures I could find. That's a lot of grapes (and raisins - Fresno County is the home of Sun-Maid raisins), stone fruit (things like peaches, nectarines, and plums), citrus (primarily oranges and lemons), almonds and walnuts, not to mention cotton, dairy products, and cattle. And those are only some of the biggest crops produced around the county. There's at least one advantage to living in an area with such a diverse agricultural economy - the Farmer's Markets here are fantastic.

The surrounding area probably has more to see and do than Fresno itself. Yosemite National Park is 60 miles pretty much due north of Fresno. El Capitan; Half Dome and Sentinel Dome; Yosemite Falls and Vernal Falls, among others; the three groves of Giant Sequoia trees - pretty much everyone knows about Yosemite, so I won't elaborate here. We've also got two other national parks, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, Kings Canyon about 60 miles east of Fresno and Sequoia just south of Kings Canyon and about 75 miles from Fresno. Sequoia is the home of of the General Sherman tree, which is the largest currently living tree by volume in the world. It's not the tallest tree, or the largest, or the oldest, but there is more of it overall. It is between 2,300 and 2,700 years old, 275 feet tall and has a circumfrence of 102.6 feet at ground level. Meanwhile, the third largest tree in the world, the General Grant tree, also known as the nation's Christmas Tree, so proclaimed in 1926 by President Calvin Coolidge. Later on, in 1956, the General Grant tree was proclaimed a national shrine to the nation's war dead by President Dwight Eisenhower. It is the only living thing to be declared a national shrine.

Inside the city limits of Fresno, we don't have that much in the way of tourist attractions. We do have the old Fresno Water Tower, which is downtown and kind of neat. In the county, but just about 7 miles from downtown, there is Sierra Sky Park, which was built in 1946 and was the first community in the United States where you can fly your plane in and then drive it to your house. Inside the city limits, there is Forestiere Underground Gardens, built - or rather dug out - over 40 years (1906 - 1946) by Baldasare Forestiere, a Sicilian immigrant who was looking for a way to avoid the hot summers here in Fresno. He not only dug out rooms but planted trees throught the dwelling and tress and vines above ground. It's really something to see.

We do have culture in Frenso, with a few theater companies, a couple of ballet companies - for a number of years, I was the props handler for Central California Ballet - and an opera company. There are more big-name concerts that come to town now that the Save Mart Center arean was built on the campus of California State University, Fresno in 2003. My favorite venue in town, though, is the Tower Theater. The Tower opened as a first-run movie theater in 1939, spent the 1980s as a repertory theater, showing old classic and new art films, and then, after a rennovation, reopened as the Tower Theatre for the Performing Arts. Most of the ballet productions I worked on were held in the Tower, and I love working there, despite the almost nonexistent wings and tiny dressing rooms.

Fresno has produced some famous people. Perhaps the most famous is William Saroyan, who was both born and died here. He won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, an Academy Award (for Best Story, for his adaptation of his novel "The Human Comedy"). And, he co wrote one song (that I know of) - "Come On-a My House", which was a hit for Rosemary Clooney in 1951. Saroyan wrote the song with his cousin, Ross Bagdasarian, Sr, also a Fresno native. Bagdasarian was also an actor, with probably his most noted role as the songwriter/piano player in Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window". You might know Bagdasarian better as David Seville, under which name he created Alvin and the Chipmunks. Bagdasarian won two Grammy awards for "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" in 1959.

Film director Sam Peckinpah was also a Fresno native. He graduated from Fresno High School and Fresno State and went on to a successful, if quite controversial, career in film. He directed "The Wild Bunch" in 1969, which caused a huge stir for the amount and depiction of violence. He also directed such films as "Ride the High Country" (1962) and "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" (1973). My favorite of his films is "Junior Bonner" (1972). It was probably his most unsuccessful film, and also likely his least violent. It follows the return home of an veteran rodeo rider (played by Steve McQueen) to ride in a rodeo there and to try to reconnect with his family, from which he has been estragnged for years. It's a good movie; you should see it if you get the chance.

More recently, singer and actress Audra McDonald grew up in Fresno. McDonald holds, along with Julie Harris and Angela Lansbury - the record for most Tony Awards won by any actor for their Broadway work. She has won five of the awards. She is also a recording artist and has done a good deal of film and television work. Another non-native but long time resident of Fresno is poet and professor Philip Levine, who taught at Fresno State for more than 30 years and was named Poet Laureate of the United States for 2010 - 2011.

Fresno and the surrounding area has produced a number of professional athletes, too many to list, but outstanding  is Fresno native and baseball pitcuer Tom Seaver. He was active from 1967 through 1986 and pitched for several major league teams but is best known for his time with the New York Mets. Seaver was named to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1992, elected by the highest percent of votes of any member of the Hall, with 98.84 percent fo the votes. He is considered by many experts to be one of the best starting pitchers in the history of the sport.

Another Fresno native of slightly less importance but some fame is Kevin Federaline, a dancer who was married for a time to Britney Spears (which is probably the main reason for his fame). I think it is interesting that while he has gotten so much bad press, I know some people in the local dance community who know him, and none of them has a bad word to say about him. There have been other famous folks who have spent some time in Fresno before moving on to other, bigger things. These include Cher and Warren Zevon.

Fresno is a more interesting place to live than it used to be. It's still not my favorite place in the world, but it's less expensive to live here than in most of California's big cities. The worst part of it right now is the unemployment rate, which is still significantly above the national average. That, and the weather, which is abysmal most of the year - too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. Which would be fine if those seasons lasted the usual amount of time each year. However, here in Fresno, we have about two weeks of spring and two weeks of autumn - if we're lucky - and the rest is either summer or winter. I still haven't figured out how that works.


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