Since the founding of the City of Fresno in 1872, the railroad tracks that separate the neighborhoods of Chinatown-West Fresno have served as both a line and locus for relations of inclusion/exclusion. Restricted covenants prevented people of color and those without privilege from crossing the residential line of the tracks to the emerging city and suburbs. Distinct narratives about the identity of Chinatown-West Fresno developed on either side of the tracks. Dominant narratives by outsiders of Chinatown-West Fresno as a site of vice, poverty, and slums have often strongly influenced city policymaking and have contributed to systemic underfunding of these neighborhoods. Counternarratives of Chinatown-West Fresno have focused on the sense of community and diversity of the area.


Most newly arriving immigrant groups in the growing city settled in the Chinatown-West Fresno areas. Though housing construction started in West Fresno in the late 1800s, there are few buildings from this era though many from the 1920s-40s survive.  Until the period of redevelopment, distinct ethnic neighborhoods (such as Germantown and Italiantown)  existed as environments that nurtured a thriving sense of community belonging fondly remembered in the collective memory of residents, particularly with a focus on the local Edison High School. Mayor Gordon Dunn (1949-57) launched a major campaign to clean up vice in Chinatown by law enforcement. The massive redevelopment of the 1950s-60s, which widened a freeway between the two areas destroying several neighborhoods, cut off vital customer traffic to Chinatown. This process also led to an out-migration of white ethnic groups to suburbs in the northern part of Fresno. Business in Chinatown slumped and many buildings were condemned, which led to a dwindling customer base and fewer residents. West Fresno became increasingly defined as an area where people of color resided.  Several social movements for economic equity and desegregation emerged from West Fresno. West Fresno has been shaped by migration patterns, the building of freeways, and the prevailing racial segregation in Fresno. It has a strong sense of neighborhood identity and has produced many successful people, such as Lawson Fusao Inada, former poet laureate of Oregon, painter Ernesto Palomino, NBA star Bruce Bowen, and novelist Sherley Anne Williams


West Fresno continues to struggle with the legacy of economic, environmental and health inequity, as well as institutional racism and systemic disinvestment by the City of Fresno. The Chinatown-West Fresno project seeks to bring out the stories of people who live, work and visit here to develop a more complex narrative of the area.


The Fresno neighborhood known as Chinatown is contained within Mariposa Street, G Street, Inyo Street, and E Street.  Home to several hundred Chinese people initially, Chinatown is one of the oldest areas in the City of Fresno, which was founded by the Central Pacific Railroad Company in 1872.  The Chinese were the first Asians to arrive in large numbers on the West Coast.  In 1848, 6,000 aspiring miners came from China.  By 1849, there were 100,000 Chinese immigrants, though they were a fraction of total immigration to the United States (Chan, 1986, 35). Most Chinese lived on the West Coast and faced waves of racist violence, especially during economic downturns.  The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882  banned immigration from China except for those in exempt classes (merchants, students, diplomats, and temporary travelers). As work in mining and on the railroads tapered off, many settled in urban areas where the ran restaurants, markets, and laundries.


Click the arrows on the sides to see more images

California cities generally emerged in the 19th century with racially segregated residential enclaves.  Chinatowns in California provided a place where Chinese people could live, prosper and practice their own traditions.  They also became liminal spaces where ethnically diverse working class people could meet and mingle in the bars, brothels, opium dens, and gambling parlors.  Fresno’s Chinatown was home to at least eight different ethnic groups (the Basque, Latinos, African Americans, Chinese, Japanese, Greeks, Italians, and German Russians) and was a shopping and entertainment hub for these diverse communities.  However, since urban renewal in the 1960s, Fresno’s Chinatown has been losing both businesses and residents.  Currently, there are approximately 100 residents in Chinatown and it is threatened by the construction of the High Speed Rail.



This project focuses on collecting the stories of people who lived, visited or worked in Chinatown. 


Chan, Sucheng (1986) This Bittersweet Soil: The Chinese in California Agriculture 1860-1910. Berkeley: University of California.


White flight from the city center and suburbanization shaped the sprawl that is emblematic of Fresno.  Restricted covenants, racism, and discriminatory real estate practices kept Fresno neighborhoods segregated until the Fair Housing Act was enacted in 1968.  West Fresno was the only racially diverse area until the 1960s (Zuk, 2013).  As urban renewal efforts gained force in the late 1950s due to the funding of the Housing Act of 1949 (see video here), many cities around the country began ‘slum clearance,’ displacing tens of thousands of people in communities as urban landscapes were reshaped. The Interstate Highway Act of 1956 providing funding to expand the road network and often led to greater white flight in the suburbs.


This project explores the impact of urban renewal in the Chinatown - West Fresno neighborhoods.


Zuk, Miriam (2013) Health Equity in a New Urbanist Environment: Land Use Planning and Community Capacity Building in Fresno, CA. Dissertation. University of California at Berkeley. City and Regional Planning.



Mrs. Mattie B. Meyers came to Fresno from Durham, North Carolina as the wife of one of San Joaquin Valley’s first African-American physicians, Dr. Earl Meyers.  Mrs. Meyers was the first African-American and first woman to run for mayor of Fresno in 1964.  She was the head of the local branch of the NAACP during the 1960s and completed a higher degree in education at Fresno State.  Mrs. Meyers was a key person leading the struggle against school segregation.



This project explores the pivotal role that Mrs. Meyers played in changing policies to integrate Fresno schools.

Kris Clarke, Ph.D

Academic and social commentator
Helsinki, Finland

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