The setting: 4 p.m. Saturday, Fulton Street downtown. People throng the six-block stretch of the newly reopened street that replaces the iconic Fulton Mall. It’s the perfect late Fresno afternoon to enjoy such an occasion: reasonably warm but with a crisp hint in the air; the sky big and blue; and the sun getting into countdown position for Golden Hour, favorite of all photographers, when the soft light can make any tableau look good, much less ones that cost $20 million.
The scene: There are “pop-up” stores up and down the street, ranging from boutique clothing shops to a spiffy little temporary space occupied by the Fresno Art Museum. (Wouldn’t it be great to see a permanent downtown satellite gallery space for the museum?) Music blares, lines form for the beer garden, friends shout hello to each other. People linger in front of the restored sculptures, many of which look fresher than they have for decades. There’s water in all the fountains, too, and that, combined with the bustle of the foot traffic, gives a splash of energy and vitality to the proceedings.
My profound and original observation: The city closed down the newly reopened street for the occasion, giving us the freedom to skip the sidewalks and wander down the center of the freshly paved boulevard. But wait, I think: People walking down Fulton? Wasn’t that what they could do before the removal of the mall? Think of the irony of it all.
OK, so maybe my observation wasn’t so profound and original after all: In the first clump of friends I bump into, one says, “Just think, people walking and not driving … that’s what you could do all the time before when there was the mall, right?” We all agree: how ironic. For the rest of the afternoon, I can’t escape the word. Time and again I run into people who offer wry chuckles as they invoke the “i” word and say such things as, “Why couldn’t all these people have been walking down here when we had a mall?” It’s as if the same mini-epiphany surged throughout the crowd like a viral contagion.
The mood: Still, I don’t sense any bitterness or pouting as we toss around the ironic comments, even among those who opposed the removal of the mall. Just an optimistic curiosity. This is a time for celebration, for coming together in a genuine civic occasion. There’s a measured giddiness in the air. For all the time that we spend glued to screens these days, digitally connected to friends and acquaintances across the globe, there’s something even more special about the feel of proximity: of walking amongst your neighbors, becoming part of a crowd, head bobbing to music and sipping beer and simply communing. It’s fun.
The art: Yes, let’s get to the art, because it’s a highlight of the new Fulton Street. I have the honor of walking the newly reopened street with Joyce Aiken, who with Jean Ray Laury created the still gorgeous mosaic benches scattered throughout the area. Joyce, a noted feminist artist and retired Fresno State professor, remembers going to the opening of the Fulton Mall in 1964. (She also remembers buying a hamburger for $1.98 at a restaurant in the space now occupied by Casa de Tamales.) Although she was a vocal opponent of opening the mall back up to traffic — and fought long and hard to make sure the artworks were treated well when they were stored and then moved during the construction process — she is here to celebrate this event, too.
• Her favorite sight of the day: getting to see Stan Bitters’ “Dancing Waters” pulsate with real water for the first time in years.
• Her least favorite sight of the day: the water damage that has already occurred on Charles O. Perry’s “Ellipsoid VI,” likely because the water isn’t being filtered properly. (We meet Paris and Elizabeth Patt, who work for the L.A.-based Sculpture Conservation Studio, and they share with us some of the challenges of caring for fountain sculptures. The key: regular maintenance). Aside from that, however, “Ellipsoid” looks wonderful in its setting, almost as if it’s floating in the water.
• My favorite sight of the day: seeing people sitting on the benches beneath Joyce’s mosaics, which offer vibrant splashes of color. They might not be actively looking at her art, as you would in a museum, and are in fact involved in other things: staring at classic cars rolling by; chatting with friends and family; just resting tired feet. But in doing so, they are participating in an aesthetic act, even if they don’t realize it. Their existence is elevated a little. That’s what art is all about.
• The most impressive renovation: the complete rebuilding of Jan de Swart’s original wooden Clock Tower, which was made of laminated fir. At 60 feet high, it’s a visual centerpiece.
• The biggest head-scratching moment: seeing a gentleman lounging on Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “La Grande Laveuse (Washer Woman)” like it was a floor-sample couch at Macys. There are only six original bronze castings of this work (the others are in famous museums), and the only one that people are allowed to touch. A nice populist touch, you could say, but it’s still a little weird seeing it treated like furniture.
The takeaway: A great afternoon. And the art looks wonderful. I have high hopes for downtown and Fulton Street, but there was also something a little surreal about the scene there on Saturday. The pop-up stores were a great idea, but they also created something of a movie-set feel, a Potemkin Village vibe, the sense that everything was primped and polished for a day, only to be packed up and carted away when the one-time crowds are gone. In a way I’m almost hesitant to go back for a while because I don’t want to replace that mental image of hordes of happy people tromping down the middle of the street with, well, the reality of lots of empty storefronts. But I’ll get over that feeling. The important thing now is to move beyond irony and get down there and support downtown. If I — and you — do that, this could be the start of great things.
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