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Material and Memory: The Fulton Mall Revitalization Digital Exhibit Project

The material culture produced around the Mall’s genesis, revival and history is varied and voluminous, given its liminality as a forgotten space in the context of city boosterism and the collective conscience of many Fresnans. The primary sources collected in my digital humanities project help convey spatially the changes of the physical landscape, both proposed and manifested, as well as images that show Fulton Street before it became the Mall. Such material culture allows me to visualize this local contest as two competing discourses about place through the paradigms of memory and imagined futures.


Primary sources include those found in the archives of the Fresno Historical Society and the archive of the Fresno County Library, as well as City of Fresno planning documents known as the 1960 “Gruen Plan” that was assembled by the Los Angeles-based planning firm of urban iconoclast Victor Gruen.  This original planning document lays out the vision articulated by planners and city leaders about the potentialities for improvement that the Mall was so supposed to have manifested. What becomes clear after such review is that the original vision by the planning firm was only partially produced. Ensuing decisions by the City Council to allow unimpeded development northward at a rapid pace in the 1960s and 1970s left the Mall in a liminal space of history couched by the limits of futurism.

A 1961 drawing of the Mall by Victor Gruen and Associates Source: Google Images

A promotional shot of the Fulton Mall from 1964. Source: Fresno Historical Society Archives, Maybelle Selland Collection. 

A protest drawing in 2014. Source: Save the Fulton Mall public Facebook page.

A walking tour of the Fulton Street construction site, October 2016 Source: Dorie Perez

A composite shot of Mariposa Mall, part of the Fulton Mall, in the 1950s and in 2016 Source: For the Love of Downtown Fresno Public Facebook page

I have included several images and locally produced films (historic and contemporary) focus on the subject of  the Mall as envisioned and currently understood. The Fulton Mall’s history was quickly memorialized during its very beginnings as the great new hope that would save the struggling downtown of Fresno. The promotional film “A City Reborn” (Gruen and Associates, 1968) was made by the same Los Angeles-based planning firm tasked with creating the Mall. Historic black and white footage of the development of the City of Fresno in the late 19th and early 20th Century is used to place Fresno in context in the Central Valley and highlight the car culture it had circa 1965.  Using a concept that was timely in public opinion, the growing “urban crises” (Sugrue, 1996), as the rationale for revamping downtown, the film is quick to switch from images of car traffic to those of urban blight and homelessness. Additionally, the film’s Modernist aesthetics reflected the cultural conservatism of its era and sought to valorize the planning efforts as visionary thinking during said moment of crisis.

The Mall’s ending has been a slow decline, painstaking documented in various forms of material culture that stretch from the utilitarian reports and studies commissioned by City Council to the arguments for preservation that seek to creatively reimagine the site’s beginnings and celebrate its place in the history of the city. “Look Around, Follow Me: The Art and Architecture of the Fresno Fulton Mall” is a 2014 film created by Fresno-based filmmaker Edward Goto. He uses a Mad Men-like narrative of Mid-Century Modernist alienation to make the Fulton Mall seem like a product from and of the past as well as something to be discovered. Goto has several parts of the film, one specifically as a re-enactment of planning meetings to discuss the creation of the Fulton Mall by city leaders. The reimagining of the origins of the Mall, with an aesthetic homage and stylistic language, evoke a social memory of the 1960s era and the implicit values of that cultural moment. Simultaneously, this film critiques its central tropes of the embedded hegemonic universalisms of the historical urban planning process as part of the Mall’s initial failings.

Other short videos, found on Youtube over the course of the last two years of preliminary research, are contemporary. Much like the “urban pioneer” trope used by Japonica Brown-Saracino to discuss the phases of gentrification that are started by middle class people looking for opportunities to buy property in previously neglected areas, these films (often just one and two minute long clips) are “moments of discovery” that speak to the gentrifiers’ sense of pioneership:

“ . . Pioneers celebrate gentrification’s benefits and unabashedly welcome the transformation

of the wilderness. They seek financial gain as well as the less tangible rewards associated with

the social, cultural and physical transformation of the place in which they live”

(Brown-Saracino, 2009: 51).


One video clip asks the viewer to follow as they discover “what’s under the Fulton Mall”. This discovery doesn’t go very far, the film stopping after the cameraman attempts to jiggle the door lock several times, but the perception of “something” (“under” the Mall) to be discovered is the central thematic narrative.  Another film is a 30 minute wordless shot of the Mall as it passes by, moving South to North and then doubling back again, presumable attached to someone’s skateboard. Discovery, as well as places to take over and reimagine, have all the theoretical trappings of settler-colonialism at the sub-national, even neighborhood, unit of analysis that Fresno’s changing urban landscape provides (Zukin 2010). Perceptions of “emptiness,” or the dead social space that Jane Jacobs mourned as part of urban renewal, is created when the space doesn’t or no longer serves a dominant social group or idea, leaving it open to conquest and consumption. Urban gentrifiers, however well-meaning and interested in local history, are the social progeny of 19th Century settlers who profited off enclosure and native “removal.” Privatization of the Mall is prognosticated as happening through economic means, though the racial dimensions of spatial exclusion are equally significant to changing perceptions of Fresno’s built environment.

The pro-revitalization argument also used images and film to visualize an idealized space. A promotional video, “Do You Believe in Downtown Fresno?” (2013) was created and posted on Youtube that supported Mayor Swearinger’s “I Believe in Downtown” campaign run by the Downtown Fresno Partnership, a civic and business-oriented group who sought to lay out the three options for the Mall’s redevelopment before the City Council vote of February 2014. This slickly produced footage moves through an empty downtown, cutting from blight to inspirational shots of the skyline at dawn. It is beautifully shot, as both cinematography and implicit argument- the imagined future of a vibrant downtown seems so close, and to the viewer, infinitely possible.


My digital project serves as an overview of the material culture produced on and about the Mall, each creative endeavor an attempt to understand the Mall’s relevance and place in the social landscape of the city of Fresno.  A meta--narrative about this voluminous and varied corpus can be argued from these findings - the general interest the Mall’s redevelopment has excited as a decayed urban site of discovery is bolstered by its imagined futures as a bustling urban area and conversely, the reimagining of its beginnings by city leaders. Through the lens of a camera, a community’s attachment to place and efforts to reshape their environs becomes legible and thus, helps articulate specific claims on the past and the future.

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