Across The Tracks
Photo by David Bacon

Across The Tracks: What Life Is Like in Fresno’s “War Zone”

FRESNO, CALIFORNIA—In the most productive agricultural area in the world, poverty is endemic. Crisscrossed by irrigation canals and railroad tracks, Fresno is the working-class capital and largest city of California’s San Joaquin Valley, a city where people speak Spanish as readily as English.

Here, the polarization of rich and poor is a constant theme in the city’s history and in its present. The banks and growers of the valley built ornate office buildings and movie palaces when the downtown was their showplace. Now, as developers have abandoned Fresno for the suburbs, the theater entrances and building doorways have become sleeping spaces and refuges from the rain for those with no fixed home.


Across The Tracks

Unhoused people in Fresno take shelter under an old theater. Photo by David Bacon


Across The Tracks

Joseph and his partner sleep in a doorway downtown, stopped in front of the Azteca Theater on F Street. Photo by David Bacon


Fresno has one of the oldest Mexican barrios in California. Here, the abandonment is visible in closed theaters and dance halls, which leave their marquees as vestiges. Alongside them are small taquerias trying to survive. Today, the street in front of the Azteca Theater is hauntingly empty at night, but older residents remember when Cesar Chavez and a column of grape strikers stopped in front on F Street in 1966. The strikers were marching from Delano to Sacramento, and hundreds turned out to hear Chavez speak in the street outside.


Across The Tracks

Left: The Tecolote, or Owl, dance hall and cafe, in the old strip of clubs, bars and the Azteca Theater. Right: In a west Fresno garage, a Mixtec woman pours atole into cups for people coming early in the morning for her hometown’s saints day. Photos by David Bacon


Bisecting downtown are the railroad tracks and the old Highway 99: a defining geography for the settlements of unhoused people. Community activists and the homeless people in the area have pressured a normally intransigent city government to provide at least enough housing to keep the dream of life off the streets alive. In 2019, Fresno had a larger percentage of “unsheltered” homeless people than any other city in the country—that is, people sleeping on sidewalks, in cars, or in places the government calls “not suitable for human habitation.”’


Across The Tracks

Mike Rhodes, publisher of Community Alliance. Photo by David Bacon


People try to survive no matter their circumstances. In Fresno, they often win community support as they fight for living space in a hard, bare-knuckle city. Mike Rhodes cofounded Community Alliance, one of California’s longest-lived community newspapers, and spent 18 years denouncing the city for its abuse of homeless people.

Rhodes’s book, Dispatches from the War Zone, recounts the city’s many efforts over the years to drive encampments off the streets, and the community’s resistance. At one point he asked the city manager, “With about a thousand homeless people in the downtown area, and inadequate shelter space available, what is the city going to do with people who are homeless?” The community was given no answer about where people should go. Activists like Lisa Apper, with the Saint Benedict Catholic Worker, stood in front of the garbage trucks where people’s possessions would have been thrown, saying, “We have got to take a stand for justice.”


Across The Tracks

A woman crosses the tracks to the neighborhood where most of the unhoused people in Fresno live. Photo by David Bacon


Across The Tracks

Larry Collins has been on the streets for 10 years, and now lives in an apartment for homeless people at the Renaissance of Santa Clara. Photo by David Bacon


In a recent issue of Community AllianceBob McCloskey reports that city Homeless Assistance and Response Teams “relentlessly push [people] daily to move on with no place to go.” The city council turned down a proposal to allow people living on sidewalks in freezing temperatures to seek shelter in the city Convention Center. Gloria Wyatt told council members, “I am not used to being homeless, but I cannot cover rent. Our tent was torn down this morning, and we have no place to go. I am scared.”


Across The Tracks

Overhead the 99 freeway, the central artery of the San Joaquin Valley, runs next to the tracks, while under it two unhoused people make the journey back from downtown. Photo by David Bacon


Across The Tracks

Danny Alfiro burns paper in a trash basket to stay warm on a December night. Photo by David Bacon


Across The Tracks

In the downtown barrio next to the tracks, the Mexican bus station lists the towns in Mexico people might be returning to, and the towns in Washington State where they might be going to work. Photo by David Bacon


David Bacon is author of Illegal People—How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (2008) and The Right to Stay Home (2013), both from Beacon Press. His latest book, about the US-Mexico border, More Than a Wall / Mas que un muro, is coming in May 2022 from the Colegio de la Frontera Norte.

Co-published with The Nation.

Save An Endangered Species: Journalists

David Bacon is a writer and photographer, former factory worker and union organizer. He documents workers, migration, and the struggle for human rights. His latest book, In the Fields of the North/En los Campos del Norte (University of California 2017), documents the lives of farmworkers in photographs and oral histories. He is co-chair of Guild Freelancers, the freelance unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, CWA Local 39521. He was board chair of the Northern California Coalition for Immigrant Rights, and has been an activist for immigrant, labor and human rights for many years.

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