COVID-19 is not the first global pandemic that Kogetsu-Do, a 105-year-old Japanese confectionary in the heart of Fresno’s Chinatown, has faced.
Lynn Ikeda’s family store, a cultural staple for the Valley’s Japanese-American community, has weathered the Spanish flu, segregation, forced Japanese incarceration, freeways bisecting the neighborhood, and several urban renewal schemes intended to raze most of the district.
But the present situation, for many Chinatown businesses, is unique — eight long weeks of diminished activity and uncertainty over what the “new normal” will look like.
To survive decades of intentional neglect, businesses have created a hub of some of the most culturally significant institutions in Fresno, building intense, loyal followings. Multiple celebrity sightings at the district’s distinct restaurants, and a feature of La Elegante’s adobada tacos on the Food Network’s top eats in California, have helped elevate the profile of Chinatown both to locals and outsiders.
Business owners say Chinatown will survive the pandemic. The larger threat that looms? Several more years of high-speed rail construction, and unpredictability of who will control the soul of the neighborhood once Fresno’s station opens in 2029.
Chinatown is hardly a ghost town these days. In an era of social distancing, the sidewalks can be full on a weekday afternoon, with queues of people outside the Union Bank and La Elegante. High-speed-rail workers continue their project on G Street.
But the virus has had a great impact. “It scared the heck out of us. Half of our sales are wholesale to restaurants,” said Morgan Doizaki, owner of Central Fish on Kern Street. The Japanese grocery store and fish seller has converted its restaurant into a makeshift pandemic-supply area — masks, boxes of gloves, and 50-pound bags of rice are in ample supply.
The neighborhood’s five barbershops have shuttered, temporarily. Full Circle Brewing on F Street, a popular spot for local events and concerts, has shifted to home delivery across California.
Some restaurants, like Cuca’s on F Street, a classic breakfast and lunch spot for downtown workers and those seeking authentic Mexican dishes since 1976, and Esperanza’s, have temporarily shut down.
Other businesses, like Rosie’s Flower Shop and Panaderia Vista Hermosa, have scaled back their hours. Cris’ Meat Market is planning to close for a month because of the escalating beef shortage, according to owner Alex Cervantes, who also owns the panaderia next door.
Chef Paul’s, whose soul food has been lauded by Tyra Banks and comedian Joe Rogan, has lost 40% of its business since Fresno’s shelter-in-place order went into effect on March 19.
La Nueva Reyna, a carniceria and taqueria on Tulare Street, has added toilet paper, canned goods and tortillas to its stock, and is optimized for takeout.
And in Chinatown, where nearly all of the businesses are owned by people of color, federal support has been missing, a trend that watchdogs have observed. None of the business owners interviewed have received the SBA Disaster Recovery Loan or the Treasury’s Payroll Protection Program intended for small businesses impacted by COVID-19. Some didn’t even bother applying. “It’s not for us,” one business owner said.
Just one business, Ofelia’s Barbershop, was selected through a lottery process to receive a $5,000 ‘loan-to-grant’ from Fresno’s small business relief fund.
But not all is gloomy. Tulare Street Bistro opened its doors for takeout in April. Dave Street Customs, a bike shop on E Street that opened last August, is finding that a pandemic is good for business. “I can’t stock my shop fast enough to keep up with the demand,” said owner David De La Torre. “We’re the only bike shop on the westside.” Cristino Armieto, a local graphic artist, is working on a digital art display in a vacant gallery on Kern Street.
Chinatown’s history of resilience
Since the beginning of Fresno in 1872, the very nature of Chinatown — who should live there, who should own property, what types of businesses should operate — has been the subject of much debate.
The district predates the city’s founding by over a decade, starting right after the Central Pacific Railroad completed the Fresno station in 1872. In early 1873, according to Paul Vandor’s “History of Fresno County,” white citizens and Fresno’s business owners circulated a petition to forbid the sale or lease of property to Chinese or other non-white immigrants.
In the early 1900s, Chester H. Rowell, then editor of the Morning Republican, questioned the value of Japanese and Chinese immigrants in the pages of the paper while his uncle, Dr. Chester Rowell, as mayor, waged a reformist war on gambling institutions in Chinatown. During the first two decades of the 20th Century, as immigrants came to Chinatown from across the globe, several federal and state laws restricted immigration and land ownership specifically for Chinese and Japanese immigrants, obstructing them from establishing roots locally.
Despite obstacles, the community persisted and grew to encompass many “non-white” ethnic groups — Italians, Greeks, Armenians, African-Americans, German-Russians, Portugese, Mexicans, Basque, and Filipinos — that all found a home in and around Chinatown.
They found ways to thrive. To ensure the community had access to health care after the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19, Dr. Buntaro Okonogi, a Japanese doctor, built a hospital on E Street. The building was later demolished to accommodate the expanding Danish Creamery site, now California Dairies.
As Chinese immigration waned, Japanese immigrants moved to the area in search of farm labor — and, eventually, farm and business ownership. Chinatown became a hub for the Japanese community in the San Joaquin Valley. In 1940, over 130 Japanese-serving businesses were located in the heart of the district.
But the problems continued. During World War II, Lynn Ikeda’s grandfather, Sugimatsu Ikeda, who founded Kogetsu-Do in 1915, was incarcerated in a Japanese internment camp. To avoid losing the business, Ikeda leased the store to a Chinese family who ran it until their return in 1945. Many Japanese-American businesses in Chinatown were lost during internment and after their release as they faced significant local hostility and, in some cases, government seizure of their property.
According to research by historian Christina Morales Guzman, director for the Office of Multicultural Learning at Santa Clara University, the forced imprisonment of Fresno’s Japanese population opened the door to the burgeoning Mexican-American community to establish a cultural center in Chinatown. The Azteca Theater, built on F Street in 1948, was the first and only theater to show Spanish-language films in the central San Joaquin Valley. It was the only Fresno stop during Cesar Chavez’s famous march to Sacramento in 1965.
After World War II, rapid highway expansion and generous home loans for returning veterans created a rapid suburban growth in Fresno. However, racially restrictive covenants and redlining confined many of the original ethnic groups to the west side of the railroad tracks and barred them from purchasing homes in the new suburbs.
These barriers further solidified Chinatown’s significance as a multicultural commercial district. Central Fish, founded in 1950 by Akira Yokomi, found a steady and loyal customer base in Chinatown in part by marketing specifically to Fresno’s African American community, which faced significant discrimination in other stores. Bank of America and Union Bank, [Bank of Italy and Bank of Tokyo, respectively], located in Chinatown, began as ethnic-serving banks and have served the area for several decades. They remain the closest banks for southwest Fresno residents.
Urban renewal and redevelopment
When Highway 99 along D Street was under construction in 1953-56, 19,000 west Fresno residents protested the disrarray. The project displaced businesses and residences in Chinatown and Russiantown to the south, severing businesses from the residential neighborhoods they served. Despite the disruption, a new era of growth ensued, and many of the neon signs in Chinatown, such as Dick’s, on Kern Street, date back to the 1950s.
In 1964, Fresno City Councilmember Ted C. Wills proclaimed that most of the buildings in Chinatown were “wino hangouts” and proposed they be demolished and rebuilt with federal urban renewal funds. Local businesses organized and developed their own plan; city leaders adopted an alternative “Chinatown Rehabilitation Plan” which favored preserving the neighborhood’s cultural character, rather than the mass demolition and displacement which occurred north of Fresno Street and west of Highway 99.
This plan was ultimately abandoned in the early 1970s, and demolition of many historic buildings, along with the loosening of racially restrictive covenants in northern neighborhoods, left the area with many abandoned properties.
High-Speed Rail construction
On a morning in February, Doizaki, of Central Fish, found himself frantically making phone calls — G Street, the main access for delivery trucks to his store, was closed, and he had not received any notice. Since high-speed rail construction began in 2015, business owners constantly face road closures, often with little or no notice.
Kern and Mariposa are permanently closed, although a pedestrian thoroughfare is planned to connect Chinatown and downtown when the station is complete. Tulare Street, a key access route, has been closed for two years, and isn’t slated to open until 2022 at the earliest, Doizaki said.
Businesses have been impacted — Ofelia’s, a small Mexican restaurant on Kern Street, closed its doors after losing its main customer base who walked from the senior living centers at Masten Towers and The Californian. Mono or Ventura Streets, which are the closest crossing points, are missing sidewalks in some sections. Street closures result in major revenue losses for many businesses.
And when Ventura Street shuts down for a few years? “It’s going to be bad,” Doizaki said. “But, no matter what has happened in Chinatown, we’ve always tried to make the best out of a crappy situation.”
In 2017, Doizaki and other business owners formed the Chinatown Fresno Partnership to better negotiate for their interests with the high-speed rail authority and city leaders, and to prepare for anticipated investment.
To them, there are glimmers of hope — the Fresno Housing Authority is building the first new construction Chinatown has seen in a few decades — a 56-unit workforce housing project on the corner of Mariposa and F Streets; F, Kern, and Mariposa Streets, along with China Alley, are slated to be repaved with new street trees, pedestrian lighting, and signage. The city is exploring a new property-based improvement district that could raise funds for ongoing maintenance and beautification. The city also recently received funding to clean up polluted land in Chinatown and west Fresno.
Doizaki believes local control of Chinatown’s redevelopment will help to preserve the cultural integrity of the district. His family recently purchased the Nippon buildings on Kern, with intentions to rehabilitate the structures and bring in new businesses. Another Fresno investor, Mitch Pomeroy, bought the Dick’s building on Kern.
Kathy Omachi, a fierce opponent of high-speed rail and several redevelopment schemes for the area, has actively worked on revitalizing and preserving Chinatown’s history and culture for nearly three decades, leading tours of the historic underground tunnels and hosting the annual Chinese New Year Parade. She remains skeptical that investment related to high-speed rail will have any positive contributions to the area. “This is the exact same story we were told with the stadium,” she said. “We were supposed to get restaurants, nightlife, people walking through. They did come to Chinatown — to park. But once they got parking tickets, they were gone, and never came back.”
Omachi says preservation of Chinatown’s cultural history is central to any revitalization efforts and is reviving efforts from 2006 to designate Chinatown as a historic district. Doizaki supports the historic designation and is also working to recognize Kern Street as the heart of Fresno’s Japantown.
While most business owners are not yet worried about being priced out as investment ramps up, they acknowledge it is a possibility down the line. “Developers don’t have a connection to community. If you don’t have that community — that knows the history, knows what people want — driving what gets built, you’re going to lose it,” said June Stanfield, owner of Golden Cuts on F Street for over 20 years.
The city — as a condition of receiving grant funds from the state — is preparing a “displacement avoidance plan” to help business owners remain. Some business owners expressed skepticism that their perspective will matter. “We’ve gotten a lot of calls to cater city meetings, but they never ask me for my input in the meeting,” said Paul Pearson, owner of Chef Paul’s.
For now, most businesses are trying to survive the next few months. Pearson envisions a party for his loyal customers once regulations allow dining in — social-distance style, of course, with tables spaced generously.
But what’s at stake in Chinatown is more than just lost businesses, jobs, or revenue. For Nikiko Masumoto, a local farmer, writer, and co-founder of the Yonsei Memory Project, a storytelling collaborative working to revive Japanese-American history, it is about “the disappearance of places I belong.”