Fresno, Eugene’s Forgettable Sister City

Eugene has four official sister cities. They are in Japan, Russia, South Korea, and Nepal. Not included on that list is a city that bears some familial resemblances to Eugene and is much closer. Last month, I drove to Fresno, California in a car with intermittent air conditioning. Among professional writers, this passes as “suffering for your art.”

My first time in Fresno was traveling in a camper van in 1990 with my two grade-school-age sons. After a week in southern California where perfection was displayed and marketed on every corner, we were happy to get away from the crowds — until we discovered what those crowds already knew.

Ocean breezes and lush parks behind us, we contented ourselves with a campsite under a single sad sapling. If you know the latter half of Jonah’s Old Testament story, you can substitute his details for mine.

Whatever deal California had made with the Devil for its unrelenting perfection, the Devil must have gotten the state’s central valley in return. Hades is not normally depicted with a highway running through it, but that’s only because nobody wants to remember their time in Fresno.

Noti resident Jodi Sommers told me her Fresno story in the Eugene airport. As she was telling it, she was also wishing she could forget it.

She and her boyfriend ended up in Fresno to repair their car after bears had disrupted their camping trip.

They had been backpacking in Yosemite, and black bears smelled food inside their locked Mazda GLC. “They were familiar with this type of car. They broke the passenger window, rolled back the frame around the window and climbed on in and ate a lot of our food, leaving bear slime throughout the car.”

Steve Ransom grew up along that I-5 corridor but knew college would be his ticket away, so he came to the University of Oregon. He has since returned to suburban Sacramento and married his 5th-grade sweetheart, but he never goes to Fresno. He described it to me as “where beige goes to die.”

I can tell you what dead beige looks like. It’s a massive downtown walking mall, filled with urine-stained concrete.

Fresno’s Fulton Mall opened 50 years ago last month, to much fanfare. Eugene’s downtown mall was a scaled-down version of Fresno’s, incorporating fountains and sculptures and container landscaping.

Today the Fresno mall is just dreadful. Its caption today would be: “If we build it, they will flee.”

The fountains no longer function, the containers hold weeds, and a million-dollar Renoir sculpture looks hidden in plain sight among resale shops, social service agencies, and vacant buildings.

Fresno is just now preparing to re-open its mall to traffic. For once, we can say Eugene moved more quickly than a peer.

My pilgrimage to Fresno had another purpose. I wanted to shake somebody’s hand, to thank them for Jon Ruiz. Eugene City Manager Ruiz was one of two assistant city managers in Fresno when he interviewed for his current job in February, 2008.

Look at what Eugene has accomplished since and compare it to Fresno over the same period. Give our city manager even the smallest slice of credit for that. We came out ahead.

Executive Assistant Therese Edwards remembered Ruiz well, and she was willing to shake my hand. “I worked for Jon for one day less than a year,” she told me. “That’s how long he stayed in the public works department. I could tell right away that he was a different sort of manager.”

Edwards had worked for the city for long enough to know. “Most managers would come in and close their door, just learning the job first. Not Jon. He was reaching out from Day One. He would talk to anybody who could help move things along. He always had a vision he wanted to see accomplished.”

She remembered two things Ruiz especially loved. “He loved his tea. And he loved to ride his bike. So Eugene’s probably been a good fit for him, right?”

It’s been only six and a half years. But yeah — so far, so good.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs