September 9, 2022 | Climate Politics Co-Hosts Lars Maischak and Kevin Hall Interview

Image above: The area in Southwest Fresno proposed for street widening by the City of Fresno Planning Department

Guest, Emily Brandt on the City of Fresno Planning Commission: West North Avenue OPL

Friday, Sept. 9, 2022

Transcription by Emily Brandt

Audio of Lily Harris speaking before the Sept. 7, 2022 Planning Commission (listen/view the whole commission meeting here: I live in this community and I’m sitting here looking at you and some of you look like you really don’t care. You don’t have nothing to do with it because you don’t live in this area. I do. Me and my family. I raised my childrens here. For them [the City of Fresno] to come and take something that you worked hard for.  Imagine that. You go home to your nice lavish homes and you are happier and somebody come and take what you worked for, tell you because your property is too big. I bought my property because it was big. I bought it because I had children that played in the backyard, but you’ gonna come and you’ gonna take what I worked hard for. Preacher: You have a church in that neighborhood. They gonna take that too. And it’s sad that you will allow the stuff that you’ seen to happen. It’s like we’re at your mercy. This is–to me–it’s a downlow slavery. You can do people of color, in this 2022, downlow slavery, just gonna take it, but you know God sits high, and He looks low and you will reap what you sow! 

Lily Harris, lifelong resident of Southwest Fresno, speaking against the street-widening plan before the Fresno City Planning Commission on September 7, 2022.

Maischak: That was Lily Harris speaking before the City Planning Commission two nights ago and that was powerful! One of many residents of West Fresno who is objecting to a major road widening and she explained what’s at stake here.  Now the motion passed by a vote of 3 to 2. And it was clear from the people’s testimony that the City is using eminent domain to take property leaving the owners uninformed until the last possible minute.

Joining us with details is now Emily Brandt a member of HEAT.  Emily, welcome to the show. [Editor’s Note: Since the other members of HEAT were not able to be interviewed, they asked Emily to in their stead.]

Brandt: Thank you very much! Proud to be here.

Well, as you witnessed from all of the women of HEAT who came and spoke at this meeting on Sept. 7—but also at the previous meeting on August 17th, and at the August 3 meeting, there was no one from HEAT because nobody was notified.  

Emily Brandt speaking against the street-widening plan before the Fresno City Planning Commission on September 7, 2022.

So this issue–to some people–is going to seem very trivial. It’s only a 3-mile stretch of  West North Avenue, not a heavily traveled street for most residents of Fresno. However, historically, this has been settled by families who moved up after the end of  World War II when the weapons industry shut down, families bought property along here. They’ve been here for a hundred years. One of the neighbors I spoke to had been there 69 years. Other people . . . They have immaculate homes. They have worked hard to take care of them even as things around them have been destroyed. So the idea that an Official Plan Line is now going to widen the road in the Complete Streets Resolution process which was finalized in 2019 by the City Council taking various–actually this is the reason we’ve been there [to Commission meetings] so many times–is that the City has changed the way it describes what it’s taking. It has given us various documents showing us different renderings of what is being taken, but ultimately, it is supposed to be 72’ from property line to property line; that includes an 8-10’ [correction: not bike-lane] sidewalk, a 3’ buffer zone on each side and then additional width for cars and then a central 2-way turn lane. So each side has a side-walk, a bike lane–sorry, I left out the sidewalk–a bike lane and so forth. But we’ve been told sometimes that there are existing sidewalks that have already been added. Those they say they will keep. Well, they alternate from the north side to the south side. So sometimes they say they will alternate depending on whose property is going to be least affected. Other times they say, oh no, it’s a Complete Streets Project and they put up a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr Boulevard toward Church that shows it [sidewalk, bike lanes, etc.] on both sides. So that’s one example.

Brunette Harris, lifelong resident of Southwest Fresno, speaking against the street-widening plan before the Fresno City Planning Commission on September 7, 2022.

Ok, but why is this so important? It is street widening, people say. As the City has lied and said, “Oh but, there are more bicycles in Southwest Fresno, in this area 93706, than in any other part of the City.” Who is riding bicycles? People who can’t afford cars. We don’t wish them this by any means; we don’t begrudge them a bike lane, but the point is that it is not their choice. These are not families on bicycles.

This is a highly polluted area. 99%, in some of these housing tracts according to CalEnviroScreen 4.0. No one should be out walking! No one should be riding a bike! I don’t care what anybody says about any of this. Until that’s cleaned up, no one should. But ultimately what it means for residents is gentrification.

Maischak: How so?

Brandt: Because as soon as the sidewalk comes in, taxes go up. As soon as taxes rise, then they are looking for a different set of residents. They want to appeal to an entirely different class of people.

Bobbie Parks, lifelong resident of Southwest Fresno, speaking against the street-widening plan before the Fresno City Planning Commission on September 7, 2022.

Maischak: And who is interested in that particular area to develop and to gentrify, can you tell?

Brandt: Well, yes, Kevin has documented this again and again as far as Assemi and various other families, but we’re also talking about people like Sylvesta Hall who has a long history of doing various things. We’re talking about the Shehadey family who own quite a bit of property. They own Producer’s Dairy and other property owners.

Maischak: The usual suspects then.

Brandt: The usual suspects, but honestly who is going to gain the most from this is the City of Fresno because their tax base in Southwest Fresno, it ain’t much, you know because they say they have disinvested here, but that is a lie.  They have redlined the area. That’s not disinvestment; that is blocking . . .

Maischak: . . . discrimination and leaving people to their own devises and hoping it all falls apart of course.

Linda Harris-Atkins, lifelong resident of Southwest Fresno, speaking against the street-widening plan before the Fresno City Planning Commission on September 7, 2022.

Brandt: So they are going to fight this all the way.

Maischak: The City is?

Brandt: I mean, we are going to fight this all the way.

Maischak: But aren’t the residents too, of course, I hope? The spirit is there. I know it’s an uphill struggle against local authorities. The 3 to 2 vote of this Commission is this after this meeting took place?

Brandt: This is after this meeting–at the previous meeting on August 17, the Commission voted against accepting the proposal as is, but they did not vote to deny the proposal. That’s the key thing. They go through a 2-step process.  

So when we’re sitting down there, the public, watching and we see a few votes, vote to deny.  We think oh my gosh, somebody’s actually voting to deny this and then we see, ok will there be another motion, and then they vote to pass it on, to delay or to do something. The point is, you played it before in the Oakhurst Hearing, the point is that government is an ivory tower. Planning is an ivory tower. It is a discipline that uses sociological language; it uses the language of embracing. It uses psychology. It uses every tool, but ultimately, the goal is money and it’s not ever to allow residents to get what they want.

Yvonne Gordon, lifelong resident of Southwest Fresno, speaking against the street-widening plan before the Fresno City Planning Commission on September 7, 2022.

Maischak: And it seems like whatever government gets up to that is a money grab and a land grab is now expertly sugarcoated in the language of ecology, livable, walkable environments, equity, like Lily Harris was saying at that meeting, but it becomes all the more sour because this language is just clearly there to sugarcoat . . .

Brandt: It’s greenwashing and worse with racis[m]

Maischak: And then if you oppose this then maybe you’re the real racist because you’re not on-board with the equity and this is the nefarious thing about it. Everything now is rainbow-painted and it’s so cheap to do that especially if you’re up to something else. But this whole process of planning and input and so forth just seems from the looks of it designed to keep people out who are stakeholders and who are at the receiving end of this.

Brandt: You’re absolutely [right]! It’s designed to push out the people who live there and to bring an entire [new population] . . . and TCC [is designed to do the same thing] at some point I hope you’ll have us back to talk about that because that is a huge problem. It is really an issue with CARB and with every organization involved in air pollution. Until this city cleans up industrial air pollution, we cannot expect people to use anything that involves high pedestrian or bicycle or anything that exposes [them] to air. Eight hundred people annually are estimated in 93706 to die from air pollution in this area. Just from air pollution!

Southwest Fresno resident, Sarah Battle, speaking against the street-widening plan before the Fresno City Planning Commission on September 7, 2022.

Hall: We’re moving into our last minute and there are a couple of kinds of air; there’s ambient air quality standards that we look at mostly concerned about when we look at the news and our phones and whatever, but in West Fresno and in any industrialized area you have acute exposure to toxins. And so, it might be a clean air day everywhere else in town, but if you’re near the Darling Rendering Plant and the slaughterhouses and you have these trucks coming by as well as the exhaust emissions from their plants you’re being exposed. Students and seniors are living in close proximity to these centers.

Emily, as I just said we have another 30-45 seconds, where is HEAT going with this or how do you suggest people who aren’t living in West Fresno but want to get engaged; you mentioned to me that you’re an Assembly District Delegate to the State Convention and you have been asking people to get involved on a number of legislative issues. How do they do that with you or where should they go?

Brandt: Well, I have a Twitter account. It’s @ebrandt76. I would encourage people to follow me there, to follow @ClimatePolitics and @airfrezno. 

Hall: I don’t know about that guy!  

Southwest Fresno resident, Renatta Carter-Ford, speaking against the street-widening plan before the Fresno City Planning Commission on September 7, 2022.

Brandt: I know, they’re pretty wild, but there’s a lot of truth. It’s just very important that people think about things first before they go to people they trust. Think about it! With air pollution, they shouldn’t be out there. So even if riding a bicycle is cleaner than driving a car, until the air is clean enough for you to safely be out there! Why is everybody talking about this?

Maischak: I know, that 1-mile bike ride is not going to cut it and they know it . . .

Hall: Exactly! Speaking of–up next, we’re going to talk to a couple of people who can never go inside. . .

Brandt: Finally, if people want to get in touch with HEAT, they can DM me on Twitter.  Thank you!

Hall: Thank you very much, Emily Brandt from HEAT!

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