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A 2024 rendering of the high-speed rail station in Fresno. Four stations in the Central Valley will be the first to be constructed. Trains are slated to start running in 2030. Courtesy California High-Speed Rail Authority
A 2024 rendering of the high-speed rail station in Fresno. Four stations in the Central Valley will be the first to be constructed. Trains are slated to start running in 2030. (Courtesy California High-Speed Rail Authority)

In Fresno’s Chinatown, High-Speed Rail Sparks Hope and Debate Within Residents

In Fresno’s Chinatown, High-Speed Rail Sparks Hope and Debate Within Residents

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On a recent weekday in Fresno’s Chinatown, a steady stream of customers flow into the Central Fish Company. The Japanese grocery store doubles as a modest restaurant, where owner Morgan Doizaki serves up catfish nuggets and fish and chips.

This business is bustling, but around the shop, there’s not a lot of activity.

“When my great uncle opened the store, this was the downtown for communities of color,” Doizaki said. “Then, it became a ghost town.”

That’s because, in the 1960s, Fresno’s Chinatown was hit hard by urban renewal. A major highway cut through the once-vibrant neighborhood, resulting in demolished buildings and shuttered stores.

Now, the California High-Speed Rail Authority promises to bring economic prosperity back to this area by constructing a new station — one of the first to be built along the line.

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But while some Chinatown residents said this station will be a boon to the local economy, others worry it will be a catalyst for gentrification, ultimately pushing out the very people and businesses the new station aims to benefit.

Margaret Cederoth, the director of planning and sustainability at the California High-Speed Rail Authority, said that after decades of segregation, she hopes the new station — with entrances on both the Chinatown and downtown sides of the tracks — will be a bridge to reknit the two neighborhoods.

“It’s actually a fantastic opportunity for reconnecting downtown and Chinatown,” Cederoth said.

A 2024 rendering of the high-speed rail station in Fresno. (Courtesy California High-Speed Rail Authority)

To jumpstart economic activity, the authority secured a $20 million grant from the federal government to build a plaza in front of the new station that will host food trucks and street vendors.

The plaza, which will sit on the downtown side of the tracks, is slated to open in 2026, a full four years before trains are expected to start running. On the Chinatown side, the authority plans to build an electric vehicle charging station for residents. The funding will also help restore the historic train depot, which will be incorporated into the new station’s design and is believed to be one of Fresno’s oldest buildings, according to the High-Speed Rail Authority.

“[Fresno] was a city that was really born out of the railway, and having that historic station next to the future high-speed rail station creates this real chemistry between old and new,” Cederoth said. “We want these to be places that are enjoyed by the public, even in advance of high-speed rail service.”

The history of Fresno’s Chinatown

Chinese immigrants were among the first to settle in Fresno after they helped build the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s. When white landlords in the city agreed not to sell or lease homes east of the railroad to Chinese residents, they were forced to relocate to the west side of the tracks, where Chinatown is now, separating downtown Fresno from Chinese residents.

These residents created a bustling neighborhood filled with shops, restaurants and civic organizations. But, Jan Minami, director of the Chinatown Fresno Foundation Project, said it was also a locus of illicit activity, which took place inside a warren of underground tunnels.

“At one point, Chinatown was a red light district,” Minami said. “Many of the underground tunnels and basements were created to escape the heat, but they were also used to essentially hide gambling and prostitution.”

Chinese immigrants continued to move to the neighborhood and began working at nearby farms, picking figs, grapes, cotton and wheat.

Then, in the 1880s, the Chinese Exclusion Act diminished the Chinese workforce. Japanese immigrants, including Doizaki’s family, moved in with many replacing Chinese workers in the region.

Morgan Doizaki stands outside his family business, Central Fish Company, in Fresno’s Chinatown on March 26, 2024. Doizaki’s family has run the shop since 1950. (Madi Bolanos/KQED)

Doizaki’s great-grandpa first moved from Japan to Fowler, a small rural town south of Fresno, in 1898. He and his family relocated to Fresno’s Chinatown years later and began creating a life there — until World War II when Japanese immigrants were forced into internment camps.

Doizaki’s family was one of the few that was able to rebuild and maintain a business in the area. Over time, Fresno’s Chinatown would become home to 11 different cultures.

“We’ve had our ups and downs, but we’re starting to see improvements,” Doizaki said of his neighborhood. ” High-speed rail definitely has helped put a lot of focus into Chinatown.”

Chinatown revitalization

The High-Speed Rail Authority estimates it will spend more than $33 million on the plaza and other early work near the new station — an investment that’s also prompting city officials to get in on the revitalization effort.

Fresno City Council members recently approved a $10 million contract, with funding from the Transforming Climate Communities Program, to construct median islands with greenery and new sidewalks, as well as install street lights with Chinese lanterns to honor the neighborhood’s culture.

A 2024 rendering of the high-speed rail station in Fresno. (Courtesy California High-Speed Rail Authority)

In the last year, the city has opened an apartment building with 57 affordable units just three blocks from the Chinatown station. Councilmember Miguel Arias, who represents the district, said the city has also acquired old motels and historic buildings that will eventually be converted into market-rate and affordable housing.

“We have a responsibility to these communities to not allow the next modern transit system to continue that historical redlining because the freeway system, the train system fundamentally killed Chinatown,” Arias said. “Our goal is to have about half a dozen housing projects be opened or in the final stages of construction by 2026.”

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But housing advocates said building more is just one piece of a much larger puzzle. Marisa Moraza, a campaign director with Power California, said the city needs to ensure that all this new development does not price out tenants and business owners.

For that, she’s advocating for the city to impose a rent cap, increase tenant protections and institute a new oversight board to oversee these efforts.

The state’s Department of Housing and Community Development has mandated that Fresno build nearly 37,000 new homes and apartments by 2031 as part of California’s broader goal to construct 2.5 million homes in that time. And in a letter to the city (PDF), the department recommended it listen and incorporate comments from community groups, such as Power California, as it plans for its share of that new housing.

“We want to continue to see the city of Fresno grow,” Moraza said. “However, we want to ensure that we are not increasing displacement in downtown and in southwest Fresno as well.”

For Doizaki, whose family business has been in Chinatown since 1950, he hopes the city and businesses can work together to provide enough housing for residents with a healthy range of incomes and backgrounds.

“Some of the plans that I’m seeing right now is to fill Chinatown with affordable housing. That’s not how you build a thriving community,” he said. “It’s 2024; we should be able to foresee that this is not how you treat a cultural minority district that was born through racism.”

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