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Fresno: Central Valley Gem

Halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and a gateway to Yosemite, Fresno is far more than a rest stop on the road to somewhere else.

Fresno's Shinzen Japanese Friendship Garden, image
Photo caption
In springtime, Shinzen Japanese Friendship Garden in Woodward Park blazes with color.

In 1984, the year Fresno earned the dubious distinction of being named the "least livable" city in the United States, its mayor, Dan Whitehurst, appeared on Late Night with David Letterman. When Letterman asked Whitehurst what there was to like about Fresno, the mayor pointed out that the temperature rarely rose above 120 degrees. What's more, Whitehurst added, it was the first city in the country to institute "comprehensive leisure suit control laws." Letterman chuckled. The audience loved it. But Fresno has managed to have the last laugh.

Nearly 20 years later, this unassuming city is both livable and likable. Halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and about midway between Yosemite and the coast, Fresno is far more than a rest stop on the road to somewhere else. Residents and visitors have lots to do here, other than wither in the sun like the most famous local crop, raisins. Consider, for example, the bustling Tower District, named for its landmark, the art deco Tower Theatre. It's a casually quirky area, lined with cafés, antique shops, and restaurants. Retro Rag sells vintage clothing; Grand Marie's Chicken Pie Shop sells just that. Echo Restaurant is decorated with chairs designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and has drawn comparisons to Berkeley's famous Chez Panisse because of its fresh, seasonal California dishes.

Fresno was settled after the Gold Rush and its most precious commodity has long been its fertile soil. In spring, almond, peach, apple, and plum trees stand in full flower along the Blossom Trail, a network of glorious orchards designated for self-guided car tours.

In recent years, the city has enlivened its downtown district, renovating the landmark Fresno Water Tower and building a new ballpark for the Fresno Grizzlies, the San Francisco Giants AAA minor-league team. Other green spaces worth visiting include Woodward Park (site of the elegant Shinzen Japanese Friendship Garden) and the San Joaquin River Parkway, a shady expanse on the outskirts of town ideal for strolling and canoeing. Roeding Park is home to the Chaffee Zoological Gardens, a popular attraction and residence of lions and tigers and bears as well as oryx, dik-diks, and baboons.

Ethnic restaurants abound in Fresno, from George's (Armenian shish kebab) to the Santa Fe Basque Restaurant. But the city's best known Italian place—Forestiere Underground Gardens—serves no food at all. It was built by Baldasare Forestiere, a native of the old country who settled in Fresno during the early 1900s on what he thought was good farming land. It wasn't. So Forestiere started digging, and digging, and digging. Some 40 years later, he'd created an elaborate subterranean home and garden that look like something from another world. There are about 40 rooms, with patios and archways and fruit trees that sprout deep beneath the earth's surface, their tops poking through the hard-packed soil.

Another notable local, author William Saroyan, was born in a small house just across town. In the last years of his life, Saroyan divided his time between Paris and Fresno. But it was Fresno, he wrote, that was his "place" in the world. "We belonged to each other. Forever. It was a fact." He wasn't alone. Long before Letterman, Fresno was on a lot of people's Top 10 lists.

Photography by Melissa Barnes

This article was first published in March 2004. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.