Ofelia Hemme used to run Ofelia’s Cocina, a Mexican restaurant on Kern Street with red and yellow tablecloths and sunny wall murals of beaches and palm trees. Her specialty was chiles rellenos: Stuffed peppers. “Every other place, they have chiles rellenos in Mexican restaurants, but ours were different,” says Hemme, smiling. “They were served in some kind of juice, like a juicy sauce, and it was really really really good.”
In 2017, the cocina was one of three businesses Hemme owned in Chinatown. Today, however, only one remains: A barber shop she runs with her two sons. In 2018, she had to shutter the restaurant and a men’s clothing store she had owned for 14 years. “It still hurts,” she says. “If you ask me, I can cry right now. I didn't want to go.”
But she was losing customers, thanks to high-speed rail construction. This neighborhood, settled in the late 1800s by workers building the railroad, is now being chewed up to make way for high-speed rail. Right now, three streets that connected the neighborhood to downtown are completely blocked, overgrown and fenced off. “Closing the streets, it just stopped a lot of business,” she says. “Traffic, it cannot go through, and a lot of detours and stuff like that. People get lost, get mad.”
Many of Hemme’s clients had negotiated those streets in wheelchairs and walkers, coming over for lunch from a retirement home downtown. She says they stopped coming when they couldn’t navigate the detours.
Down the street, Rosie Torres of Rosie’s Flower Shop is also skeptical of high-speed rail. “If they complete what they’re going to do, great, but I don’t see any benefit to it right now, and I don’t see any benefit from it coming,” she says. “But we’ll see.”
That disillusionment is shared by a lot of folks in Chinatown, including Kathy Omachi, who had high hopes when the plans were announced years ago. “My first response was, “oh, that’s going to be interesting! Hopefully they talk with the community, hopefully they talk with property owners and business owners,’” she says. “And I’m still hoping. This is like five, six years into it.”
To Omachi, Chinatown is family. She now lives in Reedley, but her father was born in China Alley, a small side street today that a century ago would have been bustling with homes and businesses. Omachi’s grandparents migrated to Chinatown from the Japanese city of Hiroshima in the late 1800s, along with some 11 other diaspora who at one point settled here. “African American, Armenian, Basque, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Portuguese, Mexican Americans, Germans from Volga Russia, Greek and Filipino communities all called Fresno Chinatown home from about the mid to later 1800s,” she says.
Omachi runs Chinatown Revitalization Incorporated, an organization that documents Chinatown’s history. She holds court in what she calls “a little hands-on museum” on F St. with relics of the past: A travel chest from Japan, tools from an herb shop, and props from a Chinese opera that performed here in the 1920s. At other times, she’s below ground. She leads tours through Chinatown’s underground tunnels, which used to link basements and businesses to gambling halls and brothels.
There’s a tension in Chinatown between preservation and rejuvenation. But high-speed rail construction is changing the neighborhood faster than any locals anticipated, and on someone else’s terms. Since breaking ground on the Madera to Kern line in 2015, the High Speed Rail Authority has gobbled up 1400 parcels of land and demolished 195 buildings, many in Chinatown.
Some of that construction is making way for Fresno’s high-speed rail station, a “grand arrival corridor” with greenspace, parking structures and shopping areas slated to be built on the edge of Chinatown. Some streets closed now will never reopen, while others will become underpasses. Now that Governor Newsom put the brakes on the rail’s statewide plans in January, some want construction to stop. Others want the rail to be finished, or else their sacrifices will have been for nothing.
Morgan Doizaki falls somewhere in between. “I'm still excited about it coming, because it's going to be in Chinatown, it's going to be great for the area,” he says. “But even Newsom says 2027, and that's still a long way to wait if you’re struggling right now.”
Doizaki owns Central Fish, a Japanese market and restaurant at the corner of Kern and G Streets. When he looks out the front door at the weedy field that used to be a thoroughfare from downtown—and the parking lot he sold to the state before it could be taken by eminent domain—he sees Fresno’s dark past. “It seems like where there was the redline districts before in Fresno, they just put that fence where the red line used to be,” he says. “So it's basically they're redlining again and they're discriminating against the homeless and Chinatown.”
At the same time, however, he’s become a part of a turning point. He’s now the board chair for the Chinatown Fresno Foundation, which, since its formation in early 2018, has brought in around a quarter of a million dollars to unify and revive the neighborhood. And it appears to be helping locals negotiate with the state. “I’ve been working with the new partnership, with downtown, the Chinatown partnership to try to figure out how we can funnel additional dollars for recruiting, for advertising, redoing our signs,” announced Diana Gomez, the High Speed Rail Authority’s Central California Regional Director, at a meeting in Chinatown last Tuesday.
Gomez tells me those “additional dollars” could total as much as $50,000 for businesses in both downtown and Chinatown. Thanks to the Chinatown Fresno Foundation, she says, locals’ perspectives are more unified. “Before, we didn’t have that consistent voice, that coordinated voice,” she says, “and now we’ve been working very well together.”
Morgan Doizaki agrees. “Getting the community together in Chinatown has been a challenge, but it's also so beautiful the way it is, how much momentum it has, that people will start getting much much more involved.”
Then, maybe someday, Ofelia Hemme can reopen her Mexican restaurant on Kern Street and start serving chiles rellenos again.