An End to a Once Glorious History
Not too far from Highway 99 in Fresno, CA, you will find part of the Golden State Freeway. As it's name implies, it was once one of the major highways for California's Central Valley. For travelers headed north or south, the many hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues provided a brief and pleasant pause. As time progressed, the old highway was replaced by the 99. Many of the motels fell into more dilapidated states, restaurants closed down, and the few shops became unnecessary. The new 99 was not only cleaner and more convenient, but allowed one to bypass the once distracting scenery of neon clubs where a pleasant meal could be experienced to the songs of folks such as Dean Martin or Sammy Davis Jr.
By no means will this brief article to a historical analysis of Golden State Avenue. I am no historian, but having lived near this part of Fresno, i have seen the hotels in their current state. With the transient populations bordering on the criminal and deviant, the area which was once glorious, has turned into one of despair. Often i imagine the neon lights alive, the restaurants filled with the sounds of diners and music, the laughter under the lamps from well dressed and happy pedestrians, and a small little community connected in spirit to many others like it throughout the Central Valley. Often referred to as Motel Drive, you will find many that very much resemble this one, up and down the state.
Part imagination, I will share stories told to me by residents who have lived here and use some photographs to document my diminutive narrative. Although this area has slipped into squalor, and become occupied by what some would refer to as undesirable company, it is still a bit of wonder to see progress as it slowly takes shape. The High Speed Rail Project (HSR) is due to be completed in 2026 and Fresno will serve as one of the mail hubs for this train which will move people from Los Angeles to the Bay Area in record time.
Diners watch underwater swimmers behind the bar
In the early days
From the stories I have been told by people who have lived here, Motel Drive was once a thriving place, with neon signs and entertainment establishments that rivaled some of the nicer dinner houses you would see in larger cities like San Francisco. Famous lounge singers could be heard in some of the venues. One of the hotels even had a swimming pool with glass sides that served as the wall for one of the restaurants. Women, sometimes dressed as mermaids would perform aquatic acts to the delight of the audience.
It really isn't hard to imagine that these signs were once alive with electricity and dancing lights. That some of the little lodges were active bungalows, serving as a rest stop for weary travelers, when a trip to downtown would be an all day adventure. In the City's heyday, there were no large shopping malls, cars that drove 50 miles an hour were moving at a fast clip. I imagine there was a comfortable sense of security in the area as well. Places like the Storyland appealed to families with children and the imaginative landscape filled with toy soldiers and other colorful characters were a small amusement park. This was a time before Disneyland and the major fast food eateries. You can still see some of the sites and hear the warm echoes from decades previous.
Some Vintage Photos
In an era when refrigeration was new and desired in the Fresno heat, the eateries provided cool beverages and the rooms were comfortable with color televisions. The neon lit evenings must have been quite exquisite under a picturesque summer sky. Whether you could see the stars or if there were humid clouds, comfortable rooms were a resting spot after a day in a pristine swimming pool. I can imagine the streets filled with classic cars whose owners never realized their common vehicles would one day be sought after like a lost and buried treasure in an exotic island. In these days, hotels were probably special and the flavor of vacation was with you from the moment you pulled up into the lobby. Today's lodge's very rarely resemble their counterparts from the past. Post cards, salt water taffy, and diners with luncheonette counters. Bath caps for swimming or the shower. I can imagine stepping out from your room in one of these spots in the 1950s and imagining you were in a real resort.
Motel Drive Today - What Remains
Over the years the area around Golden State has deteriorated. Commuters on the new 99 bypass this historic avenue without even seeing any of the architecture from the modern highway. The hotels seemed to have opened their doors for those seeking subsidized housing as well as those involved in the underground economy. Swimming pools have dried up. Grass grew and the unkempt landscape withered away. What were once nice paths for cars turned into gravel and dirt potholes which served as muddy pools after rainstorms. Unpainted walls started to peel and the eaves cracked. Fences soon surrounded some of the once active, but now abandoned buildings.
A few of the hotels became housing for what appeared to be Veterans, parolees, prostitutes and drug dealers in addition to those on government assistance. Visitors to Fresno usually stay at one of the more modern motels off the Freeway. There was once a cocktail lounge called the Hollywood or something to that effect which eventually shut it's doors. The restaurants along Golden State had long since closed up. The famous diner off Olive Avenue, Angelo's,remained open until it was closed so he High Speed Rail Project could have some of its groundwork prepared. A few liquor stores are off the way a bit still, but not directly on this thoroughfare. The one shopping center that could be found along this street, K-mart, was turned into a "mini-mall" that sold trinkets and other inexpensive items, was eventually torn down.
This was once a Kmart
Well I certainly am a little sad to see this part of town being erased from the Fresno landscape, even knowing what the area has turned into. The reputation of this place among people who live nearby and probably most of Fresno, is an unsavory one. Then again, reputations are what other people think and know, and character, which is something set apart, is something only God understands. I'm sure there is a lot of character here, even among the denizens who may be not be as readily accepted by the rest of society.
There certainly was a community of people here, even among the transients and the downtrodden ones who were just trying to survive. And soon the place they called home will be gone, in the name of progress. Such is the future. There was a lot of character here and I see the signs that make me think of the marquees you might see in places like Las Vegas from the 1950's. I can still see the neon, see the smoke filled rooms, hear the laughter and and the clinking of glasses. A lounge singer or two maybe, families by the pool with joyful children, taking a bit of a rest on a hot summer day in Fresno, sometime in the past.
I have a few photos of what remains now, and it is quite possible that the images you see below are of places that are no more. The last time I was there was in June of 2016 and already they had knocked down two or three complexes that year alone. If you are from Fresno, you probably know this area and may feel a bit of nostalgia, thinking of what this place might have been like when the state was younger. If not, I am sure there are boulevards and avenues in the city you live in which are similar to Golden State Boulevard. And perhaps they are destined to meet a similar fate.
The future awaits us. Always.
Some Views of Golden State and Nearby, 2016
© 2016 Fin