By Sasha Khokha
California’s proposed high-speed rail system is still wrapped in lawsuits and controversy. But this week, the project broke ground in downtown Fresno. Sort of.
Construction equipment began digging trenches — not for future bullet-train tracks, but for archaeologists who are trying to make sure the project won’t damage historically sensitive sites in Fresno’s Chinatown.
The neighborhood was a thriving residential and commercial district in the late 1800s. It was actually home to a rich mix of Fresno’s immigrant population, including Chinese, Japanese, Armenians, Mexican-Americans, Portuguese, Basques, Italians, Greeks, African-Americans and Germans from Russia’s Volga River.
“We are here to make sure we don’t bulldoze through any of the history,” said Benjamin Camarena, an engineer with the High-Speed Rail Authority. The site may not be a construction zone, but Camarena says he’s excited to finally be wearing a hard hat and a bright orange vest on the rail project. “It’s really happening, we’re starting. And pretty soon, you’re going to see a whole lot of construction going on,” Camarena said. The first site excavated this week was a parking lot behind an adult video store. Archaeologist Stacey Schneyder, an expert in historic Chinatowns, used a giant sifter to sort through dirt, discovering a set of stairs from a turn-of-the-century house. She also found items like old glass bottles and a tiny porcelain doll.
“This is something really personal that a child once played with. It had the little arms and the little legs that were recovered. How it ended up here, we’ll never know,” said Schneyder.
So far, the archaeologists haven’t found anything they say is of major historical significance. But some residents who trace their history to Chinatown want high-speed rail officials to look for more than just a few artifacts close to the surface. Activists like Kathy Omachi, founder of the group Chinatown Revitalization, want officials to interview longtime residents and document a series of interconnected basements under some buildings.
Omachi recently walked down into one of those basements below a neighborhood business. She gingerly made her way in the darkness towards a heavy door built into the brick wall, leading to an adjoining basement on the other side.
“As you can see, [the door] is nail-studded, very old, reinforced,” said Omachi. “ It has something very interesting right there: It’s a peephole.”
Omachi believes these rooms may have been secret dens for gambling or prostitution. Many locals in Chinatown say there may be even a network of freestanding tunnels underground here, but that has yet to be proven definitively.
Omachi said she’s worried shaking from the construction will affect the foundations of Chinatown’s buildings. She knows the rail plans to bulldoze other locations altogether to make way for a new station.
“This will be devastating to our community,” said Omachi. “Those properties will be under asphalt and they will be planted with little trees and potted plants as entranceways to a station, when there’s nothing left of the history of people here in the valley.
The High-Speed Rail Authority says it wants to continue dialogue with the community as the project unfolds.
Archaeologists have excavated two sites this week, and are waiting for permission from seven additional property owners to finish the dig.
(Also from The California Report: Slideshow — Fresno’s Underground Chinatown