Fresno is a sprawling metropolis that other Californians know as one of the least glamorous spots in the state. The climate is awful: smoking hot and smoggy in the summer, damp and foggy in the winter. Located in the flat, richly agricultural Central Valley, host to large numbers of immigrant Hispanic and Asian people, Fresno offers no scenery—just high unemployment, high crime, and unnumbered chain restaurants strung out along endless strips of asphalt.

This is America's new kind of city, created by the automobile and without a center. (Invisible from those main strips are some gracious shaded neighborhoods, but what visitor would know it?) Despite its awful reputation, Fresno is one of the fastest-growing cities in America (population nearing half a million), mainly because housing is cheap, and perhaps also because Fresno is a friendly, unpretentious place where families easily find a niche. Outsiders scorn it and Fresnans are humble about it, but people who come to live in Fresno often stay.

One odd feature of Fresno is that it has been creeping steadily north, and only north, for decades. The neighborhoods that 30 years ago perched on the north edge of town now sit smack in the middle of the city. Meanwhile the south side grows steadily shabbier, abandoned by those who can move up. "In Fresno we spell success n-o-r-t-h," says H. Spees of the Fresno Leadership Foundation (FLF), which builds partnerships between churches and other civic organizations. The "go north" mentality was a way of responding to problems by moving away from them. With plenty of cheap land available, a laissez-faire civic culture grew around tract houses and strip malls. People commonly believed that developers owned the town—churches certainly didn't. ...

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