Fresno: Underground gardens and Time Cop III. Things to do if you find yourself in Fresno, CA

The top reason for living in Fresno seems to be the many things there are nearby to get someone out of Fresno. Talk to the locals about things to do here and they'll talk about Yosemite, wine country, and the coast. Ask about things to do in this city of half a million people and the answers are most often laced with negative. If something is suggested, it's most often the large generic shopping areas that cover mile after mile along the newly developed northern part of the city.

In Fresno's defense, it lacks a metro area. It took me some time to realize why a city this size could have so few options of interest. Other cities have suburbs that double and triple the size of the city. These larger populations add to the culture, economy, and chance for interesting sub-cultures. Fresno is surrounded by agriculture. The sparsely populated Sierras block visitors from the east, and to the west are coastal cities: San Fransisco, Oakland, LA. If you're looking for a fun time and live between Fresno and San Francisco-- which way are you going to drive?

Of course, Fresno's problems aren't this simple. Other cities across the country fight decentralized sprawl, loss of personality to incoming chains, and competition with other neighboring cities. I don't know enough to explain why so many Fresnoians seem happier packing into shopping malls and Starbucks while abandoning the more interesting districts; but it's definitely the norm.

But enough Fresno trashing! There is enough of that from the locals and elsewhere on-line. Here are some of the fun things we've found to do that we haven't seen elsewhere in our travels. These are things Fresno can be proud of.

Valley Animal Center: We've been to public and private dog parks across the country and, though I'm sure they exist, haven't seen anything this developed. This no-kill shelter with discounted care and immunizations offers this huge play park with multiple areas including a pool and agility course. Bailey loves playing here and the brief temperment test all dogs must pass adds to our comfort as owners.

Lindsay riding a Harley
OH WOW! Nickel Arcade: Unlike the penny arcade at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, the games at OH WOW! aren't quite antiques. For someone my age this means nostalgia galore. All versions of Time Cop, driving games, pinball machines, and 8-player X-men. At 5 cents a game, anyone can fulfill their childhood dream of playing Time Cop or X-men all the way through. It does get crowded with kids and there can be a wait for certain games, but it's open late-- go on a school night. Do note: If there are small kids around, save jokes about upside-down "OH WOW!" entry bracelets for later.

Mia Cuppa Cafe': Heralded as the city's main cultural area of interest, the Tower district has been a disappointment. Picture Philadelphia's South Street or Chicago's Logan Square at one thirtieth scale. The district still has some of the best in Fresno, though, and Mia Cuppa's is one of them. The wood booths in one of the four seating areas in this large cafe are a great place to cozy away for writing or conversation. Other Tower District shops worth checking out
are the Teazer World Tea Market, Spokeasy Public House, and some of the many second-hand shops.

Bike Lanes/Trails: One thing that's great about California, Fresno included, is its bike-friendliness. It doesn't always feel the safest biking in lanes only feet from traffic, but at least they've created the lanes. This is a step up from most cities. Detour down one of the many fully paved bike trails through trees and tunnels for coffee or a drink in nearby Clovis. On Valentines we used the bike lanes to bar hop happy hours among the northern sprawl.

Vinyard Farmer's Market Photo: mswine/flickr
Fruits and Veggies!: Fresno is a great place for vegetarians and vegans. It doesn't have the same developed fine-dining and eclectic options of other cities, but who cares when red peppers are 3/$1 and you can buy avocados 5/$1. We can pack our fridge with a weeks worth of fruits and vegetables for $50. Restaurants like Sweet Tomatoes take advantage of the prices by offering an all-you-can-eat salad bar that puts Jason's Deli and Ruby Tuesday's to shame.
Taking a break from balancing
Woodward BMX Park: This huge, public, multi-part BMX park offers fun for all skill levels. As a kid on Long Island, we'd disappear into the woods or sumps (you might have to be from LI to know what that is) with a shovel to make our own jumps. We'd bike and skate in parking lots until security came and kicked us out. Fresno has this huge free BMX park and many free skate parks. We went during the day because I didn't want to be laughed off my mountain bike by a bunch of twelve-year-olds.

Open Mics: If you're into open mic opportunities, Fresno has quite a few. It's big enough to have some good musicians and comedians, but small enough that open mics don't compete with too many paid acts. Starving Artists Bistro near our apartment takes the thigns further by allowing artists to perform for longer periods. Coffee Lounge and Mia Cuppa have other options.

photo: Forestiere Mainpage

Underground Gardens: You can't visit an underground garden just anywhere! The Forestiere Underground Garden isn't open for the season, yet, but we'll be there when it does. Shinzen Japanese Garden at Woodward is another garden of interest.

That's it for the Fresno rundown! More on day and weekend trips in the next post on our stay in California and Fresno...