When I first came to Fresno, I noticed the tendency of some here to rag on their city. All this talk of lack made me wonder, what is wrong with this place? Since then, I’ve concluded, the biggest problem is…people who rag on Fresno.

In his 1992 book, The Social Production of Indifference, anthropologist Michael Herzfeld talks about “social theodicy.” Bad things happen, and we try to find social reasons for our troubles, preferably reasons that resonate with others. Ever heard someone lament the evils of “the bureaucracy”? How the “those stupid bureaucrats” and their “red tape” prevented them from having their way? These are not simple statements of fact about “the bureaucracy.” No, this is social theodicy at work. The speaker is saying that they failed at some life or work-related project, and they blame someone else (“the bureaucracy”) for that failure. And we are all willing to gravely shake our heads along with them and agree, because our collective cultural understanding of “the bureaucracy” (stodgy, obstructionist) makes it an easy target for blame.

Likewise, when someone rails about Fresno, I wonder, what is the speaker’s failed life project or work aspiration? How do they find it socially useful to blame “Fresno”? And why does anyone go along with their play at social theodicy?

Well, not everyone goes along. I recently met Shaunt Yemenjian, a Fresno native who left town for school and is now back working as an architect. Yes, he told me, in Fresno, the range of project types is not as wide as it is in other cities. But why were Shaunt and I meeting? Shaunt, with colleagues Kiel Famellos-Schmidt and Mike Pinheiro, have designed a development of modest, low-cost efficiency units. They’ve teamed up with a local developer to propose, to the City of Fresno, acquisition of some city land to build the development, which would serve as the first dwelling for homeless people under the city’s “housing first” strategy for ending homelessness. The design challenges some common assumptions of recent housing designs, like clearly defined functions for specific spaces (e.g. “living room”) and the tendency toward excess space. The project is innovative, economically viable and socially relevant.

Shaunt and friends are making Fresno more like the city that they want it to be. Are the kinds of architecture projects in Fresno relatively narrow? Then make your own project.

Next: Anthros and architects working together…why?