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Creating a legacy for tomorrow by cherishing our past and
connecting with our present

Celebrating 50 years of diversity
Residents of Fremont speak 137 languages

by Chip Johnson
San Francisco Chronicle
January 23, 2006

There are few among us who can honestly say our hometowns didn't exist until we got there, but native Fremonter Kathi Imholz-Mathys is one of them.

Imholz-Mathys, the daughter of Swiss immigrants, was born 50 years ago today on the same day Fremont formed one city from the incorporation of five separate communities.

She will be a VIP guest at a cake-cutting ceremony at Central Park this evening that is part of the start to a yearlong celebration. She is one of a handful of people identified by searching birth records searches across East Bay hospitals and by word of mouth. The event starts at 6 p.m. and is open to the public.

"There was no hospital in Fremont at that time, so I was born in Redwood City, where my mother worked as an au pair during the week," Imholz-Mathys said.

The story of her immigrant family parallels the city's history. Her parents settled in the township of Centerville, and her father, Tom Imholz, worked for the Cloverdale Creamery on Fremont Boulevard and lived on the premises, said his wife, Rosemarie. The place Imholz-Mathys remembers as having the best ice cream sundaes in town is now the site of Fremont Florist Shop.

The birthday festivities will include historic tours of the older sites in the former townships and will be incorporated into the city's annual Fourth of July Parade, the Festival of India and Depot Days, said Irene Koehler, chairperson of the Celebrate Fremont organization.

The Fremont Symphony will also perform a Mother's Day concert at the Smith Center at Ohlone College, where they will play new music commissioned for the city celebration, she said. There will be celebrations for the arts, historic tours and oral histories.

"It's a local focus on celebrating the talents of our community, a way to view our past, whether it's history or sports or food, and exhibit the community's vision for the future," Koehler said. The city celebration will end in September with a two-day festival in Central Park.

Fremont became a city of 22,000 residents from the incorporation of five separate townships, Irvington, Mission San Jose, Centerville, Warm Springs and Niles.

Washington Hospital was constructed two years later. Central Park was completed in 1962, the same year as the Hub, a shopping center that became the virtual center of community life.

From its earliest days, Fremont was a city of immigrants, a tradition that has only accelerated since its inception.

Today, people from every state in the nation and 155 different countries call Fremont home. There are 137 languages spoken in Fremont, and city officials proudly say the city of about 210,000 people is one of the most diverse of its size in the country. It is the Bay Area's fourth largest city.

Fremont's latest waves of residents are from East India, Pakistan and much of the rest of Asia, as well as the former Soviet Union and a variety of Latin American nations. Local media outlets descended on the city after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks because it is home to the Bay Area's largest Afghan community.

In the late 1990s, the city experienced an economic boom as tech firms looking to expand flooded in. The city sits across the Dumbarton Bridge from Palo Alto and the heart of Silicon Valley.

More than 1,200 high-tech companies moved into the city by 2000, and the city was projecting the creation of 50,000 new jobs over the next five years. Those plans included the construction of an 840-acre campus for Cisco Systems, which planned to locate 12,000 workers at the new site. The city once reported that as many as 3,000 Taiwanese businesses had located in Fremont to accommodate the burgeoning computer assembly and support industry.

But the recession that started in 2001 halted Cisco's ambitious plan to build a new campus. And sales tax revenues from computer component-makers -- who sold their products as finished goods -- lost ground to offshore factories in China, Taiwan and Southeast Asia.

The city went from feast to famine.

The business-to-business sales, which had accounted for about 40 percent of the city's annual $110 general fund, collapsed. The city cut 260 jobs, reduced revenue projections by 20 percent, closed fire stations and cut the public library system's hours. To make matters worse, a $38 billion state shortfall also shrank city coffers.

Maybe the ebb and flow of cities' fortunes compel the residents to come together as a community. Celebration organizers say that's exactly what's happened.

"The last 18 months of planning have strengthened this community and built relationships between different groups that didn't exist before," Koehler said. "In that way, we feel like we've already succeeded in bringing people together."

"When it's all said and done, and we've all had a good time celebrating, we're going to be richer for the experience and more invested in our collective future," Koehler said.

Chip Johnson's column appears on Mondays and Fridays. E-mail him at chjohnson@sfchronicle.com.


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