Member of the Week: Claire Poitras

Poitrasc3Claire Poitras

Professor of Urban Studies and Scientific Director of the Villes Régions Monde Network

INRS-Urbanisation Culture Société

Montréal, Quebec, Canada

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 

My areas of research include urban, suburban and metropolitan history. I am particularly interested in the built environment and urban technical networks and the ways in which they influence our representations of cities and place-making.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

I am currently on sabbatical leave after acting as the director of my research institute for 7 years. Next fall, I am going to teach in an Urban Studies program (Master and PhD). I am also the member of the place name committee of the City of Montreal and this allows me to connect urban history with issues of the contemporary city.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

My recent publications have addressed suburban history as well as the changes in former working class neighborhoods in the Montreal area. Some of my publications have been linked to the Major Collaborative Research Initiative on Global Suburbanisms financed by the Canadian government and directed by Roger Keil at York University in Toronto.

Poitras, C. 2018. «Quand la banlieue était l’avenir» (When the suburb was the future), Revue allemande d’études canadiennes-Zeitschrift fur Kanadastudien (ZKS), January, no 38, p. 8-24.

Poitras and P. Hamel 2018. «The Montréal Metropolitan Region. The Metropolis of a not so Distinct Society», in North American Suburbanism, J. Nijman (ed.), Toronto, University of Toronto Press (in press).

Poitras, C. 2017. «Defining Peripheral Places in Quebec. A Review of Key Planning Documents and Electronic Media (1960-2011)», in What’s in a Name? Talking about Urban Peripheries, R. Harris and C. Worms (dir.), Toronto, University of Toronto Press, p. 112-130.

Poitras, C. 2017. «L’axe du Canal de Lachine et les quartiers du Sud-Ouest. Grandeur et misère du berceau de l’industrialisation du pays ?», in La cité des cités, J.-L. Klein and R. Shearmur (dir.), Montréal, Presses de l’Université du Québec, p. 107-124.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

I recommend that they read a lot on different cities and contexts and that they nurture their curiosity. Also, they should not hesitate to express their individuality in research. About 10 years ago, I heard a comment by a senior scholar at a conference on urban environmental history that influenced my path. It goes as follow: you’ve got to do your own thing!

You have written about the history of Bell Canada and the telephone more generally–a very interesting topic! I notice that most people seem to prefer text messaging these days, but are you still in the habit of calling people on the phone? How did researching the topic of the telephone influence your affection for this technology? 

Strangely enough, I have a certain aversion to technology and specifically smart phones. In addition, I think that we spend too much time in front of screens and not enough in the real physical/material world. This said, my preferred mode of communication is email.

2018 Preservation Sacramento Jane Jacobs Walk Schedule

By William Burg

Jane Jacobs Walks are a continent-wide series of walks and bike rides based on the principles of Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Written in an era when American cities promoted the suburb and the automobile, turning their backs on downtowns and older neighborhoods, Jacobs’ seminal work changed the way American planners thought about cities. It is widely read today by modern urban planners and neighborhood advocates, promoting sidewalks, parks, mixed use development, residential density, local economies, and walkability.

Part history tour, part urban planning discussion, Sacramento will host six Jane Jacobs Walks during the weekend of May 4-6. Preservation Sacramento coordinates the walks, partnering with Sacramento Heritage Inc., Sacramento Art Deco Society, Sacramento County Historical Society, the Old City Cemetery Committee, and Del Paso Boulevard Partnership. These tours explore how Sacramento’s city neighborhoods function for pedestrians and cyclists, residents and businesses, public transit and cars (or, in some cases, don’t function as well as they could.) All tours are free and open to the public. Start times and locations are listed below.

For questions about the May 2018 Jane Jacobs Walk events, contact Preservation Sacramento at or call (916) 202-4815. Visit or for general information about Preservation Sacramento and Jane Jacobs Walks.

Poverty Ridge, courtesy of Don Cox

Friday, May 4

6 PM: Poverty Ridge Walking Tour (Sacramento Heritage, Inc.)

Starting point: Ella K. McClatchy Library, 2112 22nd Street

This tour, led by Jose Esparza of Sacramento Heritage, Inc., is an architectural journey through the Poverty Ridge neighborhood, located atop the only hill in Sacramento’s original city limits. It is home to grand residential architecture and a unique creative legacy. Despite attempts at rebranding the neighborhood “Sutter’s Terrace” in 1906, the name “Poverty Ridge,” first applied in the 1860s when periodic flooding sent evacuees near the waterfront to its peak, refused to disappear. In the 19th Century, the neighborhood featured gardens and orchards, small ranches, a winery, and Italianate and Queen Anne homes. The twentieth century brought two electric streetcar lines and an explosion of home building, including dramatic Craftsman, Prairie, Colonial Revival and Renaissance Revival homes. This sidewalk tour will pass by the homes of architect Rudolph Herold, Sacramento Bee editor Charles McClatchy, haberdasher Fred Mason, developer/politician Dan Carmichael, winemaker Manuel Nevis, and author Joan Didion.


SCC Walking Tour Flyer_Jane Jacobs_2018.jpg

Saturday, May 5

10 AM: Parks and Wreck (Old City Cemetery Committee)

Starting point: Old City Cemetery, 10th & Broadway

Description: Sacramento has an extensive park system that is the envy of residents of other cities, but it didn’t come easy. Meet people who fought for and against establishing many of our more familiar parks, such as William Land, Cesar Chavez, and Southside Park. Learn the secret history of your favorite city parks, and hear various tales of misadventure and misfortune that happened within them. Led by Eric Bradner of the Old City Cemetery Committee, this tour takes place in Sacramento’s historic City Cemetery, established in 1849 and a property listed on the National Register for its association with 19th Century cemetery design and its concentration of final resting places of prominent Californians.


Del Paso Theater, 1947, courtesy of William Burg

1:30 PM: Sacramento City College of the 1930s (Sacramento Art Deco Society)

Starting point: North side of Hughes Stadium, Sacramento City College

Description: Join Bruce Marwick of Sacramento Art Deco Society for a look at the Art Deco buildings, paintings and decorative arts of Sacramento City College, including the SCC Library’s Special Collections Room. The tour begins on Hughes Stadium’s north side and ends in the Library/Learning Resource Center. In between, we will look at Art Deco buildings, paintings, and decorative arts. Vintage photos of the campus, and student life, will also be presented. Parking is available for $2 in the City College parking garage. To RSVP, contact Bruce Marwick at (916) 549-5419 or


Southside Park Clubhouse
Southside Park Clubhouse, courtesy of Sacramento Public Library

4 PM: Southside Park (Sacramento County Historical Society)

Starting point: Bocce/horseshoe court, corner of 8th & V Street, across from St. Andrew’s AME Church

Description: The Southside Park neighborhood is intriguing and diverse, with its mixture of residential, business and public space. It’s surrounded by government buildings, the freeway, and a mass of humanity. We’ll tell you the story from its prehistoric swampland roots to its murky origins in a land speculation deal, to the fight to establish and improve the park and neighborhood, and its rich history of immigrant groups. We’ll visit the people, homes, businesses and churches that inhabit the area. Local historians Eric Bradner and Andrew McLeod, board members of Sacramento Historical Society, will lead the tour.

Alkali Flat
Alkali Flat, courtesy of Don Cox

Sunday, May 6

10 AM: Alkali Flat (Preservation Sacramento/Alkali-Mansion Flats Historic Neighborhood Association)

Starting point: Naked Lounge, 1111 H Street

Description: Alkali Flat, Sacramento’s oldest surviving residential neighborhood, contains some of the city’s best examples of Victorian architecture, and still bears the scars of redevelopment from the 1960s. Today, the neighborhood also bears public artwork by the Royal Chicano Air Force, and new infill development that is modern in style but functions more like its 19th century predecessors. Join Preservation Sacramento/Alkali-Mansion Flats board member Luis Sumpter on a guided tour of this historic neighborhood that will include historic 19th Century mansions, mid-century office buildings, and 21st century infill homes.

Sac Northern Bike Ride
Sacramento Northern Bike Ride, courtesy of Sacramento Art Deco Society

Noon: Sacramento Northern Bike Ride (Preservation Sacramento/Grant Union High School Mountain Bike Team)

Starting Point: Sacramento Northern Bike Trail, corner of 19th & C Street

Description: Ride the Sacramento Northern Bike Trail, former route of an electric railroad that once ran from Chico to San Francisco via Sacramento, carrying passengers and freight through the Sacramento Valley. Our route takes us over the American River and ends on Del Paso Boulevard, a total trip of about 3.5 miles. We will explore the history of North Sacramento, including its historic connection to Sacramento’s African American community during World War II and following the redevelopment era. Sites we will visit include the Sacramento Northern Bridge, Union Iron Works, the site of North Sacramento’s electric train station, and one of the filming locations for the movie Lady Bird. This tour ends at 1124 Del Paso Boulevard, the starting point for the following tour. The bike ride will be led by William Burg of Preservation Sacramento and Harley White Jr., Sacramento bandleader and coach of the Grant Union High School Mountain Bike Team.

1 PM: Old North Sacramento on Del Paso Boulevard (Preservation Sacramento/Del Paso Boulevard Partnership)

Starting Point: Sacramento News & Review offices parking lot, 1124 Del Paso Boulevard

Description: This walking tour will explore Del Paso Boulevard, once the main boulevard of old North Sacramento and route of Highway 40. North Sacramento was once an incorporated city; now annexed into the City of Sacramento, it retains its own unique identity via its architecture and its diverse neighborhoods along the boulevard. We will explore the Streamline Moderne and Mid-century Modern architecture of North Sacramento, visit notable neighborhood landmarks and businesses, and learn more about the past, present and future of North Sacramento. Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates (SABA) will provide a bike corral, sponsored by the Del Paso Boulevard Partnership, so those arriving by bicycle can leave their bikes securely. This tour will be led by William Burg of Preservation Sacramento.

Featured image (at top): Aerial view of the state capitol, 1922, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress 

received_10207314464093641William Burg is a historian based in Sacramento, California, who writes books and articles about local history, ranging from urban planning and railroads to civil rights and contemporary music. Burg is also a state historian in the California Office of Historic Preservation. This piece is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Wicked Sacramento. In addition to his 2014 work, Burg’s most recent book is Midtown Sacramento: Creative Soul of the City.

Lady Bird: Discussing Teen Angst, Class, and Early Aughts Sacramento

Like many collaborative digital projects, The Metropole is entirely assembled via remote correspondence; as co-editors, Ryan and I send daily emails between Washington, D.C. and Pittsburgh. In between editing submissions, we brainstorm future blog posts and trade banter about music, books, and movies. Ryan approaches pop culture with a typically Gen X cynicism, while I own my sunny millennial optimism. So in March, when Ryan suggested we review Greta Gerwig’s film Lady Bird as part of our Metropolis of the Month coverage of Sacramento, I was curious about how each of us would respond to the film. You might be surprised to find which one of us was the bigger fan.

Without further ado, our conversation about the film:  

AO: So, Ryan, I thought I would kick off this conversation about Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird by asking you what you enjoyed about the film.

RR: Good question. Well first of all I am, even in my middle age, always a sucker for “coming of age” stories, particularly those with difficult protagonists. In some ways, Lady Bird McPherson (Saoirse Ronin) aka Christine McPherson is somewhat reminiscent of another problematic, angsty, coming of age teen character, Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) from The Edge of Seventeen. Both fail to really appreciate the problems of others around them, take their respective best friends for granted, and drive their parent(s) crazy. Critically, both characters are also very compelling. So I’m glad that there seems to be a burgeoning effort to document the travails and challenges of adolescence for young women. Whether such efforts fall into the same traps as those focusing on young male protagonists such as Richard Linklater’s highly overrated and tragically boring (just one man’s opinion, don’t @ me) Boyhood, remains to be seen. Equally important, Lady Bird, to a much greater extent than The Edge of Seventeen, gives voice to the parents in the film. What can be said about Laurie Metcalf’s performance as mother Maureen McPherson that hasn’t been discussed already? Traci Letts, as Lady Bird’s father, is great also; a newly unemployed dad with the soft touch toward his daughter that complements Metcalf’s harsher (but sometimes justified) parenting style.


Three other things to note. I like the inclusion of Lady Bird’s brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), who may or may not have witnessed someone being stabbed in front of Sacramento City High School, and his girlfriend Shelly Yuhan (Marielle Scott). While I always enjoy movies depicting sibling relationships, both Shelly and Miguel enable the viewers to better understand Metcalf’s character, who Lady Bird believes doesn’t like her and at times feels overbearing. The truth is much more complex as both Shelly and Miguel convey to Lady Bird throughout the movie.

Second, I love both problematic boyfriends. Lucas Hedges, who plays the (obviously) closeted lead actor of the theater group Lady Bird joins, deviates from the role he played in Manchester by the Sea and provides a counterbalance to Lady Bird’s own self absorption. In contrast, Timothée Chalamet, the idiotic second boyfriend, loves to be seen smoking while reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, makes strange statements about state surveillance that sound smart at first but soon reveal a deep reservoir of stupidity, and delivers terrific pseudo-intellectual musings such as when, after Lady Bird loses her virginity to him and is upset that it wasn’t his first time, he says, “you’re going to have so much unspecial sex” in life. Oh, and he also tries to avoid capitalism by living by “bartering alone.”

Finally, as someone who attended 12 years of parochial Catholic school, I pine for uniforms and the regimentation of a religious education.

Greta Gerwig as the titular character in Frances Ha from 2012

One does wonder if Lady Bird isn’t really a younger Frances Ha, Gerwig’s previous directorial effort, though one she co-directed with her partner Noah Baumbach.  Baumbach tends to cover similar territory, meaning the troubled nature of the nuclear family, but his films focus more on elite or academic East Coast families that struggle with deep fissures of dysfunction (The Squid and the Whale, The Meyerowitz Stories) whereas there is much more warmth in Gerwig’s film, and for that I am deeply thankful.

You know at this moment a lot of people are hailing Roseanne Barr’s return to prominence with the new season of Roseanne–notably since, as in its first iteration, it focuses on the lives of working class/lower middle class families. In Lady Bird, I think Gerwig offers a real window into a similar demographic but one we rarely hear from, the West Coast working class. Often movies, like Nebraska, emphasize the difficulties of Midwestern or Rust Belt towns and their inhabitants, but Sacramento, “the midwest of California” as Lady Bird puts it, provides a different take on this well worn topic. Plus, Laurie Metcalf stars in both, a neat little “no degrees of separation.”

All that said, I feel like you didn’t enjoy this film as much as I did. So what bugged you about Lady Bird?

Sacramento River view from across the water from Sacramento, California’s capital city, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, 2012, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

AO: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why Lady Bird did not resonate with me, though I do think it’s a fine film. I think it has to do with being stuck between Lady Bird and her mother. I’m past adolescence, but not yet distant enough to romanticize it. I still remember my own embarrassing decisions too vividly to comfortably watch Lady Bird make her own impulsive, selfish choices. And I’m not yet a parent who can nod along in sympathy with the McPherson’s frustration.

That said, I thought the performances were brilliant. Saoirse Ronin was magnetic, Laurie Metcalf was fierce, and the movie sparkles (with warmth, as you said Ryan) when the two of them are together on screen acting opposite one another. How many times have I been in a store with my own mother, bickering, when the perfect dress stopped us in our tracks? That moment felt so real and relatable to me.

You make a great point about the particular geography and demographic that this movie portrays. I think the use of the big blue house–which Lady Bird and her best friend admire while walking home each day, and then turns out to belong to the grandmother of Lady Bird’s first boyfriend–worked so effectively to communicate how social distance and spatial difference in Sacramento do not share a proportional correlation. The big blue house was not terribly far away from the McPherson’s, though the difference in wealth was palpable; and yet, although Lady Bird lives “on the other side of the tracks” she shares her whiteness, education, and middle class values with the family of her boyfriend. I could have dispensed with the entire subplot about courting the new boyfriend (though I agree the pseudo-intellectualism was funny) and the new rich friends that come along with him. The big blue house did enough to make Gerwig’s point about class.

So that’s what I liked and felt like Gerwig really got right–and also what I think was weak about the movie. Some women make it through high school without selling out their best friend for a boy. It’s a tired plot line.

Racks Boutique in Sacramento, the capital city of the U.S. state of California and the county seat of Sacramento County, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, 2012, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

RR: Yeah, it’s not the most original take, though I wonder how much of that is about gender and how much is about the stereotypical structure of a teen coming of age story, even off-the-beaten-path adolescent experiences. The whole “journey” of self discovery often hinges on a protagonist approaching some unrequited love while ignoring the best friend standing next to them (which sometimes turns out to the be the love interest as well, the whole “not knowing what you have in your own backyard” deal). I guess what I’m saying is that dudes sell out best friends in movies for girls all the time–Rushmore and Better Off Dead are two examples that pop into my head. So in a very limited way, it felt like progress that quirky, difficult Lady Bird could be out there getting some without guilt or any terror, besides making a few mistakes in regard to her object of attraction and longstanding friendships. I could go on about heteronormativity, hence the next Rubicon to cross in the infrastructure of the “coming of age” film. I suppose last year’s Call Me By Your Name does this to some extent.

I agree the movie, as a colleague of mine put it, “treats Sacramento like a another character” even down to cliches like being from the “wrong side of the tracks” which both Lady Bird and Danny play for awkward laughs in very different moments. The town really does have a sort of West Coast Midwestern feel–warmer colors and light than you find typically in the Middle West, but with a very matter of fact approach to life. The Joan Didion epigraph that opens the movie is pretty telling in this regard: “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent Christmas in Sacramento.”

Rosie the Riveter mural on an abandoned building in Sacramento, California, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Can I also applaud Gerwig for some pop culture bravery? I mean she rehabilitates Dave Matthews in a serious way in this film. In fact, the Matthew’s song in question, “Crash” (a tune that launched a thousand prom dances and wistful scenes of adolescents staring blankly out into their “future”) plays a critical role in Lady Bird’s maturation. The only thing braver would have been to do the same for Hootie and the Blowfish. Can Sacramento be the Dave Matthews “Crash” of American cities?

AO: I’m not sure Sacramento was ever cool enough to fall as far as the Dave Matthews Band did. I did recently find and listen to my copy of that album and, after years of dismissing and scoffing at DMB, I confess that I fell back in love with quite a few of the songs on it. So anything is possible!


Featured image (image at top): The 2012 California State Fair held in Sacramento, California, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, 2012, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Didionesque Sacramento: Race, Urban Renewal and Loss in Joan Didion’s “Run River”

On the song “All the Wine” from the 2005 album Alligator by The National, lead singer Matt Berninger croons, “I’m put together beautifully, big wet bottle in my fist, big wet rose in my teeth, I’m a perfect piece of ass like every Californian … I’m a festival, I’m a parade.” Hailing from Brooklyn and originating in Ohio, Berninger and the band exist, somewhat controversially, as an expression of middle class semi-bohemian white male anxiety, yet in “All the Wine” they capture a certain general impression of the Golden State—or perhaps more accurately, gently mock the idea of such an identity.

Should the band’s tone be mockery, native Sacramentan Joan Didion might agree. “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent Christmas in Sacramento,” she famously told interviewers in 1979. The quote proved so incisive that fellow Sacramento native Greta Gerwig made it the epigraph to her Oscar nominated film Lady Bird, a coming of age story that is equal parts adolescent angst, transformation, and loss. “Both Lady Bird and Gerwig cast themselves in junior Didion molds,” Vanity Fair’s Yohana Desta observed, “artistic spirits who want to flee somewhere more famous—only to look back on the town they left with a warm, nostalgic lens.” In her own work, Didion also wrestles with these issues… minus the teen anxiety, and with more than a dollop of adult malaise. Whether discussing the heroic California “pioneer” narrative or the state’s image of sensuality and libertine enjoyments, the reality of California, notably Sacramento, remains both more mundane and problematic.

In two works separated by roughly four decades, the novel Run River and her 2003 memoir Where I Was From, Didion’s take on Sacramento explores tradition and loss. Never one to suffer fools, she critiques California mythology, particularly in regard to urban renewal, race, and suburbanization during the years after World War II.


Sacramento ; First frame house erected Jany. 1st, 1849, by S. Brannan ; Present population estimated at 20,000, June 17, 1852, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The Early History

Famously, Didion’s own family travelled west with the Donner-Reed party, judiciously parting ways before tragedy befell the nation’s most notorious cannibalistic clan. Her family settled in Sacramento, thereby enabling her to trace her family’s roots to California and its nascent statehood.

The Didion family entered the state at a key moment in its history as its racial policies shifted from a discriminatory but somewhat porous racial stratification of society to a far starker Jim Crow reality. From Spanish colonization to American statehood, the settlement of California was always premised on imposed racial hierarchies, yet there remained fissures in its race based class system. Due to its distance from Spain and later Mexico City, the California population was smaller, more racially mixed, and less tied to the class system prevailing under Spanish and Mexican rule. For example of the 42 founders of Los Angeles in 1781, 26 claimed Afro-Mexican ancestry while many of the others descended from Native Americans, mestizoes, Spaniards, and other mixed castes.[1] In some instances, an individual’s racial status could be circumvented by wealth, title, and cultural ties. When the U.S. government assumed control over the state after 1848, however, the racial loopholes that had existed were closed and a more rigid racial structure was established: one that supported immigration restrictions and openly marginalized non-whites.

Established as the California capitol in 1854, Sacramento served as the point of origin regarding state racial policies that disenfranchised minorities. Yet after 1945, when California was awash in federal spending, the state witnessed demographic booms that brought greater numbers of non-whites. Between 1940 and 1952, California grew by 53%; from 1950-1960, it grew another 49%.[2]

Despite this population influx, a certain cognitive dissidence prevailed, argues Didion. During the 1950s, Sacramento, and the state more generally remained “hermetic … isolated by geography and history and also by inclination.” The expansion of the military industrial complex through the Korean and Vietnam Wars also brought greater diversity to California. In Sacramento, 25,000 newcomers arrived with 10 percent of them African Americans, notes River City native and sociologist, Jesus Hernandez. The Bracero program, closely aligned with these developments and furthered this trend as numerous Mexican laborers settled in the city, including Hernandez’s father. Due to strict fair employment practices, the expansion of the state government added to Sacramento’s mélange.[3] Yet as they searched for homes, minorities encountered redlining and other forms of housing discrimination relegating them, as in many other American cities, to substandard homes and overcrowded neighborhoods. Redlining embodied the very outlook Didion critiques, as white Californians sought to hermetically seal off communities from one another.[4]

Pioneer Hall & Bakery, 120-124 J Street, Sacramento, Sacramento County, CA, after 1933 before 1965, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Run River Redevelopment

Within the context of a transforming California, Didion wrote her 1963 novel Run River, which depicts the Faulknerian decline of the city’s (fictional) old line families, the Knights and the McClellans, as a “new” post-WWII Golden State took shape.   Hardly a perfect work of fiction, New York Magazine called it “charmingly wrong headed” in 2003. It remains, however, a poetic, tragic, and yes, flawed, account of familial decline amid transformation in the state capital.

Lily Knight and her husband Everett McClellan trace their collective lineages back to the first families of the city, but the marriage of the two descendants cannot weather the birthing of a new California: “[Lily] and [Everett] would never seem to get it through their heads that things were changing in Sacramento, that Aerojet General and Douglas Aircraft and even the State College were bringing in a whole class of people, people who had lived back East, people who read things.”[5] Not that Didion seems to think much of this history. Through their son, Knight McClellan, Didion acidly criticizes Lily and Everett and their generation’s attachment to the mythical “pioneer” California.“Not that he thought they would ever wake up. They’d just go right along dedicating their grubby goddamn camellia trees in Capitol Park to the memory of their grubby goddamn pioneers.”[6]

Planted in Capitol Park facing the state capitol building, Camellia Grove was the product of the author’s grandmother (her father’s stepmother), Genevieve Didion. For years, Genevieve served as President of the Sacramento Board of Education. Even today the city continues to hold a Camellia Festival with over one million bushes of the alien species in bloom annually.[7]

Old Sacramento is a 28-acre National Historic Landmark District and State Historic Park along the Sacramento River in California’s capital city, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, 2012, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Didion practically sneers at the use of this history to sell the city. In the late 1950s the city engaged in an urban renewal project that reshaped the old West End district into a celebration of the city’ s “pioneer” history known today as “Old Sacramento”; a form of heritage tourism that placed the city in the vanguard of historic preservation. Knight’s mocking of Sacramento’s “pioneers” and the camellias left in their wake clearly represented some expression of Didion’s own feelings at the time. Reflecting upon her novel decades later, Didion notes the use of “‘[t]he pioneers’” as a prop for selling Sacramento to tourists; but she says much less about the residents of West End neighborhood, a community defined by ethnic and racial diversity. Urban renewal would erase their presence in the city, replacing it with a narrative that further excluded them.[8]

Between 1957 and 1961, the 28-block development displaced 2,000 residents and ultimately destroyed a thriving Japantown and a smaller, but still distinct Chinatown. Adding insult to injury, many residents of Japantown, endured internment during World War II and had returned to rebuild their community only to have redevelopment wipe them away, again. Nearly 30 acres of riverfront property were dedicated to selling “trinkets and souvenirs and popcorn,” writes Didion. “There was something that got lost when those bulldozers came through,” historian Steven Avella noted in a recent documentary on the West End. Sacramento civil rights attorney Nathaniel Colley added simply that redevelopment bordered on immorality, since it cleared “out residents to face a closed housing market.”[9]

Buildings in Old Sacramento, a 28-acre National Historic Landmark District and State Historic Park along the Sacramento River in California’s capital city, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, 2012, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Run River Race

 In Run River, through various characters and their conversations, Didion makes over a dozen references to the city’s minority communities, often in the language deployed by white Californians of the day. Del Paso Heights, a local black community, operates as a repeated joke among white country club types. Everett’s father refers to Mexicans as “goddamn wetbacks” and all Asians as Filipinos: “There was no use telling him that somebody was Chinese, Malayan, or Madame Chiang Kai-shek; they were goddamn Filipinos to him.” He wasn’t too happy about his daughter, Sarah, moving to Philadelphia where “she picked up those goddamn Jew ideas.”

Lily’s father, Walter Knight, held similar prejudices, complaining about his ranch manager Gomez by accusing his employee of ingratitude and theft, even as Knight “sat in the familiar gloom of the Senator Hotel bar and called at the white frame house on Thirty Eighth Street” where his mistress, Miss Rita Blanchard resided. “Hegemony takes work,” as the kids (and Stuart Hall) say, though in this case it actually seems like sloth and access to an old timey bar and a mistress. Knight’s protestations functioned to lend an air of “noblesse oblige,” a perverse use of racism to justify what Knight believed to be progressive hiring practices.

Then again, while Lily criticizes both her father’s and McClellan’s racial beliefs, she too takes advantage of their presence in Sacramento for her own interests. Gomez picks her up from the train station when she returns home from college at UC Berkeley for her mother’s parties, but not before stopping in the West End at a place “where she could eat tacos with her fingers.” When her sister conveys a story regarding their father’s inability to determine another character’s place of origin, relating how he said “‘It’s all Del Paso Heights to me,’” Lily laughs and notes it is “a district north of Sacramento noted for its large Negro population and its high incidence of social disorders.” A serial adulterer, Lily carries on affairs with family friend Joe Templeton, meeting “in cars parked off the levee, bars frequented by Mexicans, and in an empty shack on the piece down river….” The proximity to minority populations among characters in Run River equates with a low rent existence.[10]

Fountain located in César Chávez Plaza in downtown Sacramento, California’s capital city, on the site of the old city plaza, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, 2012, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Few minority characters are ever given a real voice, though perhaps in the context of 1963, the few examples offered here were more significant then than they seem today. Crystal, Gomez’s “common law wife by virtue of mutual endurance,” bemoans her marriage to the Knight’s ranch manager when she tells Lily that Gomez “latched on to her in Fresno,” insinuating that their bond did not emerge from hours spent in the fields but rather through what some describe as the world’s oldest profession. The McClellan family’s cook and domestic servant, the problematically named China Mary, comes closest to full agency and even garners a brief back story in a scene in which she upbraids Lily for questioning her use of wartime rationing stamps to procure sugar for four cakes to be raffled off at the local parish. In thirty years on the ranch no “one had ever tried to tell her how to run her kitchen, and there were some spoiled young ladies who were going to be punished by god if they didn’t start thinking about their Church once in a while,” she informs Lily.

While Mary’s name raised few eyebrows in 1963, it has aged poorly. A more generous reading suggests that Didion utilized the name as a means to display the sort of tone-deaf insularity that besieged Sacramento’s august families and, more generally, the city and state. Mary demonstrates a certain level of agency, but in the service of powerful white landholders. Still, she exhibits both competence and resoluteness in a family that increasingly displays neither.

Painting “Dream Within a Dream: In Honor of the Pacific Asian Pioneers” at the Robert T. Matsui U.S. Courthouse, Sacramento, California, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, 2009, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

None of this ensures Mary’s equality. When Everett’s sister Martha drowns, Mary, who had raised her from childhood and had been visiting “her sister in Courtland,” doesn’t even merit a phone call. “They should have called her after it happened,” writes Didion. “They should have called fifty people but above all they should have called China Mary.”[11] To be fair, Everett’s sister Sarah did not receive a call either, but the point still remains.

What should one think of Didion’s views on race? First, it is worth noting that Didion remains, arguably, the frostiest of writers; do not go looking for emotional appeals in her work. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there is no there there. A magnanimous reading of Didion argues that the dozen or so references to minorities in her novel represent her awareness and acknowledgement regarding the awfulness of Sacramento racial history. The racism at the heart of tossed-off comments like “drunken wetbacks,” “goddamn Filipinos,” and “the smartest Jew lawyer” are meant to reveal much more about the speaker than the subject.

Yet even in such a reading, there are problems. Having read over half a dozen of her works, Didion does exhibit empathy toward people of color, but her interactions are often more detached. In her review of Didion’s latest book, South and West, Lorraine Berry argues Didion travels South to explore racism filtered through the solitary prism of white people. “Didion continually treats the people of color in the South as objects,” Berry points out. “They are objects of observation and they are objects of discussion, but never once do they get to offer to Didion their views of the states they live in.”[12] One sees symmetry between Run River and South and West, both of which were written around the same time (South and West is actually a collection of notes taken by Didion during a sojourn to the region in 1970 and, I must confess, it is a book I enjoyed despite such criticisms).

Sunrise Light Rail in Sacramento, the capital city of the U.S. state of California and the county seat of Sacramento County, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, 2012, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Run River Suburbanization

Didion also acknowledges the massive suburbanization transforming Sacramento, particularly through the character of Martha, Everett’s sister, who “almost every afternoon” tours new subdivisions, debates the merits of “redwood siding” versus “an imitation limestone veneer,” and discusses the advertising campaigns of newly built communities with names like “Robles de la Sierra, a tract north of town” and “Rancho Valley.” The former promised “a setting with the romance of An Old Spanish Land Grant plus No Sewer Bonds” while the latter’s “selling points included a leaded-glass window on the exterior of each three-car garage for ‘the same gracious finish throughout.’”[13]

Sacramento was changing as its established customs receded to be replaced by a “more urban, or suburban life, in which children swam in clear water in backyard pools lined with gunite and bought Italian typewriters and ate pears bought in supermarkets rather than dropped off in lugs by the relatives who grew them.”[14]

It goes without saying this burgeoning suburban existence that brought notoriety to California remained off limits to Sacramento’s minority populations, who as Hernandez notes found themselves squeezed into previously redlined communities like South Sacramento and Oak Park.[15] The city’s “first suburb,” Oak Park, became an oasis for African Americans and other minorities who were displaced from the city’s West End through urban renewal,” writes KCET’s Kris Hooks. Even before urban renewal at the turn of the twentieth century, African and Mexican American homeowners, having been shut out of the city’s other suburbs by racial covenants, established a presence in the suburb.

Thankfully, racial covenants never gained a foothold there, but redlining did.[16] It meant that home loans would be harder to come by in the neighborhood, thereby retarding housing renovations and upkeep while also preventing serious outside investment in Oak Park.  Today, like many formerly predominantly minority urban communities, gentrification threatens those same residents who kept Oak Park alive in earlier, tougher decades. What has helped to drive this process? “In 1973, the city established the Oak Park Redevelopment Project Area to help bring a resurgence to the city’s first suburb,” Hooks points out. “In the 2000s, changes began to become more visible.”[17]

To paraphrase official city historian, Marcia Eyman, who exactly gets to decide who belongs in a community and who doesn’t? Historically, government and capitalism don’t often make choices based on equity. Redevelopment in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and so forth picked winners and losers. Right now there are no guardrails to gentrification; ginning up the municipal growth machine only devours everything in its path.

For all its flaws, Didion’s work recognizes that without vigilance we all lose something, but our station in life often means this loss is not distributed fairly. Decades later, Didion admitted Run River had been the product of a young woman simultaneously nostalgic for the past and searching for a “protective distance between me and the place I was from.” Both things can be true, as is her larger point that “There is no real way to deal with everything we lose.” Her work is undoubtedly marked by privilege, and like many writers of her era she does not do enough to amplify marginalized voices, but if one looks and listens hard enough in Run River, you can see and feel the loss endured by all of Sacramento’s denizens.

Featured image (image at top): Park bench in Sacramento, the capital city of the U.S. state of California and the county seat of Sacramento County, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, 2012, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

[1] Carlos Manuel Salomon, Pio Pico: The Last Governor of Mexican California, (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010), 12.

[2] Didion, Where I Was From, 173.

[3] Jesus Hernandez, “Redlining Revisited: Mortgage Lending Patterns in Sacramento, 1930 – 2004”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 33.2 (June 2009): 300.

[4] Didion, Where I Was From, 64.

[5] Joan Didion, Run River, (Ivan Obolensky, Inc., 1963), 5.

[6] Didion, Run River, 6.

[7] Paul J.P. Sandul, “Both ‘Country Town’ and ‘Bustling Metropolis’: How Boosterism, Surburbs, and Narrative Helped Shape Sacramento’s Identity and Environmental Sensibilities” in River City and Valley Life: An Environmental History of the Sacramento Region, Eds. Christopher I. Castaneda and Lee M. A. Simpson, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013, 161.

[8] Didion, Where I Was From, 167; “Replacing the Past: Sacramento’s Redevelopment History”, director Chris Lango, 2016,

[9] Didion, Where I Was From, 167; “Replacing the Past: Sacramento’s Redevelopment History”, director Chris Lango, 2016,

[10] Didion, Run River, 38, 56-7, 35, 113.

[11] Didion, Run River, 223.

[12] Lorainne Berry, “Lorainne Berry on Didion, the South, and Race”, May 1, 2017, Essay Daily,

[13] Didion, Run River, 208-9.

[14] Didion, Where I Was From, 166.

[15] Hernandez, “Redlining Revisited”, 301

[16] Sandul, “Both ‘Country Town’ and ‘Bustling Metropolis’”, 172.

[17] Kris Hooks, “The Gentrification of Sacramento’s Oak Park, September 13, 2017, KCET City Rising,


Member of the Week: Alan Lessoff

Lessoff at ND, TW photo, Oct 16Alan Lessoff

University Professor of History

Illinois State University

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?

I’m in the middle of two projects. The first is an exhibition and book project undertaken with the McLean County Museum of History, an exemplary regional museum in this part of Illinois. The theme is unbuilt buildings and failed and defeated plans and development projects. A lot of large cities in the United States and elsewhere have had exhibition and publishing projects on the theme of the Unbuilt City. They are often gorgeous–because of all the renderings, charts, and models–and they invite imagination of all sorts of possibilities, negative as well as positive. They also draw people into a discussion of how groups of residents in the past understood and argued about their city and its problems and potential. As far as we can tell, this is the first time a mid-sized city has tried an Unbuilt City exhibit. Given the nature of planning and development in mid-sized cities, this invites a discussion of the state-of-the-art professional advice–the contemporary best practice–that planning consultants and architects have over time diffused from larger cities to regional and secondary metropolises and how that diffusion shaped cities everywhere.

My other current project is a pair of essays about how Europeans became aware of American debates over urban machine politics, focusing on James Bryce (whom I wrote about in the past) along with William T. Stead and Mosei Ostrogorski. This is part of an international project about urban politics and corruption that I’ve worked with off and on for about a decade. In general, Europeans tried to distance themselves from the idea that mass party politics could bring urban political machines to European cities, but there was also the counter-notion this might become another menacing form of Americanization, that European cities could become “Chicagos,” as contemporaries at times put it.

This is pretty typical for me over the past two decades–my urban history goes in a public and regional history direction, but I also try to keep going with more conventional, analytical work.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

Once a year, I teach a senior/graduate course on U.S. urban history that includes a segment in conjunction with the McLean County Museum that we have devised to involve students with urban history archives, how they are organized, and how one can work with them. Given where we are in Central Illinois, I use works like Ann Keating, Chicagoland: City and Suburbs in the Railroad Age, and Colin Gordon, Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City, to encourage students to have a geographic and visual sense of the urban region. Keating’s Chicagoland is especially inspiring. I use it as the basis for a project in which students are meant to take photographs of their hometown or neighborhood and consider how a place they think of as familiar might fit into the regional patterns that Keating lays out and how they might be able to see previously unseen history in their own towns.

I also teach a senior research seminar on comparative urban history, as well as an MA-level seminar in local and public history methods. Last summer, I had the chance to try out a version of this seminar at the Bielefeld University Graduate School for History and Sociology, using historical museums and sites in that section of Westphalia. Public history draws us to the local wherever we are, but we can readily conceive of it in transnational and comparative ways as well. (This is not an original thought by any means.) And right now, I’m trying a new MA seminar on the United States in Transnational Perspective, which encourages big thinking among students about urban networks and urban environmental history. I also oversee our internship program and our small urban studies minor. Overall, my teaching these days amounts a pretty good arrangement for someone who does what we do–it runs the gamut from the most hands-on to the most interpretive.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

A short while back, I read a clear, detailed book by a University of Chicago urban studies scholar, Chad Broughton, Boom, Bust, Exodus: The Rust Belt, the Maquilas, and a Tale of Two Cities (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015). It’s a vivid account of the people swept up in both places when the Maytag plant moved in the early 2000s from Galesburg, Illinois, to Reynosa, across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Texas. This book gives me ways to connect my earlier writing about South Texas to my current research on Central Illinois–he does a great job with one of the most relevant subjects one can imagine.

I love the way that Benjamin H. Johnson’s new book, Escaping the Dark, Gray City: Fear and Hope in Progressive-Era Conservation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), draws upon all the recent work in urban environmental history to create a new general narrative of the conservation movement.

One of the next books on my to-read shelf is Daniel Czitrom, New York Exposed: The Gilded Age Police Scandal that Launched the Progressive Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), about the Lexow Investigation of 1894. I feel that our current debates about abusive policing help us better to understand why contemporaries in the late 1800s saw machine politics as so unsavory and oppressive.  Understanding police racketeering should offset any romance we might still have with the image of good-hearted ward bosses.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?

To stay engaged with their places and the physical and local aspect of urban history work, even through all the anxiety and uncertainty of trying to become established professionally. We’re fortunate to have a field that enables us so readily to connect with the places where we happen to be, and that helps to some degree to keep us alive intellectually through the periods when one feels so unsettled and therefore so driven to live in one’s head and in one’s CV. All those places will accumulate and will be a tremendous resource later on.

You’ve written a history of Corpus Christi, Texas. What’s a surprising fact about the city that neither urbanists nor residents likely know?

Because of its name and location, people imagine Corpus Christi to manifest the Spanish and Mexican presence in South Texas that was overwhelmed by Anglo American conquest and colonization. In reality it shares more with Houston and other Anglo American urban foundations along the Texas coast, in that it began as an Anglo American outpost and gateway into what’s now southern Texas and the Borderlands, a launching point for the extension of Anglo American commercial and political networks and environmental transformation into what had formerly been a Spanish and Mexican frontier region. Anglo American civil engineering reshaped a shallow bay on the edge of an arid plain and with a hurricane-prone coast into a practical-enough site for urbanization geared into U.S. urban systems. The Spanish heritage, Mission Revival design, and ranger and pioneer lore that still dominate regional historical and visual identity can overshadow this more modern story of regional development for commercial agriculture, labor exploitation, and resource extraction. The main theme of my book was the tense interplay between those older regional epics and lore and an urban character, layout, and culture shaped by railroad- and petrochemical-era Texas.

Plotting Yiddish Drama: A New Digital Resource for Urban History and Beyond

By Sonia Gollance and Joel Berkowitz

The history of Yiddish theatre is embedded – quite literally – in urban space. If you walk past the Chase Bank on the site of the former Second Avenue Deli in New York City’s East Village neighborhood, the sidewalk is emblazoned with the “Yiddish Theatre Walk of Fame” – metal stars bearing the names of prominent figures from the heyday of the New York Yiddish theatre scene. Most passersby probably no longer remember the star power of Molly Picon or Maurice Schwartz. Yet a century ago, they (and many other individuals whose names are even less familiar now) were extremely influential figures for the millions of Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jewish immigrants who spent their leisure time in the “Jewish Rialto” of the Second Avenue theatres. We’d like to introduce you to a new resource, Plotting Yiddish Drama, which is a useful, English-language tool for scholars of urban life, whether they are studying the lives of Yiddish theatre attendees or just want to understand why they are standing on a metal star that says “Moishe Oysher.”

Molly Picon, full-length portrait, facing front, in costume for the musical comedy “Abi Gezunt”, Moss Photo, N.Y., 1949, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Over its centuries-long, international history, Yiddish drama has tackled all the major challenges modern Jewry has faced, including the tension between tradition and modernity; political movements within and beyond the Jewish community; changes in family structures and gender roles; violent cataclysms, including wars and pogroms; mass emigration; and debates over the creation of a Jewish nation-state. The issues these plays present are crucial for modern Jewish Studies, but also intersect with topics that will interest scholars in a variety of fields. Familiarity with Yiddish drama therefore serves as an important tool to better understand significant aspects of world history and culture, including Jewish life in urban centers such as Warsaw, New York, and Buenos Aires.

Enter “Plotting Yiddish Drama” (PYD), a new initiative of the Digital Yiddish Theatre Project (DYTP) that you can begin to sample now, which will gradually expand in terms of both the content it covers and the tools we create to help us better understand connections among many different Yiddish plays. At PYD’s core are searchable plot synopses of Yiddish plays. We’ve started off with just a dozen dramas—all of them historically important, but with no suggestion that they are the twelve most important Yiddish plays. Over time, we plan to build PYD into an interactive, mappable, searchable database containing the synopses of hundreds of Yiddish plays that offer windows not only into the details of specific dramas, but also of the richness, complexity, and variety of the Yiddish dramatic repertoire as a whole.

fullsizeoutput_1513.jpegWe envision PYD as a resource for a variety of different research questions and methodologies involving urban history.

  • Scholars of popular culture and leisure practices can learn more about the theatre-going habits of urban Jewish audiences. Melodramatic plots? Family crises? Musical numbers? Yiddish theatre hits were full of these elements, and PYD is a useful reference for anyone who wants to find out what people were watching in urban centers. If you read a memoir that mentions someone went to an Avrom Goldfaden operetta, PYD can help you find out what would have happened on stage.
  • Yiddish drama is set in diverse locations, including cities around the world. PYD tags where plays are set, which helps scholars identify how these particular cities are portrayed. Are specific neighborhoods depicted? Stereotypical traits or regional dialects mocked? PYD can point you towards fascinating texts, such as Chava Rosenfarb’s The Bird of the Ghetto, which depicts the Vilna Ghetto during the Holocaust.
  • PYD tags where plays were first performed, which helps chart the Yiddish theatrical repertoire as it developed around the world. Combined with other DYTP resources, PYD can help scholars track cultural life in specific theatre districts and the touring history of particular individuals or theatre companies. Stay tuned for an upcoming batch of plays from the repertoire of New York’s Yiddish Art Theatre.

We encourage you to start exploring Plotting Yiddish Drama now, and as it grows, to continue visiting different plays, each one its own neighborhood in the Yiddish repertoire. You may get lost at times, but immersing oneself in the world of Yiddish drama offers its own pleasures. Let Plotting Yiddish Drama be your map.

Sonia Gollance holds a Moritz Stern Postdoctoral Fellowship in Modern Jewish Studies at Lichtenberg-Kolleg (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany). She received her PhD in Germanic Languages and Literatures from the University of Pennsylvania. She is currently writing a book about the literary motif of Jewish mixed-sex dancing, and developing a project about the role of dance in antisemitic caricature. Her articles have appeared in In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies and Austrian Studies. She is the Managing Editor of Plotting Yiddish Drama.

Joel Berkowitz is Director of the Sam and Helen Stahl Center for Jewish Studies and Professor of Foreign Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. A historian of the Yiddish theatre and translator of Yiddish drama, he is the author of Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage, editor of Yiddish Theatre: New Approaches, and co-editor of Landmark Yiddish Plays: A Critical Anthology and Inventing the Modern Yiddish Stage. He is the co-founder, with Debra Caplan, of the Digital Yiddish Theatre Project.

Featured image (image at top): Theatre as synagogue, New York, 1912, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress


By Chris Lango

The city of Sacramento has acquired so many slogans, nicknames and monikers through the years it’s tough to keep track: Gateway to the Gold Rush, City of the Plains, City of Trees, the Big Tomato, River City, America’s Most Diverse City, Capital of the 6th Largest Economy in the World, America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital, Almond Capital of the World, Camellia Capital of the World, Birthplace of the Transcontinental Railroad and Mark Twain’s favorite, City of Saloons.

But since the late 1940s, one word has defined downtown Sacramento more than just about any other: redevelopment. Virtually every area in the central city has been impacted by redevelopment. Some neighborhoods have even felt the impact of re-redevelopment.

A century after Sacramento pioneered the development of the West during the Gold Rush, the city found itself in the vanguard once again – this time during Redevelopment, when urban cores were carved up and transformed in the years following World War II. Sacramento paved the way for that transformation by pioneering a redevelopment blueprint that became a model for the nation. The city also demonstrated the devastation of redevelopment by displacing hundreds of businesses and thousands of residents from its own urban core.
Advertisement promoting land for sale from the Sacramento Redevelopment Agency, c. 1960. Courtesy: Center for Sacramento History

The Sacramento Redevelopment Agency, created in December of 1950, became the driving force behind the massive efforts to reshape the city in the decades to come. “It had a lot of power,” longtime city historian James Henley later recalled. “At one point, the redevelopment agency had so much money flowing in from project development that it was called ‘Little City Hall.’ And it was the city hall that had the money that you could do something with.”

Corner of Sixth and K Streets, c. 1960 – the site where the Golden 1 Center arena stands now. Courtesy: Center for Sacramento History

It’s fitting the Urban History Association selected the month of April to declare Sacramento its Metropolis of the Month because two interesting moments in the city’s urban redevelopment history took place in two different Aprils – ten years apart.

The first, on April 14, 1954, was the initial public hearing conducted by the Sacramento Redevelopment Agency, when it presented its first urban renewal plan – the Capitol Mall Project – a plan that would demolish a 15-square block area of Sacramento’s West End and replace it with a “grand gateway” into the city. The second came ten years later (nearly to the day) in April of 1964, when Sacramento won the top prize for that plan in a nationwide competition to determine the best urban renewal project in America. That win, however, would prove to be a hollow victory.

The West End of Sacramento was generally considered the area between the State Capitol and the Sacramento River. As the city’s first community and its original business district, the West End welcomed people from around the world.
Lincoln Elementary School in Sacramento’s West End, 5th and P Streets, Kindergarten class, 1958. Courtesy: Center for Sacramento History

It became Sacramento’s most populated, diverse, integrated, and historic neighborhood—a mixed-use, mixed-income tract where many languages were spoken. It was home to a wide variety of businesses and residents. But in the 1940s and ‘50s, city and business leaders viewed it as a negative, declaring the entire West End blighted and the riverfront a skid row.

Second Street near the Sacramento River in the West End, c. 1959. Courtesy: Center for Sacramento History

At that first hearing in 1954, battle lines were drawn that would define redevelopment in Sacramento for the next decade. The Capitol Mall Project was widely endorsed by 14 organizations, including the Sacramento Chamber of Commerce, the Builders’ Exchange, the Association of Landscape Architects, the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Sacramento Area Planning Association and the League of Women Voters.

Diagram of the various Capitol Mall Redevelopment Project, c. 1960. Courtesy: Center for Sacramento History

Standing in the way was Sacramento’s Japantown, a signature West End neighborhood dating back to the 1880s. Often called a city within a city, it became one of the most significant Japanese communities in the United States—home to some 300 businesses and 4,000 residents.

4th Street in Sacramento’s Japantown, near Capitol Ave., c. 1949. Courtesy: Center for Sacramento History

Henry Taketa, a well-known local attorney and prominent Sacramento-born Japanese-American, was the first to speak in opposition to the plan and express concern that tearing down homes and businesses and relocating residents would cause great harm to those displaced.

Two months later, when the Capitol Mall plan reached City Hall, an overflow crowd attended a special meeting of the Sacramento City Council. Again Henry Taketa, whose law practice stood on the corner of 4th Street and Capitol Avenue in the heart of Japantown, was the first to speak.

Henry Taketa addressing the Sacramento City Council, June 15, 1954. Courtesy: Center for Sacramento History

“We have our whole heart and soul in what will take place here,” he told the Council. “Our fathers and mothers came here in their youth, and now they are reaching the twilight years of their lives … We have considerable fondness for our community. For that reason, after our wartime dislocation, we always dreamt of coming back here, and when I say ‘coming back here’ I mean to Sacramento. I would say 90 percent of the people who lived here before the war have returned.”

Sketch in the Sacramento Bee six days before the November election of 1954. Courtesy: Center for Sacramento History

It had been only nine years since residents of Japantown returned from internment during World War II. Now they faced the prospect of a second forced dislocation. Initially their plea was heard and their community spared. In the November elections of 1954, a 1.5 million dollar bond measure asking the public to pay for the initial costs of the Capitol Mall Project failed. Japantown and other West End neighborhoods were saved from the wrecking ball.

US government approves Sacramento’s financing plan for Capitol Mall Project. Courtesy: Sacramento Bee, May 5, 1955

But within days of the Election Day defeat, the Sacramento Redevelopment Agency decided to pursue a different path and work around the electorate. The agency set out to implement a new funding mechanism approved by the California Legislature two years prior—a strategy that had never been tried and did not require a vote. It became known as Tax Increment Financing, and Sacramento was the first city to use it. The results would transform urban renewal all across America.

With an initial price tag of six million dollars to clear the land and pave the way for Capitol Mall, the agency’s then-executive director Jerome Lipp went on local television in 1959 to explain how the financing model worked: “Two-thirds of that six million will be paid for by the federal government. The balance of two million dollars—the local one-third—this agency itself pays for by issuing its own bond issue. This bond issue is secured by the increase in tax revenue that will flow from this project when the new buildings are in place … The increased amount is then deposited into a special fund to retire our bond … And then any additional revenue will flow directly into the city and the county treasury. This is why we say redevelopment more than pays for itself.  I expect the Capitol Mall Project to demonstrate to this city and to other cities what can be accomplished through redevelopment.”

On May 5, 1955, the federal government approved the Sacramento Redevelopment Agency’s financing plan. On July 1, 1956, the agency issued its first tax-increment bond of $2,000,000. Six months later, on January 29, 1957, the demolition of Japantown and the West End began.
The first tax-allocation bond ever issued by the Sacramento Redevelopment Agency on July 1, 1956. Courtesy: Sacramento Bee, August 18, 1956

That day in 1957 was hailed as a celebration of the future of Sacramento. California governor Goodwin Knight presided over the proceedings, even operating the crane that brought down the first building—a two-story house near the corner of 6th Street and Capitol Avenue.
Newspaper advertisement promoting the first demolition in the Capitol Mall Redevelopment Project, Sacramento Bee, January 28, 1957

“Sacramento has passed the threshold of a magnificent promise for the future,” the governor said. “The factors which made our city the hub of pioneer activity during the Gold Rush make it the logical hub of a mighty economic empire in the years ahead.”

In the two years that followed, the 15 square blocks were cleared and thousands of residents were displaced. For those in Japantown, redevelopment not only meant a second forced relocation; this time it meant that their entire “city within a city” vanished.

“I was mad,” recalled former Japantown resident April Adachi. “I thought, ‘not again, we’ve got a double-dipper here.’ First, they chased us out to go to camp, then we came back – and all the businesses were doing okay …”

“There’s nothing—as you drive into Sacramento—no remnant of Japantown,” added another former resident, Marian Uchida. “Even if they put up cherry blossom trees, you could say this was a reminder of Japantown. But we don’t have that.”

Ceremony of the first demolition at 6th St. and Capitol Avenue, paving the way for the Capitol Mall Project, January 29, 1957. Courtesy: Center for Sacramento History

Sacramento author and historian William Burg described the demolition as “a very thorough destruction of a Japantown, probably the most thorough on the west coast. And considering that Sacramento was, by population percentage in the 1920s, the most Japanese of any American city, it’s really a significant change.”

In addition to the Japanese community, other minority groups in the West End were moved out as well. But because of redlining and racially restrictive covenants existing in Sacramento’s newer neighborhoods, their housing options were limited.

A former site in Japantown and a future site of an office building on Capitol Mall, c. 1958. Courtesy: Center for Sacramento History

Nathaniel Colley, Sacramento’s first African-American attorney, represented many West End residents during this period of redevelopment.

“There are certain human values at stake here that we are not paying enough attention to,” Colley argued during a speech at Sacramento State University in 1960. “Usually, minority group people are the ones who inhabit the areas first cleared by urban redevelopment. But it seems to me almost immoral for a government to go in and tell a slum dweller we’re going to clear you out—and then have him go out and face a closed housing market.”

One African-American woman who was relocated to Oak Park in the early 1960s recalled her experience years later: “I’m part of the influx of Blacks from the West End when the West End was redeveloped. When people were being replaced … and they started designating where people were going to go in order to have them get out of the way, they designated Blacks to Oak Park… This is what I call the beginning of the destruction of Oak Park.”

Thus began the cycle of redevelopment in one of Sacramento’s outer communities—a cycle that continues today. Oak Park soon become tagged as “blighted” and a “slum,” and years later it too would become a redevelopment zone.

Also lost from Capitol Avenue were businesses and institutions that made the West End such an interesting place for so many people. Two of Sacramento’s most famous jazz clubs were located across the street from each other right at that same intersection of 6th and Capitol.

The MoMo Club on the southeast corner of 6th & Capitol, 1950s. Courtesy: Center for Sacramento History

The MoMo and the Zanzibar clubs attracted such iconic artists as Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, who would often perform after-hours shows at these clubs following their concert performances at larger venues like the Memorial Auditorium.

They also attracted an integrated clientele—a rarity in Sacramento during the 1940s and 50s.

Redev.Momo.Bartenders: “Bartenders and patrons at Sacramento’s MoMo Club, c. 1955. Courtesy: Center for Sacramento History

“(These clubs) served a very good purpose in terms of introducing people to one another,” recalled Clarence Caesar, a retired historian for the state of California. “And it paid off in later years because as the civil rights movement became more prominent, people became more interested in integration. So the Momo and Zanizibar … created the basis for people to come together.”

Performer on stage at the MoMo Club, 1950s. Courtesy: Center for Sacramento History

“That’s jazz’s unique power,” added William Burg. “Decades before the civil rights movement, it’s encouraging this cross-cultural connection that translates into subsequent generations of music. And they become American ideals with cross-racial, cross-cultural appeal. And Sacramento was a fantastic example of how that process happened. It’s just that the evidence has been mostly wiped away by redevelopment.”

On July 27, 1959, ground was broken on the Capitol Mall’s first construction project: the new federal building at 6th Street and Capitol Avenue. And this time, a new governor, Pat Brown, led the celebration.

California governor Pat Brown at the groundbreaking of the new federal building on Capitol Mall, the first urban renewal construction project in the West, July 27, 1959. Courtesy: Center for Sacramento History

“This is a magnificent moment,” Gov. Brown said. “Here on this spot beauty will replace blight. All this is due to the enterprise of the people of Sacramento. The success you have will be seen all over the United States….”

The 6.5 million dollar federal building was also the first urban renewal construction project in the western U.S. And it immediately demonstrated the upside of the Sacramento redevelopment model, generating 70 percent of the tax revenue formerly collected by the entire 15 blocks of the Capitol Mall redevelopment zone.

The new Federal Building at 6th Street and Capitol Avenue shortly after completion, c. 1961. Courtesy: Center for Sacramento History

In the end, the transformation of Capitol Avenue into Capitol Mall earned Sacramento high praise from across the country. On April 7, 1964, nearly 10 years to the day after the first public hearing on the Capitol Mall Project, Sacramento bested 24 cities from around the country to win the 1963 Ward Melville Gold Medal, a prestigious community development award presented annually by a New York-based financier and philanthropist to the city judged to have the best urban renewal project in the country.

Capitol Mall, c. 1968. Courtesy: Center for Sacramento History

In accepting the award, Sacramento mayor James B. McKinney said, “it exemplifies the vast improvements which have been made in our community—and we will continue to make improvements in the future.”

But the award would prove hollow. Indeed, property values in the redevelopment zone did skyrocket. IBM, Crocker Bank, Wells Fargo, Bank of America and other companies joined the Federal Building on Capitol Mall. A new Macy’s opened just around the corner. But the sense of community that was destroyed has yet to be replaced over 60 years later.

The US Census numbers demonstrate the human void. Before redevelopment, in 1950, 4,467 people lived in the census tract that included almost all of Japantown and Capitol Mall. After redevelopment, in 1970, that number dropped to 377, a population loss of 92 percent. In the original 15-block area of the Capitol Mall Project, 350 businesses were displaced.

As the wheels of redevelopment continued to roll, the skid row area along the riverfront was redeveloped into Old Sacramento—the first urban historic district in the nation to be financed with urban renewal and tax-increment funds. The area immediately to the east of Old Sac became Interstate 5. The stretch of K Street on the other side of the freeway became the Downtown Plaza, an enclosed and open-air two-story shopping center. It since has been demolished and redeveloped into Downtown Commons, featuring the Golden 1 Center arena and the new Sawyer Hotel. Further east, K Street, Sacramento’s original Main Street, was redeveloped into a pedestrian mall in 1969. Nearly 50 years, later it was returned to a street.

Back on Capitol Mall, the entire square block between 3rd and 4th Streets—once the heart of Japantown and the home to Henry Taketa’s law office—was redeveloped into the headquarters of the Sacramento Union newspaper in 1968. Twenty-five years later, the Union folded. The building itself hung on for another decade or so, and in 2005 it too was demolished to make way for a pair of 53-story towers featuring luxury condominiums and a hotel. The towers were never built, and for the past 13 years this entire square block at a seminal location near the gateway to the city is still a fenced-off hole in the ground.

And so as Sacramento continues to redevelop itself and repopulate its downtown, will it become a pioneer again? The answer is still to be determined. The city’s housing crisis is perhaps the most important and most challenging problem to be solved. Like many cities, Sacramento now desires a creative, diverse and integrated mix of businesses and residences. It desires a mixed-use, mixed-income, densely populated urban core featuring many of same qualities that were moved out a half a century earlier.

The Warehouse Artist Lofts, on Sacramento’s R Street, exemplifies the current trend of creating mixed-use, mixed-income, diverse and integrated developments now desired by many cities. In 2015, the WAL was named a national finalist for the Jack Kemp Excellence in Affordable and Workforce Housing Award

lango.pic.Chris Lango’s career a producer writer and narrator has spanned 30 years. Most of that time was spent as a sports producer for stations in his hometown of Detroit – followed by a stop in Hartford, CT before joining KCRA in Sacramento in 1993. For the next 15 years, Chris produced the station’s sportscasts as well as special series and feature programs.  Since 2010, Chris has done volunteer work and video production at the Center for Sacramento History. He and videographer Steve Davis have created two documentary television programs for the Center.   The first, “The Time is Now“, profiles Sacramento’s first African-American attorney Nathaniel Colley; the second, “Replacing the Past“, shines a light on the gains and losses during the redevelopment of downtown Sacramento in the 1950s and 60s. Both of those programs have aired on KVIE, the local PBS affiliate in Sacramento.

Member of the Week: Bridget Flannery-McCoy

BFM_photo_smBridget Flannery-McCoy

Editor in Economics and US History

Columbia University Press


Describe your current editorial projects. What about them are you finding interesting, challenging, and rewarding? 

I always have projects at various stages: proposals going out for peer review, draft chapters coming in on books-in-progress, full manuscripts ready for line editing. No matter the stage, the biggest challenge is helping the author articulate the major driving argument, and ensuring that their presentation and tone is right for their audience (be it scholarly or popular). The reward comes when reviewers and readers recognize and engage with this argument—by which I mean, when people read the book!

Describe what your day-to-day life is like as an editor. Is there a routine, or is every day different?

When I’m doing my job right, I’m spending part of my day in meetings or on phone calls with potential and current authors, part researching and discussing new book ideas with colleagues, part actually reading and editing manuscripts—and part, of course, answering emails, which can include anything from review of potential cover images to discussion of marketing activities to hounding tardy peer reviewers. (When I’m not doing my job right, I’m spending all day on emails.)

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either that you have edited or from other presses or journals?

I love when there’s resonance between books on my list, so I’m really excited about two new projects forthcoming on residential segregation—Paige Glotzer’s book on the history of the first suburbs in Baltimore (and the discriminatory practices built into them) and Elizabeth Herbin-Triant’s book on the different attitudes around segregated housing among elite and middle-class whites. Both are still in revisions, but keep an eye out for them next year. We also have a tremendously fun book on the way from Evan Friss on the history of cycling in New York City, and of course Joshua Clark Davis’s From Head Shops to Whole Foods, which was the subject of a great review on this very blog.

What advice do you have for scholars of urban history who are preparing book proposals? 

Don’t overthink it. (Easy for me to say, I know.) The best books evolve as you write, so I see book proposals as the beginning of an ongoing conversation about the book’s structure, scope, and goals. Start thinking early about the presses you’d want to publish with, and if you can, initiate a conversation with an editor as you’re working on the proposal. Conferences are a good way to make this connection—just email the editor about a month in advance requesting a meeting—or ask an advisor or colleague to get you in touch with their editor. That way you’ll know you’re preparing the right materials, and you’ll also get on the press’s radar early.

What item might readers of The Metropole be surprised to find on your desk?

A big stack of books published by other presses. I love seeing the publication decisions that other presses are making: How are they handling maps and images, and how many are they including? How are they laying out text on the page? What kind of paper are they using? Keeping a close eye on how other presses produce their books lets me pick up (as in, shamelessly imitate) what works, and to avoid things that don’t.

From the Civil War to Civil Rights: Black Sacramento in the late 19th and Early 20th Century

By William Burg

Historian Clarence Caesar described Sacramento’s African American community from 1880 to 1940 as “the settled years,” in contrast to the civil rights struggles of the Gold Rush and Civil War era and the Civil Rights era following the Great Migration of African Americans to California during and after World War II. Sacramento’s African American community numbered less than a thousand people, about 1% of the county population. This small community had little economic power or opportunity, and survived by making social and economic connections across racial lines, with white Sacramentans and the other ethnic and racial groups of the West End, and by forming organizations for mutual support. One of these organizations, the West End Club, may be the origin of the neighborhood’s name.[1]

Despite its small size, members of this community made important efforts in pursuit of political, economic, and social power. Some of these efforts were rebuffed or ignored because white civic reformers could not overcome their own prejudice, or were unwilling to risk alienating racist voters to support Black enfranchisement. Some members of Sacramento’s Black community became targets for middle-class Progressive social reformers who considered a strong Black community in the West End as inherently undesirable as drinking, prostitution, and dancing.

St. Andrew's AME Church
St. Andrew’s AME Church

During Sacramento’s first half century, this community was led primarily by the congregations of St. Andrew’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, established in 1850, and Siloam Baptist Church (later Shiloh Baptist Church), established in 1856. The men and women of this community included prominent activists and reformers, including Elizabeth Thorne Scott Flood, Rev. Jeremiah B. Sanderson, Albert Grubbs, and Daniel Blue. From the Gold Rush through the era of the American Civil War, this community was actively engaged in civil rights activism in response to racism and prejudice in California. The California Republican Party, established in Sacramento on an anti-slavery platform, became an avenue to political franchise for Black Californians following the Civil War and adoption of the 15th Amendment. Especially after Sacramento became the State Capital in 1854, the local Black community was a vanguard for California civil rights, often finding common ground and organizing effective resistance with Sacramento’s Chinese community, who were also frequent targets of racist state policies. By the 1870s, this small community included multiple churches, social organizations, schools, and even an armed militia, the Sacramento Zouaves.[2]

The Sacramento Zouaves and Captain Robert J. Fletcher

Sacramento Zouave_J Asher, 244 J Street_copy
Sacramento Zouave J Asher, 244 J Street

While no Black military units from California served in combat during the American Civil War, several groups organized themselves during and after the war. The first known organization of this sort in Sacramento was Company A, formed by Captain Alexander Ferguson, a Black ex-sailor, consisting of twenty-five men, in the summer of 1863. The city’s first formally established Black militia was the Sacramento Zouaves, trained by Civil War veteran and Sacramento postmaster Captain Crowell in 1867. The Zouaves’ first public appearance was the emancipation celebration of January 1, 1868, in Sacramento.[3] Initially led by Captain Pierson and lieutenants William Gault and William Quinn, Robert J. Fletcher was an early member of the Zouaves who became a well-known Sacramento citizen throughout his life.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in about 1844, Robert Fletcher was raised on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, brought up by his aunt after the death of both parents. During the Civil War, he learned he was an American citizen, much to his surprise, as he grew up assuming he was born on St. Thomas. Fletcher traveled back to the United States and joined the Navy, serving aboard the Vanderbilt under Admiral Wilkes. His travels after the war took him to Panama and the island of Tobago, where he worked in a British hospital as an orderly and trained as a nurse.

In 1869 Fletcher traveled to San Francisco and then Sacramento, when he married Emma Scott and became a member of the Zouaves. Judging by his performance in company-wide shooting contests, Fletcher was a crack shot. For a portion of the 1870s he lived in San Francisco, helping establish another Black militia company, the Sumner Guard, before returning to Sacramento and taking the position of First Sergeant in the Zouaves under Captain Sims Emory, First Lieutenant Isaiah Dunlap, and Second Lieutenant Albert Grubbs, Senior. The Zouaves were more than a paramilitary organization; they also served a political purpose, encouraging Black voting and civic participation.[4]

By 1879, Fletcher succeeded Emory as Captain of the Zouaves, and led their procession accompanying President Ulysses S. Grant in a grand parade down K Street during President Grant’s first visit to Sacramento, in October of 1879, alongside other Sacramento militia unitsDuring and after his tenure with the Zouaves, Fletcher was active in the Republican Party, based on the party’s close association with the abolition of slavery, from the 1870s through the early 1900s, and was an active member of the Eureka Lodge and Philomathean Lodge and the Odd Fellows. Fletcher’s profession was podiatrist, at the time possibly the only Black medical professional in Sacramento, and in 1895 he served as personal nurse for Lt. Governor Spencer Millard.

Even with such a remarkable life, in 1907 Mr. Fletcher met someone even more remarkable; Anna Madah Hyers, star of the operatic stage. It is unknown whether Fletcher divorced or his wife Emma died, but on December 23, 1907, he married Anna Madah Hyers, a Sacramento native whose travels and adventures rivaled his own. Born in 1855 in Troy, New York and raised in Sacramento, where her sister Emma Hyers was born in 1857, the Hyers sisters were singers of extraordinary talent. Their first performance at the Metropolitan Theatre in Sacramento in 1867, at the ages of eleven and nine, began a musical career that took them around the world. Managed by their father, Samuel Baltimore Hyers, they traveled to Boston in 1872 to perform at the World Peace Jubilee; the first major musical production in the United States in which interracial performers shared the same stage. Three years later, they formed a theater company to produce their own musical dramas, staring Anna and Emma.


Anna Madah Hyers

These productions, including Out of Bondage and The Underground Railway, were first and foremost musical entertainment, but they also represented a reaction to the portrayal of African

Americans in theater via the stereotype of the minstrel shows. The career of the Hyers sisters spanned decades, but the sisters retired shortly prior to 1900. Emma Louise Hyers died in 1901, and Anna Madah returned to Sacramento, where she met Dr. Fletcher. After settling in Sacramento, Anna Madah sang and played organ occasionally for church functions, but no longer performed the grand operas of her youth. Dr. Fletcher died in 1922, followed by Anna Madah’s death in 1925.

Sarah Mildred Jones
Sarah Mildred Jones

Black Education in Sacramento and Educator Sarah Mildred Jones

Early Black schools established by Elizabeth Flood and Rev. Sanderson were segregated, as were later schools including Ninth Street’s “Ungraded School No. 2—Colored.” One of the earliest teachers at this school, Sarah Mildred Jones, became the first African American principal of an integrated elementary school when she was appointed principal of Fremont Primary School, located at 24th and N Street, in 1894. There was an immediate outcry from white Sacramentans, who called for her removal and threatened to withdraw their children from the school if Ms. Jones remained principal. Ninety-eight local educators rallied to support Jones, outnumbering the 36 parents who opposed her appointment.

At the hearing held to decide the issue, the argument made by parents opposing Ms. Jones was based solely on race; her academic credentials and experience were impeccable and unquestionable. The President of the School Board pointed out to those assembled that similar objections were raised when Rev. Sanderson first requested public support for a school for Black children, and those objections had long since died out. The district filed the petition and retained Ms. Jones as principal until she retired in 1914. During her tenure, in response to overcrowding at Fremont School, she asked the school board to relocate former buildings of the “colored school” on 9th Street to the Fremont school site, which were scheduled for demolition. When the school was relocated, the multiracial students of the West End also moved to Fremont School.[5]

The Beginning of Black Journalism in Sacramento

By 1900, due to the same economic and social forces that diverted migration to southern California and the Bay Area and away from Sacramento, the growth of Sacramento’s Black population also slowed. Sacramento’s first Black-owned newspaper, Sacramento Forum, published its only issue in 1906, before its publisher, Rev. J. Gordon McPherson of Shiloh Baptist Church, moved to San Jose. Dr. R.J. Fletcher and Baptist minister J.M. Collins assisted McPherson’s paper, and in 1915 Collins started a more lasting Black newspaper, the Western Review.[6]

In April of 1910 the white-owned Sacramento Union reported that P.J. Clyde Randall, a Black attorney who previously practiced law in Macon, Georgia, intended to open an office in Sacramento.[7] Not long after coming to the city, he founded his own local newspaper, the Sacramento Enterprise. In July of 1910, Mr. Randall, a Spanish-American War veteran, published a guest editorial in the Sacramento Union, a newspaper closely associated with Republican politics, titled “Jim-Crowism Marks Meeting of War Veterans,” criticizing a planned gathering of veterans of the Civil War and Spanish-American War because Black and white veterans were to meet in separate places.

In November 1910, Randall penned a longer guest editorial for the Union, describing the state of Black residents of Sacramento, entitled “The Negro in Sacramento”:


The negro in Sacramento, as a people, is most likely less in numbers than any of the other classes that go to make up the city’s population. Both the Japanese and Chinese very greatly outnumber the negro. The Portuguese also does, and very likely the Greeks. If the high-turbaned, tall Hindus continue their recent influx they, too, will outnumber the American negro here. He, the negro, is a natural born pure American. Instinctively he is such. So he is by training, sympathy and devotion. The American institutions and government are his ideals; neither does he claim nor know any other than the American flag and country, nor has his blood been freely given, upon the battle line as a patriotic soldier of unquestioned bravery for the establishment, preservation and enlargement of any other nationality. “If it is a patriotic as it is a sacred principle that without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins, we may exclaim with Kipling:

“If blood be the price of liberty

If blood he the price of liberty,

If blood be the price of liberty,

Lord God he has paid in full.”

Randall, like McPherson, did not remain in Sacramento for very long, but the Forum, Enterprise and Western Review gave this small community a means of communication and platform for their leaders’ views. These small enterprises also gave their editors the necessary experience to convince the Union, connected by party affiliation, to provide them column space and potentially a wider audience.

K Street in 1910
K Street in 1910

Protest of “The Clansman”

Between 1908 and 1915, Sacramento’s African American community dealt several times with theatrical productions of “The Clansman” a play based on a novel by Thomas Dixon, Jr., about Reconstruction in the South and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Featuring heroic portrayals of Klansmen and shocking, sinister caricatures of African Americans, generally played by white actors in blackface, productions of “The Clansman” were met with protest in many cities. First produced as a play at the Clunie Theatre in November 1908, Sacramento’s African American congregations discussed raising formal objections or attempting to have the play cancelled. After some discussion, no formal objections were raised, but the play was the subject of discussion at churches within the community. The Sacramento Union attempted to minimize the racism of the play by pointing out that the production had “much in it of historical interest to the younger members of the race.” Protests in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles against the play, in the Union’s view, “have not done the Afro-American race any good.” The small size of Sacramento’s Black community meant that meaningful protest was difficult without sufficient organization.[8]

In 1910, the play returned to the Clunie, and was met with local protest, but the protesters’ efforts were not sufficient to prevent the play’s performance. In the following year, when “The Clansman” returned to Sacramento at the Diepenbrock Theatre, Rev. R.H. Herring of St. Andrew’s African Methodist Episcopal Church filed an emphatic protest with Sacramento mayor Marshall Beard against the production. By this time, several Southern and Eastern cities had suppressed the play due to concerns about race riots. In the words of Rev. Herring,[9]

I cannot condemn too strongly the production of this play, “The Clansman.” Everything that is cruel and despicable against the negro race has been brought out and introduced in the drama. The negro is shown as something a little lower than beasts, and in all fairness we think that we are within our rights in asking the city to help us in this matter.

I think we have suffered enough in the past, without having this highly overdrawn picture of one-time conditions in the South thrust upon us without uttering a word of protest. We love peace. Our people in Sacramento are hard-working, law, abiding citizens and taxpayers. We are not asking much, and we would like to see this prejudiced drama substituted with something more wholesome and true to life.

I will see Mayor Beard who I am sure is a friend to our people and fair-minded, to learn if something cannot be done to convince the management of the Theater Diepenbrock that the play should not be given.

Despite Rev. Herring’s appeal, Mayor Beard was unmoved, and the Diepenbrock put on its performance of “The Clansman.” The Union reviewer reported that the local Black community felt the play did not represent conditions in the South and it did them an intolerable injustice, then went on to describe the intense drama, merry comedy, and gripping action of the play, and its realistic depiction of settings like “The Great Cave of the Ku-Klux.” For the third time, Sacramento’s Black community was forced to swallow their outrage.

In 1915, “The Clansman” returned in a new form—as a feature-length motion picture, produced by D.W. Griffith, also known as “Birth of a Nation.” Due to their growing political experience and organization, this time, the response of Sacramento’s Black community was larger and more direct. Instead of a single pastor, Commissioner Ed Carraghar was visited by a delegation of twenty-four men and women, representing many of Sacramento’s African American congregations and community groups. By this time, even Governor Hiram Johnson, previously credited with endorsing the film, had retreated from that position, stating that “he has never approved the work and has always thought it could be productive of only prejudice and ill-feeling.” This time, the protest was met with a limited concession from the City Commissioners; the film could be shown, but in edited form, with the most objectionable scenes removed. The edited film was met with subdued enthusiasm by local media. Even this minor concession, given the context of the times, represented a victory in an era of rising prejudice. In the pages of The Western Review, Rev. Collins heralded the community’s position as “an earnest and manly stand.”[10]

The political power of Black Sacramentans, while still small, was caught in the current of larger state and national events. In part due to the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, often attributed to the popularity of the film Birth of a Nation, racism was on the rise in America during this era. The 1910s and 1920s were also the era of the first racial exclusion covenants, used to prohibit purchase of homes in new suburbs except by whites. In response to these challenges, organized political protests from churches and community groups were necessary for survival, even if they were unable due to lack of numbers and resources to create major political change. The remainder of the decade brought other signs of incremental change: 1918 brought the election of Frederick Roberts of Los Angeles to that California legislature, the first African American member of the California State Assembly.


Sacramento’s First Black Candidate, Rev. T. Allen Harvey

In 1919, Rev. Thomas Allen Harvey became the first Black candidate for Sacramento political office. Rev. Harvey arrived in Sacramento from San Jose in 1916 and rapidly established two major institutions in the Black community; the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, known today as Kyles Temple AME Zion, and the first Sacramento branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), one of the earliest NAACP branches on the west coast. Originally preaching at the long-established St. Andrew’s AME congregation, Rev. Harvey formed the Kyles Temple congregation in August of 1917. The original Kyles Temple church was located in Oak Park at 36th and Broadway, its cornerstone laid in April of 1919, the first African American congregation in a Sacramento suburb.[11]

Rev. Harvey became the Sacramento NAACP’s first president in 1916. In 1917, he gave the keynote speech at a function for 418 Black soldiers passing through Sacramento on the way to Camp Lewis, Washington. In the following year, he won the first racial discrimination suit in Sacramento history, winning an award of $50 after being refused service at the W.L. Bigelow Restaurant at 3008 35th Street. In the following year, Rev. Harvey gave another soldiers’ address, to African American veterans of the First World War, and the local NAACP chapter brought speakers including James Weldon Johnson of New York to address the issue of lynching during the 1919 “Red Summer.”[12]

Rev. Harvey first expressed an interest in running for City Commissioner in March of 1919, intending to replace Thomas Coulter as commissioner of public works. His stand on municipal issues included a competitive franchise for local streetcar companies and a reservoir-based water treatment system. He also took a position on saloons reinforcing the idea of Black Progressive tempered tolerance for saloon interest, as quoted in the Sacramento Union,

Everyone knows how I stand on saloons. Nevertheless, I believe in the saloon man being given a fair deal. I am not catering to the church vote to the exclusion of others. I want the support of all fair-thinking men and believe that when the votes are counted I shall not stand at the bottom of the list of seven.[13]

Faced with six other competitors, including Assembly member Lee Gebhardt, W.R. Purnell, John Q. Brown, Ed L. Head, Cradoc Meredith, and Hawley R. Tuttle, all white men, Rev. Harvey recognized that he faced an enormous challenge, but he felt he was up to the task, citing his experience in the Spanish-American War:

I am a colored man. I was at San Juan Hill with Colonel Roosevelt and when those Spanish bullets were zipping round we were all Americans. It should be the same today.[14]

True to his word, Rev. Harvey did not place last. In the May 1919 election results, he was fifth out of seven candidates with 196 votes out of 8441 cast. Harvey’s experience clearly demonstrated that elected office was still too high of a hurdle for Sacramento’s Black community in 1919. He did not allow this setback to limit his political ambitions, running for City Council under the city’s new charter in 1921, or to slow his efforts at creating civic institutions. Three months later, he formed an organization for Sacramento’s African American veterans, the Crispus Attucks Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Club, and in 1920 served in Sacramento’s Independence Day parade as marshall of the Eighth Division, representing Sacramento’s Black community in the civic procession.[15]

Despite the limited size and political power of Black Sacramento in the early twentieth century, this community drew upon the strengths of its religious and social institutions, and the talents of its leaders, to organize and advocate for their community’s survival in an era of increased racial tension. Decades later, following the Second World War, a new generation of Black leaders rekindled this spirit among a growing Black population and a national civil rights movement. In the meantime, this community did its best to ensure a safe and secure place among the growing and diverse West End.

received_10207314464093641William Burg is a historian based in Sacramento, California, who writes books and articles about local history, ranging from urban planning and railroads to civil rights and contemporary music. Burg is also a state historian in the California Office of Historic Preservation. This piece is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Wicked Sacramento. In addition to his 2014 work, Burg’s most recent book is Midtown Sacramento: Creative Soul of the City.

[1] Caesar, Clarence, “An Historical Overview of the Development of Sacramento’s Black Community, 1850-1983”, unplublished thesis, 1985, Sacramento State University, page 91.

[2] Caesar, pp. 49-88

[3] Caesar, 78. Beasley, Delilah, The Negro Trail Blazers of California, 1919 (Los Angeles: California Historical Society) p. 280.

[4] “Another Milestone Passed,” The Herald, Los Angeles, Thursday, October 24, 1895, Page 1.Family history research via, sources include California County Birth, Marriage, and Death Records, 1849-1980. “Sacramento City, August 20,” The Elevator, August 23, 1873, Page 3. “Sumner Guard,” The Elevator May 30, 1874, Page 3. “Sacramento,” The Pacific Appeal, April 20, 1878, Page 2. “Colored Voters!” Sacramento Daily Union February 25, 1879, Page 2.

[5] Demas, Marilyn, “Ungraded School No. 2, Colored: The African American Struggle for Education in Victorian Sacramento,” Golden Notes Volume 45, Numbers 1 and 2, Spring and Summer 1999, pp 66-70.

[6] Caesar, pp. 101-105, 113-114.

[7] Letter from P.J. Clyde Randall to Theodore Roosevelt, April 29, 1917, Theodore Roosevelt Center, Sagamore Hill National Historic Site, Dickinson State University, accessed via

[8] “Colored People Will Not Protest,” Sacramento Union November 12, 1908, Page 9.

[9] “Negroes Protest ‘Clansman’ Drama,” Sacramento Union, July 4, 1911, pp 1-2. “’The Clansman’ By M’Rae Company,” Sacramento Union July 9, 1911, Page 3.

[10] Collins, Rev John M., “The Clansman,” The Western Review, June 1915, Page 4. “Negroes Ask City to Bar “Clansman,” Sacramento Union May 27, 1915, Page 6. “Clansman To Be Expurgated By Censor,” Sacramento Union May 28, 1915. “Clansman Resumes Its Place at Clunie,” Sacramento Union June 3, 1915, Page 7.

[11] “Will Hold Services,” Sacramento Union October 15, 1916, Page 7. “Rev. Harvey Returns from Conference,” Sacramento Union September 26, 1917, Page 6. “Church Cornerstones Laid,” Sacramento Union April 23, 1919, Page 3. Caesar, Pages 115-116.

[12] Magagnini, Stephen, “Sacramento NAACP Celebrates A Century of Civil Rights,” Sacramento Bee, July 19, 2016, Caesar, pp. 117-118. “Restaurants Must Serve Colored Folk,” Sacramento Union July 26, 1918, Page 3. “Colored Soldiers Are Given a Reception,” Sacramento Union March 29, 1919, Page 2. “Negro Talks of Crimes Against Race,” Sacramento Union May 30, 1919, Page 2.

[13] “Rev. Allen Harvey Willing to Become City Commissioner,” Sacramento Union March 18, 1919, Page 1.

[14] “They’re Off, Count ‘em: Seven After Commissionership,” Sacramento Union April 14, 1919, Page 1.

[15] “Gebhart and Brown to Fight It Out at Final Election,” Sacramento Union, May 4, 1919 Page 1. “Colored Troops To Have Club,” Sacramento Union, August 8, 1919, Page 2. “Fourth Parade Great Affair,” Sacramento Union July 6, 1920, Page 2.

Religion and Sacramento

By Steven M. Avella

I grew up in Sacramento during the 1950s and 1960s. The twin poles of my life were the Catholic Church and the Sacramento Bee. I was a newsboy for the latter for five years (Route #3491—suburban Orangevale). I later became a Catholic priest and a professional historian. I have been teaching in the Midwest (Marquette University) for nearly 30 years. In the past dozen years, I have turned my scholarly interests back to my home region (the West) and especially the history of my hometown of Sacramento.

Entrance to City Library, Sacramento, California, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, 2012, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The city has an impressive array of historical materials located at the Center for Sacramento History. The California Room of the State Library and the Sacramento Room of the Sacramento city library are a researcher’s delight. Using these, and other sources I have produced several small popular books about Sacramento history, a major biography of Charles K. McClatchy, the long-time editor of the Sacramento Bee (1881-1936), and a book on the relationship of the Catholic Church to the history of Sacramento.

Sacramento and the Catholic Church was the fruit of a great deal of study and reflection. It provided me an opportunity to study the city from the perspective of a significant social and cultural institution in its midst. Sacramento is not a “Catholic city” in the way Salt Lake City is a Mormon city. Catholics were a minority in Sacramento, outnumbered by the collective forces of Protestants and the unaffiliated. However, the Catholic Church was one of the most visible and active church communities in the city. It not only occupied important urban space, but its wide institutional outreach responded to needs for social provision (orphanages, day care, health care) and established alternative schools. Sacramento’s ethnic communities were welcomed by Catholic leaders who allowed them to form ethnic parishes. Since 1855, Sacramento has been the state capital. Since 1881 it has also been the capital of a vast territory of Catholic outposts, stretching north to the Oregon border and, at one time, to the middle of Nevada. The local Catholic bishop has always been a figure of prominence. One does not have to be a Catholic to acknowledge the influence of the Church in local affairs.

Sacramento City, K Street, Masonic Hall and Catholic Church, Lawrence and Houseworth, 1866, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Sacramento, which claimed the Swiss adventurer Johan Sutter as its putative founder, was really one of Gunther Barth’s “Instant Cities.” It was born in the heat of the gold rush by merchants anxious to “mine the miners.” They literally set up shop on an environmentally precarious site along the Sacramento River. Lashed by floods and fire, and the collapse of gold fever, the city has over its existence reorganized and repurposed itself to survive another day. It built higher and higher levees, raised its streets, and insisted that buildings in its commercial district be constructed of brick. It took maximum advantage of its selection as the capital city and later as the terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad, which brought jobs and wages from the railroad repair yards located there. Although it grew slowly, the city matured, pushing out from its origins along the river bank and moving north and east. In the 1870s, a magnificent new capitol building was erected east of the river and the city grew around it. Other enterprises anchored the city’s growth: the expansion of state government, the location of military installations, and the growth of high tech.

As historian Marc Eifler has noted, a cadre of civic middlemen emerged who dedicated themselves to the cause of Sacramento’s stability and prosperity[1]. These city fathers, whose ranks were replenished over the years, were determined that Sacramento should overcome fire, flood, and economic uncertainty. Sacramento’s desire to survive was summed up in the city motto: Urbs Indomita, Indomitable City. When other instant cities disappeared or were reduced to tourist sites, Sacramento continued to improve, expand its territory, and provide the urban amenities necessary for a “respectable city”: schools, churches, and cultural venues. The Catholic Church got a firm start in Sacramento’s earliest years and grew with the city, becoming an active partner in the city’s continual growth.

67794a00-918b-4ce9-83a2-966950f63be6The history of the Catholic Church in Sacramento reflects in many ways the role of religion in Western cities. As historians like Ferenc Szasz and others have noted, religious bodies (with the exception of Mormons) were never very robust in the communities of the American West.[2] Primacy was given to commerce and civic advancement rather than religion. Religious groups had a hard time settling in the free-wheeling and transitory communities born in heat of mining rushes. Ministers of all traditions who came to preach to the miners found themselves side-lined and could not count on stable congregations or even erect permanent quarters. Sacramento was this way until the gold fever subsided and the city decided to “settle down” and become a “respectable” community. The Catholic Church was from the beginning part of this urban consensus.

With land donated by California’s first governor, Peter Burnett, a Catholic church was created in 1850 and a stable Catholic presence was assured by interested laymen like local doctor Gregory Phelan (a pillar in the city’s early medical establishment). That church, established near the riverfront, was built and re-built several times, each time stronger and more durable. Eventually this edifice was bypassed as the city moved east from the Sacramento River. In 1881, Sacramento was made the center of a new Catholic jurisdiction (a diocese). Its first bishop, Patrick Manogue, an old hard-rock miner turned church builder, seized the opportunity to put the Catholic community in line with the forces of urban development. He purchased land just one block north of the elegant state capitol building and erected the magnificent Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, a Renaissance gem whose spires dominated the city skyscape for many years. The cathedral, to this day a stunning architectural counter-point to the classical capitol building, was always perceived as an asset to the “greater glory” of Sacramento. Referred to simply as “the Cathedral” even by non-Catholics, a medley of citizens feted and toasted Bishop Manogue. Non-Catholics gave generously to the building and works of art were donated by people of other denominations or even of no faith at all. Across the street from the new Cathedral, a thriving boy’s school run by the Christian Brothers trained young men for professional careers.

9780874177602_p0_v2_s600x595Catholic investments in urban space continued to advance wider civic goals. In the late 19th century, when California’s mission revival was underway, the city rehabilitated the old Fort Sutter as a sign of its linkage with a heroic past. Between 1908-1910, German Franciscan friars rebuilt their St. Francis Church to be a replica of Mission Santa Barbara. Since the church was adjacent to the restored fort, city boosters took pictures of these buildings together, suggesting that they were contemporaries. Those who saw the pictures and read advertising copy could be assured that Sacramento had all the amenities that made California desirable to potential eastern and Midwestern migrants: a good climate, citrus fruit, robust schools, beautiful public buildings, and a link to California’s romantic past.

The Sisters of Mercy and the Franciscan Sisters of Penance and Charity created popular schools. St. Joseph’s Academy (today a parking lot) was a girl’s school that welcomed grade-schoolers through high school and beyond. A Normal school program at St. Joseph’s provided teachers for city schools. The Sisters of Mercy also opened a hospital that provided health care to Sacramentans (known only as the Sister’s Hospital). In the 1920s it moved to a more spacious location where it still is today. The Franciscan Sisters taught in St. Stephen’s School in Sacramento’s ethnically diverse West End and also opened a “Day Home” to offer child care for Sacramento women who did seasonal work in the city’s thriving canneries.

The Central Pacific Railroad’s “Gov. Stanford” locomotive No. 1 is one of the most popular attraction at the California State Museum in the “Old Sacramento” section of California’s capital city, Carol M. Highsmith, 2012, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Railroad, manufacturing, and canning work attracted scores of European and Mexican immigrants to Sacramento. This mixture of various nationalities on the city’s West End was richly described by writer Ernesto Galarza in his autobiography Barrio Boy.[3] In this part of town, Catholic churches helped provide for immigrant groups by offering them the shelter of their own churches and a thriving Catholic school. Out of St. Stephen’s Church on the West End, repurposed out of an old carriage house, emerged separate parishes and ministries for the city’s Portuguese, Italians, Mexicans, and Japanese. These churches offered services in native tongues and also provided venues for an array of social and cultural activities. Church festivals, parades, musicales, and fund-raisers helped create bonds of unity and social peace for the community.

Sculpture located in César Chávez Plaza in downtown Sacramento, California’s capital city, on the site of the old city plaza, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, 2012, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Later, when the city’s Latino population soared in the 20th century, Catholic leaders helped gather and organize the growing community. This work was done first through the ministry of the Cathedral parish, one of whose priests, Stephen Keating, gathered Mexican children for instruction and sacraments. Later, those efforts led to the purchase of a Mexican Chapel (Our Lady of Guadalupe) followed by the construction of a new Mexican national parish, also named Our Lady of Guadalupe. While Latinos had a diverse array of community-building organizations, Guadalupe provided an important center for worship, cultural expression, and public devotion. To it came Cesar Chavez after his famous march from Delano on Easter 1966.

The recent movie Lady Bird, set in Sacramento, highlighted some of the familiar scenes of the city: the Tower Bridge, the Tower Theater, and the “Fab 40s” neighborhood. It also included vignettes of the Catholic presence in the community and the church’s impact on the film’s characters. The portrayal of the church was in many ways typical of the role and influence of this religious body in California’s capital—present but not dominant and influential in ways not easy to discern.

avella.jpgSteven Avella, was born in Chicago, 1951; grew up in Sacramento; began studies for the Catholic priesthood in 1965; ordained in 1979. MA/Ph.D, University of Notre Dame (1985); Professor of History at Marquette University (1991-present). Author of popular history of Sacramento (Sacramento Indomitable City, 2003, Arcadia); biography of Charles K. McClatchy (Charles K McClatchy and the Golden Age of American Journalism, 2016, University of Missouri Press). Teaches courses in the American West, American Religious History, 20th century America..

[1] Marc Eifler, Gold Rush Capitalists: Greed and Growth in Sacramento (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002).

[2] Ferenc Szasz, and Margaret Connell Szasz, “Religion and Spirituality,” in Oxford History of the American West, Clyde A, Milner II, Carol O’Connor, and Martha A Sandweiss, eds., 359-91, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994)

[3] Ernesto Galarza, Barrio Boy (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991).

Featured image (at top):  The Tower Bridge is a vertical lift bridge across the Sacramento River, linking West Sacramento in Yolo County to the west, with the capital of California, Sacramento, in Sacramento County to the east, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

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