The Chris Webber Kings: A Harbinger of the NBA’s Future

By Kevin D. Seal

This is a picture of an authentic Sacramento Kings jersey that I bought in middle school. I walked to the NBA Store on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue during a free period, pulled Chris Webber’s jersey off the rack, and handed over a silly amount of cash for the right to have it hang in my closet for the next 18 years. But I treasured this jersey because the Kings circa 2001 were an absolute sensation, a memorable blend of entertainment and effectiveness in an era of deliberate, sometimes stagnant basketball. Chris Webber was their fulcrum. The New York Knicks were my team, no doubt, but there was only so much Shandon Anderson and Othella Harrington a guy could take before needing to watch some quality ball. The Kings scratched that itch. So how did they become, as Sports Illustrated put it in 2001, “The Greatest Show on Court”?

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The Kings’ rise and fall began in the late 1990s. After 15 consecutive losing seasons, the Kings made significant changes. They hired coach Rick Adelman before the shortened 1998-1999 season. They overhauled their roster of journeymen, past-their-prime stars, and talented but one-dimensional players. The Kings signed Vlade Divac, the slick-passing, veteran Serbian center who currently serves as the general manager of the team. Fellow Serbian Peja Stojakovic, whom the Kings drafted in 1996, finally arrived from the Greek professional league and signed with the team, giving them a promising young scorer to develop. They drafted the talented-but-volatile Jason Williams with the seventh pick in the 1998 draft, hoping he could develop into their point guard of the future. Their most significant move, however, was trading franchise cornerstone Mitch Richmond for Webber, who was entering his prime years as one of the league’s best all-around forwards. In Divac, Stojakovic, Williams, and Webber, the Kings had assembled a core that would open their competitive window.

Their moves paid immediate dividends. They finished 27-23 in 1998-1999 and lost to the Utah Jazz in the first round of the playoffs. With Williams at the helm and an unselfish core of nifty passers, these Kings played a slightly unhinged, uptempo brand of basketball that was low on efficiency but high on entertainment and good vibes. They played at by far the fastest pace in the league, with a huge gap between them and the next-fastest team, the Los Angeles Lakers. They led the league in scoring but also allowed the most points per game in the league, both a function of their pace. Interestingly, they would have been only the 23rd fastest team in the league today, an indicator of just how briskly the modern game moves. The 1998-1999 Kings signified a shift in the team’s culture and identity; they were going to play fast, team-oriented basketball, and lean on the passing skills of Williams, Webber, and Divac to do it.

court.jpgThe Kings’ growth continued. The 1999-2000 team was superficially similar to the previous year’s team–they played fast, scored a lot of points, and allowed a lot of points–but underneath the surface, real improvement was happening. Their defense improved to 10th in the league, as measured by Defensive Rating, an advanced metric that adjusts for pace. They made the playoffs with a 44-38 record, but lost to the dominant Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers in the first round.

After the 1999-2000 season, the Kings’ front office made significant upgrades to the roster’s depth. They traded for Doug Christie, a ferocious perimeter defender and one half of a very committed marriage. Bobby Jackson was brought in as a free agent, giving them a scoring guard off the bench to keep up the frenzied pace when Williams needed a breather. They also added another international player to the roster, drafting Hedo Turkoglu out of Turkey with their first round pick. Turkoglu’s acquisition in particular portended what the league was to become: a place where sweet-shooting, ball-handling, and playmaking big men would eventually revolutionize NBA offenses. By drafting Turkoglu, the Kings added yet another foreign-born player to a roster that was heavily international for its time. The league would continue to head in this direction over the next decade, with the Kings securing a place as an early adopter of looking abroad for talent. These varied additions helped the 2000-2001 Kings to a 55-27 record. The Kings were now fast, more efficient than ever, and boasted a strong defense to boot. This time they advanced to the second round of the playoffs, where they lost again to the Lakers.

Not content with their rise to Western Conference semifinalists, the Kings made the franchise-altering decision to trade Jason Williams – their starting point guard –  in the 2001 offseason. At this point, Williams was one of the most recognizable and marketable players in the NBA. Certainly, race had something to do with it. Known as “White Chocolate,” the white, West Virginian Williams brought flash and flamboyance–a style typically associated with black streetballers–to a league that had seen elements of this style before, but rarely from a white player, and never from one with a shaved head and prominent tattoos. He regularly attempted behind-the-back or no-look passes–including the greatest pass I’ve ever seen–or dazzling crossovers, or pull-up threes on fast breaks. Williams’ style of play would simply not be permitted in today’s game, which is so focused on shooting efficiency and ball security. With a career 39.8 field goal percentage and a mediocre assist-to-turnover ratio, Williams was the antithesis of the modern point guard. But at the time, he was considered a star.

The Kings evidently felt differently about Williams’ actual effectiveness. His replacement was acquired in the trade itself: Mike Bibby, a steady, young veteran point guard who was a much more effective shooter than Williams. Bibby could pass and play with pace as well, but his arrival signified the final step in the Kings’ maturation, the transition from a stylish team with some substance to a true threat to the Western Conference crown. The trade was a coup for the Kings. They finished the 2001-2002 season with a 61-21 record, the best in the conference. They finished with the second best offense in the league while also playing at its fastest pace. Their defense was sixth best in the league, a fact obscured by the high number of points they allowed in their fast-paced games. The Kings were now legitimate championship contenders. Entering the 2002 playoffs, it seemed fated that the Kings and Lakers would meet in the Western Conference Finals. It seemed like it was the Kings’ year, that they may have developed into the best team in the league. Indeed, the Kings and Lakers did rendezvous in memorable fashion.

The narrative entering the 2002 Western Conference Finals was classic: the old guard against the young upstarts. The Lakers were steered by legendary coach and incompetent executive Phil Jackson, who disparaged Sacramento and Kings fans with elitist provocations during the series. Calling the city a “cow town” and the fans “semi-civilized,” Jackson sought to maintain hegemony on the backs of his future Hall of Famers Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. The Kings sought to disrupt the established hierarchy by proving that their team-oriented, democratic, unselfish style of play could both entertain and win. The organization even embraced Jackson’s insults and stereotyping, encouraging fans to bring cowbells to home games throughout the series. The series was evenly matched, but the new order seemed to prevail. The Kings jumped out to a 3-2 series lead. They headed to Los Angeles for Game Six, needing one win to make the NBA Finals.

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Game Six of the 2002 Western Conference Finals is widely considered to be the most controversial game in NBA history. The game’s referees–Dick Bavetta, Ted Bernhardt, and Bob Delaney–made a slew of calls (and non-calls) throughout the game, particularly in the fourth quarter, that went against the Kings. Some of these decisions were egregious, while others were simply very fishy. Big men Scot Pollard and Divac fouled out on a number of questionable calls while trying to defend Shaq, while some of Shaq’s infractions went uncalled. Webber was called for a phantom foul while legally blocking a Bryant shot on a drive. Bibby got elbowed in the face by Bryant with 11.8 seconds left and the Kings down by one, but there was no call for an offensive foul on Bryant. The Lakers shot 27 free throws in the fourth quarter alone. Announcers Bill Walton and Steve Jones repeatedly criticized the officiating for both its accuracy and consistency throughout the game. The Lakers won the game and forced a Game Seven in Sacramento, which the Kings ultimately lost. The Lakers advanced to the finals and defeated the New Jersey Nets to win the title.

Kings_Lakers018.source.prod_affiliate.4-331x219.jpgThe uproar after Game Six was significant, sustained, and powerful. Many viewers believed that the NBA instructed the referees to make sure the big-market, ultra-popular Lakers advanced to the finals instead of the underdog, small-market Kings. High-profile sportswriters slammed the referees’ performance, with some calling it the worst-officiated game they’ve ever seen. Ralph Nader wrote to David Stern, the NBA commissioner at the time, asking for a formal review of the referees’ decisions during Game Six. And in 2008, ex-referee Tim Donaghy–who resigned from the NBA in the midst of a gambling scandal–alleged that Game Six was fixed by two referees to reflect the league’s interest in the Lakers advancing. The NBA has consistently rejected all of these wonderings and accusations out of hand.

In the following years, the Kings remained a potent side but failed to match the success of their 2001-2002 season. They earned the second best record in the West in 2002-2003, but lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the conference semifinals after Webber tore his ACL in Game Two. They slipped to fourth in the West in 2003-2004 after some significant roster changes; Pollard, Jackson, and Turkoglu left and Webber missed most of the season rehabbing his knee. He returned in time for the playoffs but was clearly diminished, and the Kings lost to the top-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves in seven games. Webber was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers halfway through the 2004-2005 season, bringing “The Greatest Show on Court” to a close.

While the early 2000s Kings did not totally revolutionize professional basketball, they did represent a transition period in several ways. The dominant style of play at the time was methodical and heavy on feeding the ball to a team’s best one-on-one scorer. The Kings adopted a more free-flowing, democratic offense in which the ball rarely stuck to one player. Their constant movement on offense would fit in neatly in the modern game. Rosters in the early 2000s largely comprised American players, either experienced former college players or straight-from-high-school phenoms. The Kings built and augmented their core with a heavy international presence. Coaches preferred a deliberate pace on offense and a bullying physicality on defense. The Kings pushed the pace in a way that was indicative of where the league would eventually go, but they did not rely on threes or free throws, which are the shots contemporary NBA offenses actively hunt for. Rather, most of their shots were twos, and many of them midrange jumpshots: the very shots that math now tells us are the worst value proposition in basketball. And it turns out that, contrary to the narrative, the Kings’ stout defense was a major factor in the team’s success. Their offense got the accolades–and really, it was something to behold at the time–but the defense made them championship contenders.

I suspect the Kings era of my life is over as well. Their games start too late for this lifelong East Coaster, and my bedtime is not trending in a direction that makes viewership likely. But I will always remember their dazzling play, their reckless abandon, and all the hours I spent trying to recreate those qualities in NBA2K. And I will always have that Chris Webber jersey hanging in my closet.

Kevin Seal is an elementary school teacher in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is a former sports blogger and, despite the sustained efforts of Pittsburghers, a devoted fan of his beloved New York teams: the Knicks, Yankees, and Giants.

The Foreclosure Crisis and Its Impact on Today’s Housing Market

In recent years, the American public has been treated to a number of films about the 2008 housing crisis: the insightful documentary “The Queen of Versailles”, the dark, simmering “99 Homes”, and the Oscar nominated “The Big Short” to name a few. For all the critical acclaim bestowed upon each, with the exception of a couple of short scenes from “The Big Short”, none portray the travails of working-class black and brown homeowners or the ways in which a historically racially biased system of home financing contributed to the 2008 debacle.

Nearly a decade after the housing crisis, public policy professionals and academics have worked to unravel the complex factors that led to the catastrophe and why minorities and women proved particularly vulnerable. The intersection of racially constructed housing markets; changes in banking and housing finance, notably the securitization of mortgages; and the proliferation of subprime loans explain why the 2008 crash devastated communities of color.

University of California, Davis sociologist Jesus Hernandez, who grew up in Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood, has spent years studying the housing crisis nationally, but also the more specific experience of metropolitan Sacramento homeowners. In addition to the devastating losses of private homes, the housing bubble cost the city dearly. According to the California Reinvestment Coalition, in 2007 Sacramento residents faced with foreclosure lost, in addition to their homes, $54 million collectively. Administrative costs related to foreclosure extracted $40 million from city coffers, and the city’s Gross Municipal Product suffered as well; one study estimated losses of $1.73 billion in GMP. Cascading social costs resulted, including increasing numbers of vacant buildings, rising crime rates from squatting and reduced revenues from property taxes, physical deterioration of neighborhoods and housing stock, and schools squeezed ever tighter for already insufficient funding.

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Defaults and foreclosures in the City of Sacramento in 2007 as distributed across racial concentrations by census tracts. | The California Reinvestment Coalition

In numerous post-mortem analyses of the housing crash, subprime loans emerged as the culprit. Such loans feature higher interest rates often referred to as adjustable rate mortgages (ARM), rather than fixed rates mortgages which remain locked in at their agreed upon level. From 1994-2003, subprime loans increased 25 percent annually in what amounted to nearly a ten-fold expansion in nine years. While subprime loans did contribute to increasing numbers of minority homeowners, it did so in ways that left individuals and families more financially vulnerable than their white counterparts.

Even worse, more predatory subprime loans featured “teaser” rates that started lower but increased within a year or two. As with any financial product, subprime loans can work well facilitating homeownership for those black and brown households who were denied traditional financing. However, these same families disproportionately fell victim to the proliferation of subprime housing finance. The 2008 housing crash demonstrates how such products can be perverted and borrowers exploited particularly working-class black and brown homeowners.

While the narrative of personal responsibility frequently arises in discussions of the housing collapse, long-term structural issues go further to explain why the 2008 crisis ravaged communities of color. The idea that these communities were somehow less responsible does not fully square. Yes, undoubtedly some borrowers were overextended and irresponsible. However, plenty of better off homeowners, many of them white and upper class, walked away from their financial obligations when it suited them. In 2010, the New York Times reported that homeowners “with less lavish housing are much more likely to keep writing checks to their lender,” than their wealthier counterparts, who when faced with excessive losses, simply defaulted. Furthermore, delinquency rates on “investment homes”, properties purchased for financial return rather than residency, where the mortgage started at $1 million, rose to 23 percent in 2010, wrote David Streitfield.

Hernandez, in a phone interview, raises a second issue: the ethical responsibility of the real estate industry. “I don’t know of one homeowner who approved his own loan. If you want to talk about responsibility, lenders are responsible for vetting the client,” he pointed out. Brokers and other industry professionals jettisoned such responsibilities, shirking their fiduciary obligations. Talk of personal responsibility elides this failure by professionals. “Nobody held the industry accountable; they were the connection between money and property. They used their network [for personal gain] and so that fiduciary responsibility got lost.”

As one can tell, the housing crisis and its effects are complicated; they do not boil down to simple explanations of personal responsibility and free markets. Instead, as Hernandez told us in his interview, the crisis was the result of decades of racially prejudicial policies that impacted working and middle-class brown and black homeowners unfairly and unequally. In the end, the story of the housing crash and its impact on communities of color proves historically complex.

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Occupy Wall Street activists protesting against Bank of America in March 2012. | Michael Fleshman/Flickr/Creative Commons

The Mythical Neutral Housing Market

Historians of urban and suburban America have long pointed out the fictitiousness of free markets in housing. Federal and state interventions, whether it be investment due to wartime mobilization, the codification of racialized housing policies through the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), or the injection of federal money into suburban homeownership from the G.I. Bill and its home loan provisions, have shaped housing markets. “We guide markets to produce the results we want,” Hernandez points out. Market interventions by the state — be it mortgage loan structure, G.I. benefits, or urban planning — have functioned to reproduce racial inequality, he argues. The fact that people of color were not only targeted for subprime loans but also disproportionately affected by the subsequent housing crisis aligns with historical precedent.

Beginning in the 1920s, the National Association of Real Estate Brokers (NAREB) established racial covenants as a requirement for new home building. When the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) and FHA came into being in the 1930s, they absorbed and institutionalized the idea that homogenous white neighborhoods represented the safest investment in housing.

Heterogeneous communities and communities of color were rated poorly or redlined, which severely constrained access to home loans thereby contributing to neighborhood decline as larger numbers of non-whites moved to cities like Sacramento, but could only access housing in redlined communities. Overcrowding in these neighborhoods placed greater stress on housing stock and local resources. The inability to secure loans for new housing or much needed renovation projects undermined housing values and established risk assessment and credit lending practices that penalized non-white homeowners.

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Housing experts inspect Southern California building projects on May 27, 1947. Left to right: E.K. Sheble, coordinator of the Emergency Housing Committee, Mayor’s office; Mason Moise, Veterans Administration; Lawrence B. Gibbs, President of Builders Institute; John McGovern, Federal Housing Administration; Preston Wright of San Francisco; and Spiros G. Ponty, builder of tract. | Los Angeles Public Library
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Fair Housing protestors in 1964, Richmond, CA. | UC Berkeley/Bancroft Library

Subsequent attempts to address declining housing stock privileged and subsidized business development and suburbanization; but came at the expense of urban minority homeowners who due to segregation could not access housing opportunity that defined post-World War II white-America. While the 1968 fair housing act attempted to remedy this structural discrepancy, it had its largest effect on then more stagnant southern metropolitan areas like Atlanta, Dallas and Houston where suburban home building occurred after rather than before the law’s passage.

Moreover, market-based attempts to provide newly built affordable housing rested on this racially and class-based home financing infrastructure such that rising numbers of non-white homeowners remained subject to established structural inequalities. Government expansion outside of housing, at both the federal and state level, further contributed to the growing diversity of California cities like Sacramento. The Korean and Vietnam Wars brought civilian and military workers to the area, roughly 25,000 with African American employees making up 10 percent of this new labor force. From 1942 to 1964, the Bracero program drew greater numbers of Mexican labors to the city as well. For example, after a stint working in Salinas for a sugar manufacturer, Hernandez’s father came to Sacramento in the late 1940s where he met his future wife who then worked as a waitress in downtown Sacramento. In the postwar periods, Sacramento diners and restaurants like the one at which Hernandez’s mother worked, later enjoyed a growing clientele due to the growth of state government. When California’s administration expanded, strict fair employment practices resulted in greater numbers of non-whites coming to the capital for work in state government.

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Four Mexican workers harvesting sugar beets in 1942 for Spreckels Sugar Company, Woodland, CA. | UC Davis/Special Collections

The new arrivals, driven by government intervention in labor markets, could only find residence in neighborhoods redlined by state and private housing practices — Even military service failed to break lines of segregation as non-white military service members could only settle into low-income largely non-white communities. Adding to this demographic crunch was the city’s policy of urban renewal, which evicted thousands of non-white residents from neighborhoods like the West End in the name of economic development and highway construction, funneling them into previously redlined communities such as Oak Park.

Attempts at Reform

During the 1960s and 1970s, the FHA made efforts to reach minority homeowners. Congress passed the 1968 Fair Housing Act and the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act (CRA); the latter required banks receiving Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) funding to undergo reviews to determine if they offered sufficient levels of credit in communities in which they operated.

Each had flaws. Though the 1968 Fair Housing Act attempted to ensure equal housing, it lacked any real mechanisms for enforcement. “Anti-discrimination laws appearing in the 1960s,” notes Hernandez, “provided no basis for attacking mortgage redlining.” The CRA did threaten “sanctions against lenders who failed to underwrite loans for qualified buyers in previously underserved areas,” but as critics have pointed out, gave too much leeway to banks. No formal criteria for evaluating this mortgaging lending in minority communities emerged and capital flows to suburban areas still largely open to only whites persisted. Even worse, these reforms coincided with the economic troubles of the 1970s and the deregulation of banks in the 1980s.

Deregulation and the Rise of Subprime Loans

During the 1980s, local thrifts, sometimes referred to as savings and loan associations, collapsed or merged with larger financial institutions. Thrifts had once been the source of a significant proportion of the home mortgage market, however, reduced government oversight and mergers led to the dominance of larger regional and national banks. These banking institutions turned to securities markets for home loans in a process that is known as securitization, whereby high-risk loans are bundled into pools that could be sold on Wall Street as securities.

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Cornell University Press

Historically, the mortgage market had been reliable and long term, producing low profits based on fixed rate steady mortgages. In contrast, securitization promised greater rewards to investors via fees, adjustable interest rates, and sales. By selling off mortgages to Wall Street investors, lenders were no longer responsible for losses on mortgages in redlined communities, but it did expand risk more broadly across economic sectors. Hence when the housing crash came in 2008, the risk had not been compartmentalized but rather spread further across the national economy.

In retrospect, it is easy to see that subprime loans reflected a larger shift in credit flows. Check cashing and finance companies also proliferated in the 1990s and many large banks invested in them. Through what Hernandez and others refer to as “fringe banks”, financial institutions delivered “hybrid credit delivery chains” to both borrowers and Wall Street investors, but this came with greater financial risk.

By the mid-1990s, subprime loans had become the most prominent of predatory credit lines. Between 1992 and 1999, subprime loans in the U.S. grew by 900 percent with most sold in minority communities and, in some instances, to “cash poor, house rich” homeowners. For the years 2005 and 2006, the volume of subprime loans exceeded $600 billion annually. One national study reported that blacks were two times more likely than whites to receive subprime loans; Latinos nearly the same. In Sacramento, subprime loans predominated in nonwhite communities, most of which had experienced redlining and been denied access to credit in the 1960s and 1970s.

Banks could ignore risk since credit rating agencies provided evaluations that downplayed the precarious financial nature of this new system. Credit default swaps, which essentially amounts to insurance on a loan, issued by Wall Street firms on securities containing subprime loans insured those holding the securities, but also encouraged rampant speculation. Banks began to focus far less on a borrower’s ability to repay loans. According to one study, in 2006, 40 percent of loan approvals had failed to consider the borrower’s income.

During the 1970s, the integrated communities to the north and south of Sacramento’s Central Business District (CBD) struggled with the persistence of redlining policies. As a result, these neighborhoods remained economically unstable. Homeowners in these areas endured much higher rates of denials for traditional loans than communities to the east and west of the CBD that had been walled off historically by housing covenants. Homeowners denied loans were five times more likely to pursue a subprime loan. At the height of subprime activity in Sacramento around 2005, 44 and 41 percent of loans sold in the area were subprime loans to blacks and Latinos respectively, nearly double the total of subprime loans to other racial groups.

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Subprime loan activity by nonwhite population concentration for Sacramento County, 2004. | 2004 HMDA Raw Data for Sacramento County

By 2000, the Sacramento housing market had begun to accelerate as San Francisco Bay area residents moved to the state capital for more affordable housing. FHA loans could not keep up with the overheated market as home prices ballooned even in neighborhoods with non-white residents. Meanwhile, the city’s black and Latino residents turned to subprime loans, coupled with the fact that banks were incentivized to provide them such predatory loans, created the perfect storm.

Mortgage companies employed brokers who circulated in these communities and had direct personal connections with residents, which reduced “fixed costs investment for lenders-bundlers trying to reach loan applicants.” Brokers received higher fees for subprime loans. Thus, they sought out borrowers even if they qualified for conventional financing. One survey for 2005 and 2006 reported that 55 and 61 percent of subprime borrowers respectively had credit scores adequate for conventional loans. Decades of discriminatory policies that excluded many prospective homebuyers from the market left an informational deficit, which the real estate industry exploited. As a former real estate industry professional, Hernandez witnessed first hand the various ways brokers and lenders obscured the more dangerous aspects of subprime loans.

Navigating brokers, lenders, title companies and other aspects of the industry is complicated for even the most experienced buyer. It requires professional knowledge, or at the very least competent assistance; the latter was not provided to black and brown homeowners, Hernandez argued. Add to that the financial benefits and the place of homeownership in the American ideal, particularly for communities long denied access and you have a dangerous combination. Brokers saw better returns on subprime loans, banks packaged them for lucrative securities on Wall Street, and the housing market, everyone believed at the time, could go nowhere but up, so why not push subprime borrowing?

Unfortunately, when housing collapsed, working-class homeowners, particularly those in formerly redlined communities, got hit the worst. “Subprime lending exploited spatial racial disparities built up during decades of racial redlining and discrimination in credit markets, as well as by banks’ withdrawal form minorities neighborhoods,” argued a 2013 study.

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Percentage of African Americans and Latinos in the 100 hardest-hit cities with the highest rates of “underwater mortgages.”| Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley

In 2014, University of California Haas Institute for Fair and Inclusive Housing reported that of the 100 cities with the highest rates of “underwater mortgages,” 71 were metropolitan areas in which blacks and Latinos made up 40 percent of the population. The list contained 18 California cities, Sacramento among them. A new foreclosure to rental industry, in which large corporations scooped up foreclosed homes on the cheap and then turned them into rentals, arose to capitalize on the dregs of housing defaults. Take, for example, Colony Capital, which began buying up foreclosed homes in the Bay Area and Sacramento. Due to the uneven effects of the crisis on black and brown homeowners, this often happened in communities long affected by discriminatory housing policy. By 2013, Colony Capital owned 142 homes in the Oakland-Fremont metropolitan area and 114 in Sacramento. In rising housing markets, this also drove up rents, according to Oakland’s Department of Housing and Community Development, rents increased by 15 percent in 2013. Sacramento has experienced similar dynamics. “How many different ways can we reproduce the rental wealth gap?”, Hernandez asked facetiously.

Late in 2016, the National Fair Housing Alliance, representing a coalition of fair housing groups, filed a federal lawsuit against Fannie Mae and other large mortgage companies, arguing that when the crash came foreclosed homes in middle and working-class white communities received more care than those in black and brown neighborhoods. Evidence marshaled by the NFHA, the New York Times noted in an editorial, suggests “standards are being applied unequally.”

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Grounded. real estate developers Micah Braginski and Sam Allen reviewing building plans for a renovated home in Sacramento.

How complicit or responsible companies like Fannie Mae were for the devastating impact that the housing crisis delivered to minority communities will be determined by the courts. But the lawsuit harkens back to the very issues that drove redlining and its effect on urban America. The struggles of Sacramento’s minority communities and others like them across the nation after the crash have direct connection to decades of policies before the emergence of subprime financing. Markets and policies cannot be neutral when they are built on a racialized foundation.

Top Image: A foreclosure sign in Salton City, CA. 2008. | Jeroen Elfferich/Flickr/Creative Commons

Sources

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

Jesus Hernandez, Interview with author, April 28, 2017.

Jesus Hernandez, “Race, Market Constraints, and the Housing Crisis: A Problem of Embeddedness”, Kalfou Vol. 1 Issue 2. (Fall 2014).

Dymksi, Hernandez, and Mohanty, “Race, Gender, Power and the U.S. Subprime Mortgage and Foreclosure Crisis.”

Gary Dymksi, Jesus Hernandez, and Lisa Mohanty, “Race, Gender, Power and the U.S. Subprime Mortgage and Foreclosure Crisis: A Meso Analysis”, Feminist Economics, 2013.

Darwin Bond Graham, “The Rise of the New Land Lords”, East Bay Express, February 12, 2014.

Christi Baker, Kevin Stein, and Mike Eiseman, “Foreclosure Trends in Sacramento and Recommended Policy Options: A Report for the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency”, The California Reinvestment Coalition  (April 2008).

Dan Immergluck, “Foreclosed : High-Risk Lending, Deregulation, and the Undermining of America’s Mortgage Market”, Cornell University Press (April 2016).

Alex Schwartz, Gregory Squires, Peter Dreier, Rob Call, and Saqib Bhatti, “Underwater America: How the So-called Housing “Recovery” Is Bypassing Many American Communities“, Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society (May 2014).

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 preservation.sacramento@gmail.com or call (916) 202-4815. Visit www.preservationsacramento.org or www.janejacobswalk.org for general information about Preservation Sacramento and Jane Jacobs Walks.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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 bamarwick@mycci.net.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.”

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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.

 

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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]

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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]

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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]

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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]

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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.

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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).

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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, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UEUNt6_oYtI

[9] Didion, Where I Was From, 167; “Replacing the Past: Sacramento’s Redevelopment History”, director Chris Lango, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UEUNt6_oYtI

[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, http://www.essaydaily.org/2017/05/lorraine-berry-on-didion-south-and-race.html

[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, https://www.kcet.org/shows/city-rising/the-gentrification-of-sacramentos-oak-park.

 

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.”

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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

SACRAMENTO: CITY OF REDEVELOPMENTS

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

WAL.3
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

@bridgetfmccoy

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.