In Sarah Polley’s 2013 film, “Stories We Tell”, the Canadian filmmaker conducts an exploration of her mother, Diane Polley, who died when the director was 11. Navigating Diane Polley’s history proves more complex and elusive than one might think. “There are many stories to tell, partly because there was nothing neat about Diane Polley, the life she lived and the secrets she kept,” New York Times critic Manohla Dargis wrote in her review of the film, and “Not all of these stories are easy.”
Cities, or perhaps more accurately the inhabitants and boosters of cities, also have stories to tell and much like Polley’s documentary, the meaning and accuracy of such narratives vary. Sacramento, crowned the California state capital in 1854, has its own complicated tale—one deeply entwined with the 1849 Gold Rush, redevelopment, suburbanization, and historic preservation. And yes, some of these stories are not easy.
Before and After the Gold Rush
“The Sacramento region during the 1800s was an incredibly complex area,” historian Ty Smith has noted, because Mexico had not penetrated the valley to any significant extent and French and Russian trappers competed with local tribes for the commercial fur industry. Most historians date the city’s birth to the Gold Rush and often the overall narrative regarding Sacramento attempts to capitalize on its connection to 1849. However, when John (Johann) Sutter gained control of the city via a Mexican land grant in 1839, he envisioned a metropolitan future dependent on agriculture and commerce, not mineral extraction.
Early on, the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers—a point known as the embarcadero—served as the city’s defining feature, but one that brought both prosperity and pain. “The rivers that embrace the California capital have both punished and rewarded,” notes historian Steven Avella. “They created terrible floods and carried waterborne diseases like cholera but also helped to fashion the ‘earthly Eden’, as one booster described Sacramento.” Residents, however, did not accept Sacramento on its own terms. After devastating floods in 1862, the city raised its grade above the river’s cresting level. As Avella attests, the establishment of the city itself was “an act of defiance against nature,” as residents nearly taxed themselves to “urban death to pay for the ambitious street raising.”
Like a moth to flame, capital and labor flowed into the riverfront town. “From the city’s founding in 1849, boats carrying global migrants, miners and merchants plied the Sacramento River, arriving at Sutter’s Embarcadero at the foot of J. Street” write historians Lee Simpson and Lisa Prince. It would be here in what became known as the West End that “the booming riverfront quickly became the commercial and social hub of the infant city….” When the capital house moved east, away from the docks several years later, so too did much of the activity along the waterfront. The West End entered a long period of decline accelerated by the Great Depression, to such an extent that, by the 1950s, some observers categorized it as “one of the worst slums west of the Mississippi.” Still, a thriving Japantown, and a smaller Chinatown near it, emerged within the riverfront district.
As the nineteenth century came to a close, Sacramento’s suburbanization began its ascent. City boosters and suburban developers packaged the city as a “rural (and suburban) antidote to a growing urban disease,” a veritable “machine in the garden,” marrying industrial efficiency with the purity of rural/suburban life, notes historian Paul Sandul. Suburbanization spread to the city’s northern and northeastern edges while “the interior expanded outward as well, as subdivisions began near … downtown.” Sandul describes these new communities as “agriburbs,” “advertised as the perfect mix of rural and urban,” “consciously, planned, developed, and promoted based on the drive for profit in emerging agricultural markets….”
The rise of the “gentleman farmer” archetype in the early twentieth century aided boosters. Gentlemen farmers emerged as a new ideal in the Progressive era. White male middle class suburban farmers brought civilization and order to the frontier while also soothing any rough edges absorbed from city living; a Jeffersonian nod to “the foundation of a middle class white settler” society, writes Laura Barraclough, who explored the role of gentlemen farming in the creation of the San Fernando Valley. Few gentlemen farmers ever turned a real profit in the Valley, and Sandul suggests the same for Sacramento, but the idea proved a powerful marketing device helping to sell new subdivisions like Rancho Del Paso, Citrus Heights, Fair Oaks, and North Sacramento, among others.
Suburbanization unfolded as Sacramento residents sought to create an identity around the “pioneer” narrative. Tropes about “gentleman farmers” fit neatly into the city’s presence in the public sphere. Agriburbs and gentlemen farming married rural virtue with middle class civility and comfort. Boosters sold the city as “a modern and cultured metropolis” while simultaneously highlighting it as a “farmer’s paradise” and “ideal suburb.” Even today, while it lacks the charm of San Francisco or the fast lane lifestyle of Los Angeles, Sacramento “held sway in California’s growing interior as a good place to live and prosper,” notes Avella. “The midwest of California,” as the titular heroine of the film Ladybird describes it.
Not all suburban growth originated strictly from an agricultural ideal alone. The development of the “streetcar suburb” of Oak Park marked the beginning of suburban expansion from the city’s core. As with Los Angeles, the trolley car fueled this movement. Edwin K. Alsip, a prominent real estate speculator, promoted the suburb with the usual references to gentlemen farming, good soil, beneficial climate, easy transit to downtown, and “no city taxes” though this final provision also meant no water or sewer facilities. The Joyland amusement park opened in the neighborhood in 1894 to further entice prospective buyers, however the financial panic of 1893 doused enthusiasm. It would take until 1900 before Oak Park filled with residents, which included working class whites, African Americans, and Mexican Americans. The latter groups were attracted to Oak Park because of its lack of restrictive covenants, which plagued minority homebuyers throughout Sacramento and its burgeoning suburbia.
Other working class suburbs arose around the city, not from speculative real estate practices but rather as the result of ethnic groups huddling in particular neighborhoods. Ethnic enclaves with Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Portuguese, Croatian, and Filipino communities formed “not as part of the packaging of place but as a consequence of it,” Sandul writes. Denied entry into many subdivisions where developers and residents assumed that agrarian living was only suitable for white families, and where developers deployed covenants to maintain lines of segregation, minority groups formed several enclaves in the West End section—Chinatown and Japantown, most famously. Some Mexican barrios took root in the West End, but others also formed near the rail yards and sometimes outside some of the northern agriburbs where employment in agriculture was available. Unsurprisingly, gentlemen farming created a need for farm workers. In the San Fernando Valley, a mix of Asian and Mexican, immigrant and native labor built the Valley’s infrastructure and worked “to make suburban farms productive” while racist land and homeownership restrictions prevented non-white laborers from competing on equal terms. Sacramento’s experience, though perhaps less stark, mirrored this development.
As with many of the nation’s cities, Sacramento struggled through the Great Depression with aid from FDR’s New Deal. World War II shook it from its economic doldrums and after the war California’s prosperity boomed, a function of the demographic migration to and federal investment in the state. The financial windfall that visited the Golden State after 1945 also added further diversity to the city through an expanded military presence, the long standing bracero program, and the growth of the state and municipal governments.
In its urban renewal efforts Sacramento proved pioneering in two ways. First, the redevelopment of the West End in the 1950s and 1960s used a new financing mechanism at the time, known as Tax Increment Financing (TIF). TIF, a practice in which future revenues from property tax increases from a particular district are earmarked for economic development in a local community, would become a dominant force in urban renewal efforts nationally, for both good and ill.
Second, by the 1950s, the West End had slid into an uneasy state. Though home to relatively prosperous Japantown and Chinatown, it also struggled with high rates of crime, homelessness, illness, and juvenile delinquency; a quarter of the city’s fires, three-quarters of its TB cases, and 42 percent of its adult crime occurred in the district. Over two decades, it witnessed a fifty percent decline in its tax revenue.
The city declared the area blighted and enacted an ambitious urban renewal project that razed the West End and replaced it with “Old Sacramento,” a historic district dedicated to telling Sacramento’s pioneer tale. The plan, which a 1961 National Park Service report summarized as an attempt to save and refurbish 31 “old structures importantly associated with broad aspects of Western history and with notable men and events,” presented the opportunity to highlight the city’s “pioneer western scene for the inspiration, education and enjoyment of future generations.” Other reports at the state and municipal level told similar stories and established the justification for Old Sacramento at all levels of government. However ham fisted the end result or the process by which the result was reached turned out to be, the Old Sacramento redevelopment placed Sacramento at the forefront of the historic preservation movement that, though problematic in its own ways, slowed the pace of renewal in ensuing decades.
As with most renewal projects, minority communities bore the brunt of its sacrifices. Nearly 50 percent of the businesses in the West End were minority-owned and operated. Japantown and Chinatown were wiped away and some 2,000 residents were displaced. Many critics rightly asserted that Old Sacramento’s story failed to capture the district’s true history and ignored the contributions of its inhabitants to Sacramento’s past and present. However, as Smith, Simpson, Prince, and others have pointed out in recent years, residents are not bound to one mythological story. “This generation has the opportunity to re-inscribe onto the site that which was vital to the site’s history, but not important to past planners: the California Indian story and the environmental story,” argues Smith.
Indeed, Sacramento’s stories have only grown more nuanced and complex. In 2005, 250,000 foreign born persons resided in its suburbs; about 100,000 lived in the city itself. The region had become a “refugee magnet,” Robin Datel and Dennis Dingemans noted in 2008. Today the local economy continues to attract both “brain … and brawn,” laborers working in agriculture and construction on one hand and tech on the other. The closing of military bases in the late twentieth century led to cheap suburban housing ringing the city.
American military interventions in Asia contributed to such complexities. Between 1975 and 1980, 3,000 Vietnamese fleeing communism settled in Sacramento. Over time, this population grew and established a Little Saigon community along Stockton Boulevard featuring 350 Asian businesses. While Little Saigon remains the largest and most significant concentration of ethnic businesses, another six miles of Franklin Boulevard and four miles of Main Street house nearly 200 Latino enterprises. Clusters of Korean and Eastern European business dot the city as well; the latter are a manifestation of the migration of Russians and other Slavic refugees due to their religious persecution by Soviet authorities and succeeding regimes. From 1995 to 2005, Sacramento absorbed 19,000 immigrants from the former USSR, many of whom became evangelical Christians after arriving in the U.S.
Driving along Sacramento’s throughfares and surface streets, it becomes clear that “immigrant businesses along the Sacramento metropolitan area’s older suburban and small town commercial districts have become the norm,” as Datel and Dingemans assert. Ethnic festivals such as the Bengali Festival of Joy, Festival de la Familia, the Pacific Rim Festival, and Hmong New Year attest to the diversity of the city but also the incorporation of new Sacramentans into the urban fold.
This, perhaps, is where we leave you. Many of these festivals are held across the city in places associated with “traditional Sacramento,” be it the former state fair grounds now known as Cal Expo, the Sacramento Convention Center, and yes, Old Sacramento. Whatever the faults in Old Sacramento’s establishment, and most agree they are legion, these newer arrivals will inscribe new meaning onto the district. “This area of ‘establishment’ history is now incorporating and being incorporated into the histories and cultures of new Sacramentans, some of whose co-ethnics were part of those earlier storied events,” Datel and Dingemans point out.
Undoubtedly, stories about ourselves and our homes sustain us, but they are not cast in amber or frozen in time. For example, during its first 100 years, Sacramento enacted state laws and policies that protected whites and punished Asians, Latinos, and blacks, yet today, it is seen as a vocal outpost of “The Resistance,” the capital of one of the most racially and ethnically diverse states in America. This too is a story, a difficult one admittedly worth telling.
As always, our bibliography is an attempt to get at the historiography of the city, but in no way do we claim it is comprehensive. If you have additions to recommend, please do, you can get at us via “the twitter” @UrbanHistoryA. Special thanks to Steven Avella, Robin Datel, William Burg, Marcia Eyman, and Dylan McDonald for their help in compiling this bibliography.
—–, The Lower American River, Prehistory to Parkway. Ed. Peter J. Hayes, The American River Natural History Association, 2005.
—–, 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.
Avella, Steven M. Sacramento, Indomitable City. Arcadia Publishing, 2003.
Avella, Steven M. The Good Life: Sacramento’s Consumer Culture. Arcadia Publishing, 2008.
Avella, Steven M. Sacramento and the Catholic Church: Shaping a Capital City. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2008.
Burg, William. Sacramento’s K Street, Where Our City Was Born. The History Press, 2012.
Datel, Robin E. “Central Oak Park Walking Tour.” Sacramento, CA: Center for Sacramento History, 2010.
Datel, Robin and Dennis Dingemans. “Immigrant Space and Place in Suburban Sacramento.” In Twenty-First Century Gateways: Immigrant Incorporation in Suburban America. Eds. Audrey Singer, Susan W. Hardwick, and Caroline B. Brettell. Washington, D. C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2008, 171-199.
Datel, Robin E. and Dennis J. Dingemans. “Historic Preservation and Social Stability in Sacramento’s Old City.” Urban Geography 15, no. 6 (1994): 565-591.
Didion, Joan. Where I Was From. Vintage International, 2003.
Dingemans, Dennis. “Sacramento’s Redneck Suburb.” Pacifica (newsletter of the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers). Spring (1996): 1, 14-19.
Dingemans, Dennis J. and Robin E. Datel. “Urban Multiethnicity.” Geographical Review 85, no. 4 (October 1995): 458-477.
Hallinan, Tim. “River City: Right Here in California?” Yearbook of the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers 51 (1989): 49-64.
Hernandez, Jose. “Redlining Revisited: Mortgage Lending Patterns in Sacramento, 1930 – 2004.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 33.2 (June 2009): 291-313.
Hurtado, Albert L. John Sutter: A Life on the North American Frontier. University of Oklahoma Press, 2008.
McGowan, Joseph. History of the Sacramento Valley. Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1961.
Sandul, Paul J. P. California Dreaming: Boosterism, Memory, and Rural Suburbs in the Golden State. West Virginia University Press, 2014.
Wildie, Kevin. Sacramento’s Historic Japantown: Legacy of a Lost Neighborhood. Arcadia Publishing, 2013.
Wilde, Amanda G. and James C. Scott. World War One and the Sacramento Valley. Arcadia Publishing, 2016.
Didion, Joan. Run River. Ivan Obolensky, Inc., 1963.
Ladybird. Director Greta Gerwig, 2017.
“Replacing the Past: Sacramento’s Redevelopment History.” Director Chris Lango, 2016.
Featured image: Sacramento city, Ca. from the foot of J. Street, showing I., J., & K. Sts. with the Sierra Nevada in the distance, by C. Parsons ; drawn Dec. 20th 1849 by G.V. Coope, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.