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.

 

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