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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.
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)
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.
William 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 isMidtown Sacramento: Creative Soul of the City.
Like many collaborative digital projects, The Metropole is entirely assembled via remote correspondence; as co-editors, Ryan and I send daily emails between Washington, D.C. and Pittsburgh. In between editing submissions, we brainstorm future blog posts and trade banter about music, books, and movies. Ryan approaches pop culture with a typically Gen X cynicism, while I own my sunny millennial optimism. So in March, when Ryan suggested we review Greta Gerwig’s film Lady Bird as part of our Metropolis of the Month coverage of Sacramento, I was curious about how each of us would respond to the film. You might be surprised to find which one of us was the bigger fan.
Without further ado, our conversation about the film:
AO: So, Ryan, I thought I would kick off this conversation about Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird by asking you what you enjoyed about the film.
RR: Good question. Well first of all I am, even in my middle age, always a sucker for “coming of age” stories, particularly those with difficult protagonists. In some ways, Lady Bird McPherson (Saoirse Ronin) aka Christine McPherson is somewhat reminiscent of another problematic, angsty, coming of age teen character, Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) from The Edge of Seventeen. Both fail to really appreciate the problems of others around them, take their respective best friends for granted, and drive their parent(s) crazy. Critically, both characters are also very compelling. So I’m glad that there seems to be a burgeoning effort to document the travails and challenges of adolescence for young women. Whether such efforts fall into the same traps as those focusing on young male protagonists such as Richard Linklater’s highly overrated and tragically boring (just one man’s opinion, don’t @ me) Boyhood, remains to be seen. Equally important, Lady Bird, to a much greater extent than The Edge of Seventeen, gives voice to the parents in the film. What can be said about Laurie Metcalf’s performance as mother Maureen McPherson that hasn’t been discussed already? Traci Letts, as Lady Bird’s father, is great also; a newly unemployed dad with the soft touch toward his daughter that complements Metcalf’s harsher (but sometimes justified) parenting style.
Three other things to note. I like the inclusion of Lady Bird’s brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), who may or may not have witnessed someone being stabbed in front of Sacramento City High School, and his girlfriend Shelly Yuhan (Marielle Scott). While I always enjoy movies depicting sibling relationships, both Shelly and Miguel enable the viewers to better understand Metcalf’s character, who Lady Bird believes doesn’t like her and at times feels overbearing. The truth is much more complex as both Shelly and Miguel convey to Lady Bird throughout the movie.
Second, I love both problematic boyfriends. Lucas Hedges, who plays the (obviously) closeted lead actor of the theater group Lady Bird joins, deviates from the role he played in Manchester by the Seaand 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.
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?
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.
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.”
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!
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’sYohana 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.
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. 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%.
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. 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.
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.” 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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.” 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.” 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).
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.’”
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.”
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. 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. 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.”
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
 Carlos Manuel Salomon, Pio Pico: The Last Governor of Mexican California, (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010), 12.
 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
Nathaniel Colley, Sacramento’s first African-American attorney, represented many West End residents during this period of redevelopment.
“There are certain human values at stake here that we are not paying enough attention to,” Colley argued during a speech at Sacramento State University in 1960. “Usually, minority group people are the ones who inhabit the areas first cleared by urban redevelopment. But it seems to me almost immoral for a government to go in and tell a slum dweller we’re going to clear you out—and then have him go out and face a closed housing market.”
One African-American woman who was relocated to Oak Park in the early 1960s recalled her experience years later: “I’m part of the influx of Blacks from the West End when the West End was redeveloped. When people were being replaced … and they started designating where people were going to go in order to have them get out of the way, they designated Blacks to Oak Park… This is what I call the beginning of the destruction of Oak Park.”
Thus began the cycle of redevelopment in one of Sacramento’s outer communities—a cycle that continues today. Oak Park soon become tagged as “blighted” and a “slum,” and years later it too would become a redevelopment zone.
Also lost from Capitol Avenue were businesses and institutions that made the West End such an interesting place for so many people. Two of Sacramento’s most famous jazz clubs were located across the street from each other right at that same intersection of 6th and Capitol.
The MoMo 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.
“(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.”
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
Historian Clarence Caesar described Sacramento’s African American community from 1880 to 1940 as “the settled years,” in contrast to the civil rights struggles of the Gold Rush and Civil War era and the Civil Rights era following the Great Migration of African Americans to California during and after World War II. Sacramento’s African American community numbered less than a thousand people, about 1% of the county population. This small community had little economic power or opportunity, and survived by making social and economic connections across racial lines, with white Sacramentans and the other ethnic and racial groups of the West End, and by forming organizations for mutual support. One of these organizations, the West End Club, may be the origin of the neighborhood’s name.
Despite its small size, members of this community made important efforts in pursuit of political, economic, and social power. Some of these efforts were rebuffed or ignored because white civic reformers could not overcome their own prejudice, or were unwilling to risk alienating racist voters to support Black enfranchisement. Some members of Sacramento’s Black community became targets for middle-class Progressive social reformers who considered a strong Black community in the West End as inherently undesirable as drinking, prostitution, and dancing.
During Sacramento’s first half century, this community was led primarily by the congregations of St. Andrew’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, established in 1850, and Siloam Baptist Church (later Shiloh Baptist Church), established in 1856. The men and women of this community included prominent activists and reformers, including Elizabeth Thorne Scott Flood, Rev. Jeremiah B. Sanderson, Albert Grubbs, and Daniel Blue. From the Gold Rush through the era of the American Civil War, this community was actively engaged in civil rights activism in response to racism and prejudice in California. The California Republican Party, established in Sacramento on an anti-slavery platform, became an avenue to political franchise for Black Californians following the Civil War and adoption of the 15th Amendment. Especially after Sacramento became the State Capital in 1854, the local Black community was a vanguard for California civil rights, often finding common ground and organizing effective resistance with Sacramento’s Chinese community, who were also frequent targets of racist state policies. By the 1870s, this small community included multiple churches, social organizations, schools, and even an armed militia, the Sacramento Zouaves.
The Sacramento Zouaves and Captain Robert J. Fletcher
While no Black military units from California served in combat during the American Civil War, several groups organized themselves during and after the war. The first known organization of this sort in Sacramento was Company A, formed by Captain Alexander Ferguson, a Black ex-sailor, consisting of twenty-five men, in the summer of 1863. The city’s first formally established Black militia was the Sacramento Zouaves, trained by Civil War veteran and Sacramento postmaster Captain Crowell in 1867. The Zouaves’ first public appearance was the emancipation celebration of January 1, 1868, in Sacramento. Initially led by Captain Pierson and lieutenants William Gault and William Quinn, Robert J. Fletcher was an early member of the Zouaves who became a well-known Sacramento citizen throughout his life.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, in about 1844, Robert Fletcher was raised on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, brought up by his aunt after the death of both parents. During the Civil War, he learned he was an American citizen, much to his surprise, as he grew up assuming he was born on St. Thomas. Fletcher traveled back to the United States and joined the Navy, serving aboard the Vanderbilt under Admiral Wilkes. His travels after the war took him to Panama and the island of Tobago, where he worked in a British hospital as an orderly and trained as a nurse.
In 1869 Fletcher traveled to San Francisco and then Sacramento, when he married Emma Scott and became a member of the Zouaves. Judging by his performance in company-wide shooting contests, Fletcher was a crack shot. For a portion of the 1870s he lived in San Francisco, helping establish another Black militia company, the Sumner Guard, before returning to Sacramento and taking the position of First Sergeant in the Zouaves under Captain Sims Emory, First Lieutenant Isaiah Dunlap, and Second Lieutenant Albert Grubbs, Senior. The Zouaves were more than a paramilitary organization; they also served a political purpose, encouraging Black voting and civic participation.
By 1879, Fletcher succeeded Emory as Captain of the Zouaves, and led their procession accompanying President Ulysses S. Grant in a grand parade down K Street during President Grant’s first visit to Sacramento, in October of 1879, alongside other Sacramento militia unitsDuring and after his tenure with the Zouaves, Fletcher was active in the Republican Party, based on the party’s close association with the abolition of slavery, from the 1870s through the early 1900s, and was an active member of the Eureka Lodge and Philomathean Lodge and the Odd Fellows. Fletcher’s profession was podiatrist, at the time possibly the only Black medical professional in Sacramento, and in 1895 he served as personal nurse for Lt. Governor Spencer Millard.
Even with such a remarkable life, in 1907 Mr. Fletcher met someone even more remarkable; Anna Madah Hyers, star of the operatic stage. It is unknown whether Fletcher divorced or his wife Emma died, but on December 23, 1907, he married Anna Madah Hyers, a Sacramento native whose travels and adventures rivaled his own. Born in 1855 in Troy, New York and raised in Sacramento, where her sister Emma Hyers was born in 1857, the Hyers sisters were singers of extraordinary talent. Their first performance at the Metropolitan Theatre in Sacramento in 1867, at the ages of eleven and nine, began a musical career that took them around the world. Managed by their father, Samuel Baltimore Hyers, they traveled to Boston in 1872 to perform at the World Peace Jubilee; the first major musical production in the United States in which interracial performers shared the same stage. Three years later, they formed a theater company to produce their own musical dramas, staring Anna and Emma.
These productions, including Out of Bondage and The Underground Railway, were first and foremost musical entertainment, but they also represented a reaction to the portrayal of African
Americans in theater via the stereotype of the minstrel shows. The career of the Hyers sisters spanned decades, but the sisters retired shortly prior to 1900. Emma Louise Hyers died in 1901, and Anna Madah returned to Sacramento, where she met Dr. Fletcher. After settling in Sacramento, Anna Madah sang and played organ occasionally for church functions, but no longer performed the grand operas of her youth. Dr. Fletcher died in 1922, followed by Anna Madah’s death in 1925.
Black Education in Sacramento and Educator Sarah Mildred Jones
Early Black schools established by Elizabeth Flood and Rev. Sanderson were segregated, as were later schools including Ninth Street’s “Ungraded School No. 2—Colored.” One of the earliest teachers at this school, Sarah Mildred Jones, became the first African American principal of an integrated elementary school when she was appointed principal of Fremont Primary School, located at 24th and N Street, in 1894. There was an immediate outcry from white Sacramentans, who called for her removal and threatened to withdraw their children from the school if Ms. Jones remained principal. Ninety-eight local educators rallied to support Jones, outnumbering the 36 parents who opposed her appointment.
At the hearing held to decide the issue, the argument made by parents opposing Ms. Jones was based solely on race; her academic credentials and experience were impeccable and unquestionable. The President of the School Board pointed out to those assembled that similar objections were raised when Rev. Sanderson first requested public support for a school for Black children, and those objections had long since died out. The district filed the petition and retained Ms. Jones as principal until she retired in 1914. During her tenure, in response to overcrowding at Fremont School, she asked the school board to relocate former buildings of the “colored school” on 9th Street to the Fremont school site, which were scheduled for demolition. When the school was relocated, the multiracial students of the West End also moved to Fremont School.
The Beginning of Black Journalism in Sacramento
By 1900, due to the same economic and social forces that diverted migration to southern California and the Bay Area and away from Sacramento, the growth of Sacramento’s Black population also slowed. Sacramento’s first Black-owned newspaper, Sacramento Forum, published its only issue in 1906, before its publisher, Rev. J. Gordon McPherson of Shiloh Baptist Church, moved to San Jose. Dr. R.J. Fletcher and Baptist minister J.M. Collins assisted McPherson’s paper, and in 1915 Collins started a more lasting Black newspaper, the Western Review.
In April of 1910 the white-owned Sacramento Union reported that P.J. Clyde Randall, a Black attorney who previously practiced law in Macon, Georgia, intended to open an office in Sacramento. Not long after coming to the city, he founded his own local newspaper, the Sacramento Enterprise. In July of 1910, Mr. Randall, a Spanish-American War veteran, published a guest editorial in the Sacramento Union, a newspaper closely associated with Republican politics, titled “Jim-Crowism Marks Meeting of War Veterans,” criticizing a planned gathering of veterans of the Civil War and Spanish-American War because Black and white veterans were to meet in separate places.
In November 1910, Randall penned a longer guest editorial for the Union, describing the state of Black residents of Sacramento, entitled “The Negro in Sacramento”:
The negro in Sacramento, as a people, is most likely less in numbers than any of the other classes that go to make up the city’s population. Both the Japanese and Chinese very greatly outnumber the negro. The Portuguese also does, and very likely the Greeks. If the high-turbaned, tall Hindus continue their recent influx they, too, will outnumber the American negro here. He, the negro, is a natural born pure American. Instinctively he is such. So he is by training, sympathy and devotion. The American institutions and government are his ideals; neither does he claim nor know any other than the American flag and country, nor has his blood been freely given, upon the battle line as a patriotic soldier of unquestioned bravery for the establishment, preservation and enlargement of any other nationality. “If it is a patriotic as it is a sacred principle that without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins, we may exclaim with Kipling:
“If blood be the price of liberty
If blood he the price of liberty,
If blood be the price of liberty,
Lord God he has paid in full.”
Randall, like McPherson, did not remain in Sacramento for very long, but the Forum, Enterprise and Western Review gave this small community a means of communication and platform for their leaders’ views. These small enterprises also gave their editors the necessary experience to convince the Union, connected by party affiliation, to provide them column space and potentially a wider audience.
Protest of “The Clansman”
Between 1908 and 1915, Sacramento’s African American community dealt several times with theatrical productions of “The Clansman” a play based on a novel by Thomas Dixon, Jr., about Reconstruction in the South and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Featuring heroic portrayals of Klansmen and shocking, sinister caricatures of African Americans, generally played by white actors in blackface, productions of “The Clansman” were met with protest in many cities. First produced as a play at the Clunie Theatre in November 1908, Sacramento’s African American congregations discussed raising formal objections or attempting to have the play cancelled. After some discussion, no formal objections were raised, but the play was the subject of discussion at churches within the community. The Sacramento Union attempted to minimize the racism of the play by pointing out that the production had “much in it of historical interest to the younger members of the race.” Protests in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles against the play, in the Union’s view, “have not done the Afro-American race any good.” The small size of Sacramento’s Black community meant that meaningful protest was difficult without sufficient organization.
In 1910, the play returned to the Clunie, and was met with local protest, but the protesters’ efforts were not sufficient to prevent the play’s performance. In the following year, when “The Clansman” returned to Sacramento at the Diepenbrock Theatre, Rev. R.H. Herring of St. Andrew’s African Methodist Episcopal Church filed an emphatic protest with Sacramento mayor Marshall Beard against the production. By this time, several Southern and Eastern cities had suppressed the play due to concerns about race riots. In the words of Rev. Herring,
I cannot condemn too strongly the production of this play, “The Clansman.” Everything that is cruel and despicable against the negro race has been brought out and introduced in the drama. The negro is shown as something a little lower than beasts, and in all fairness we think that we are within our rights in asking the city to help us in this matter.
I think we have suffered enough in the past, without having this highly overdrawn picture of one-time conditions in the South thrust upon us without uttering a word of protest. We love peace. Our people in Sacramento are hard-working, law, abiding citizens and taxpayers. We are not asking much, and we would like to see this prejudiced drama substituted with something more wholesome and true to life.
I will see Mayor Beard who I am sure is a friend to our people and fair-minded, to learn if something cannot be done to convince the management of the Theater Diepenbrock that the play should not be given.
Despite Rev. Herring’s appeal, Mayor Beard was unmoved, and the Diepenbrock put on its performance of “The Clansman.” The Union reviewer reported that the local Black community felt the play did not represent conditions in the South and it did them an intolerable injustice, then went on to describe the intense drama, merry comedy, and gripping action of the play, and its realistic depiction of settings like “The Great Cave of the Ku-Klux.” For the third time, Sacramento’s Black community was forced to swallow their outrage.
In 1915, “The Clansman” returned in a new form—as a feature-length motion picture, produced by D.W. Griffith, also known as “Birth of a Nation.” Due to their growing political experience and organization, this time, the response of Sacramento’s Black community was larger and more direct. Instead of a single pastor, Commissioner Ed Carraghar was visited by a delegation of twenty-four men and women, representing many of Sacramento’s African American congregations and community groups. By this time, even Governor Hiram Johnson, previously credited with endorsing the film, had retreated from that position, stating that “he has never approved the work and has always thought it could be productive of only prejudice and ill-feeling.” This time, the protest was met with a limited concession from the City Commissioners; the film could be shown, but in edited form, with the most objectionable scenes removed. The edited film was met with subdued enthusiasm by local media. Even this minor concession, given the context of the times, represented a victory in an era of rising prejudice. In the pages of The Western Review, Rev. Collins heralded the community’s position as “an earnest and manly stand.”
The political power of Black Sacramentans, while still small, was caught in the current of larger state and national events. In part due to the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, often attributed to the popularity of the film Birth of a Nation, racism was on the rise in America during this era. The 1910s and 1920s were also the era of the first racial exclusion covenants, used to prohibit purchase of homes in new suburbs except by whites. In response to these challenges, organized political protests from churches and community groups were necessary for survival, even if they were unable due to lack of numbers and resources to create major political change. The remainder of the decade brought other signs of incremental change: 1918 brought the election of Frederick Roberts of Los Angeles to that California legislature, the first African American member of the California State Assembly.
Sacramento’s First Black Candidate, Rev. T. Allen Harvey
In 1919, Rev. Thomas Allen Harvey became the first Black candidate for Sacramento political office. Rev. Harvey arrived in Sacramento from San Jose in 1916 and rapidly established two major institutions in the Black community; the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, known today as Kyles Temple AME Zion, and the first Sacramento branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), one of the earliest NAACP branches on the west coast. Originally preaching at the long-established St. Andrew’s AME congregation, Rev. Harvey formed the Kyles Temple congregation in August of 1917. The original Kyles Temple church was located in Oak Park at 36th and Broadway, its cornerstone laid in April of 1919, the first African American congregation in a Sacramento suburb.
Rev. Harvey became the Sacramento NAACP’s first president in 1916. In 1917, he gave the keynote speech at a function for 418 Black soldiers passing through Sacramento on the way to Camp Lewis, Washington. In the following year, he won the first racial discrimination suit in Sacramento history, winning an award of $50 after being refused service at the W.L. Bigelow Restaurant at 3008 35th Street. In the following year, Rev. Harvey gave another soldiers’ address, to African American veterans of the First World War, and the local NAACP chapter brought speakers including James Weldon Johnson of New York to address the issue of lynching during the 1919 “Red Summer.”
Rev. Harvey first expressed an interest in running for City Commissioner in March of 1919, intending to replace Thomas Coulter as commissioner of public works. His stand on municipal issues included a competitive franchise for local streetcar companies and a reservoir-based water treatment system. He also took a position on saloons reinforcing the idea of Black Progressive tempered tolerance for saloon interest, as quoted in the Sacramento Union,
Everyone knows how I stand on saloons. Nevertheless, I believe in the saloon man being given a fair deal. I am not catering to the church vote to the exclusion of others. I want the support of all fair-thinking men and believe that when the votes are counted I shall not stand at the bottom of the list of seven.
Faced with six other competitors, including Assembly member Lee Gebhardt, W.R. Purnell, John Q. Brown, Ed L. Head, Cradoc Meredith, and Hawley R. Tuttle, all white men, Rev. Harvey recognized that he faced an enormous challenge, but he felt he was up to the task, citing his experience in the Spanish-American War:
I am a colored man. I was at San Juan Hill with Colonel Roosevelt and when those Spanish bullets were zipping round we were all Americans. It should be the same today.
True to his word, Rev. Harvey did not place last. In the May 1919 election results, he was fifth out of seven candidates with 196 votes out of 8441 cast. Harvey’s experience clearly demonstrated that elected office was still too high of a hurdle for Sacramento’s Black community in 1919. He did not allow this setback to limit his political ambitions, running for City Council under the city’s new charter in 1921, or to slow his efforts at creating civic institutions. Three months later, he formed an organization for Sacramento’s African American veterans, the Crispus Attucks Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Club, and in 1920 served in Sacramento’s Independence Day parade as marshall of the Eighth Division, representing Sacramento’s Black community in the civic procession.
Despite the limited size and political power of Black Sacramento in the early twentieth century, this community drew upon the strengths of its religious and social institutions, and the talents of its leaders, to organize and advocate for their community’s survival in an era of increased racial tension. Decades later, following the Second World War, a new generation of Black leaders rekindled this spirit among a growing Black population and a national civil rights movement. In the meantime, this community did its best to ensure a safe and secure place among the growing and diverse West End.
William 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 isMidtown Sacramento: Creative Soul of the City.
 Caesar, Clarence, “An Historical Overview of the Development of Sacramento’s Black Community, 1850-1983”, unplublished thesis, 1985, Sacramento State University, page 91.
 Caesar, 78. Beasley, Delilah, The Negro Trail Blazers of California, 1919 (Los Angeles: California Historical Society) p. 280.
 “Another Milestone Passed,” The Herald, Los Angeles, Thursday, October 24, 1895, Page 1.Family history research via ancestry.com, sources include California County Birth, Marriage, and Death Records, 1849-1980. “Sacramento City, August 20,” The Elevator, August 23, 1873, Page 3. “Sumner Guard,” The Elevator May 30, 1874, Page 3. “Sacramento,” ThePacific Appeal, April 20, 1878, Page 2. “Colored Voters!” Sacramento Daily Union February 25, 1879, Page 2.
 Demas, Marilyn, “Ungraded School No. 2, Colored: The African American Struggle for Education in Victorian Sacramento,” Golden Notes Volume 45, Numbers 1 and 2, Spring and Summer 1999, pp 66-70.
 “Colored People Will Not Protest,” Sacramento Union November 12, 1908, Page 9.
 “Negroes Protest ‘Clansman’ Drama,” Sacramento Union, July 4, 1911, pp 1-2. “’The Clansman’ By M’Rae Company,” Sacramento Union July 9, 1911, Page 3.
 Collins, Rev John M., “The Clansman,” The Western Review, June 1915, Page 4. “Negroes Ask City to Bar “Clansman,” Sacramento Union May 27, 1915, Page 6. “Clansman To Be Expurgated By Censor,” Sacramento Union May 28, 1915. “Clansman Resumes Its Place at Clunie,” Sacramento Union June 3, 1915, Page 7.
 “Will Hold Services,” Sacramento Union October 15, 1916, Page 7. “Rev. Harvey Returns from Conference,” Sacramento Union September 26, 1917, Page 6. “Church Cornerstones Laid,” Sacramento Union April 23, 1919, Page 3. Caesar, Pages 115-116.
 Magagnini, Stephen, “Sacramento NAACP Celebrates A Century of Civil Rights,” Sacramento Bee, July 19, 2016, http://www.sacbee.com/news/local/article88818807.html. Caesar, pp. 117-118. “Restaurants Must Serve Colored Folk,” Sacramento Union July 26, 1918, Page 3. “Colored Soldiers Are Given a Reception,” Sacramento Union March 29, 1919, Page 2. “Negro Talks of Crimes Against Race,” Sacramento Union May 30, 1919, Page 2.
 “Rev. Allen Harvey Willing to Become City Commissioner,” Sacramento Union March 18, 1919, Page 1.
 “They’re Off, Count ‘em: Seven After Commissionership,” Sacramento Union April 14, 1919, Page 1.
 “Gebhart and Brown to Fight It Out at Final Election,” Sacramento Union, May 4, 1919 Page 1. “Colored Troops To Have Club,” Sacramento Union, August 8, 1919, Page 2. “Fourth Parade Great Affair,” Sacramento Union July 6, 1920, Page 2.
I grew up in Sacramento during the 1950s and 1960s. The twin poles of my life were the Catholic Church and the Sacramento Bee. I was a newsboy for the latter for five years (Route #3491—suburban Orangevale). I later became a Catholic priest and a professional historian. I have been teaching in the Midwest (Marquette University) for nearly 30 years. In the past dozen years, I have turned my scholarly interests back to my home region (the West) and especially the history of my hometown of Sacramento.
The city has an impressive array of historical materials located at the Center for Sacramento History. The California Room of the State Library and the Sacramento Room of the Sacramento city library are a researcher’s delight. Using these, and other sources I have produced several small popular books about Sacramento history, a major biography of Charles K. McClatchy, the long-time editor of the Sacramento Bee (1881-1936), and a book on the relationship of the Catholic Church to the history of Sacramento.
Sacramento and the Catholic Churchwas the fruit of a great deal of study and reflection. It provided me an opportunity to study the city from the perspective of a significant social and cultural institution in its midst. Sacramento is not a “Catholic city” in the way Salt Lake City is a Mormon city. Catholics were a minority in Sacramento, outnumbered by the collective forces of Protestants and the unaffiliated. However, the Catholic Church was one of the most visible and active church communities in the city. It not only occupied important urban space, but its wide institutional outreach responded to needs for social provision (orphanages, day care, health care) and established alternative schools. Sacramento’s ethnic communities were welcomed by Catholic leaders who allowed them to form ethnic parishes. Since 1855, Sacramento has been the state capital. Since 1881 it has also been the capital of a vast territory of Catholic outposts, stretching north to the Oregon border and, at one time, to the middle of Nevada. The local Catholic bishop has always been a figure of prominence. One does not have to be a Catholic to acknowledge the influence of the Church in local affairs.
Sacramento, which claimed the Swiss adventurer Johan Sutter as its putative founder, was really one of Gunther Barth’s “Instant Cities.” It was born in the heat of the gold rush by merchants anxious to “mine the miners.” They literally set up shop on an environmentally precarious site along the Sacramento River. Lashed by floods and fire, and the collapse of gold fever, the city has over its existence reorganized and repurposed itself to survive another day. It built higher and higher levees, raised its streets, and insisted that buildings in its commercial district be constructed of brick. It took maximum advantage of its selection as the capital city and later as the terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad, which brought jobs and wages from the railroad repair yards located there. Although it grew slowly, the city matured, pushing out from its origins along the river bank and moving north and east. In the 1870s, a magnificent new capitol building was erected east of the river and the city grew around it. Other enterprises anchored the city’s growth: the expansion of state government, the location of military installations, and the growth of high tech.
As historian Marc Eifler has noted, a cadre of civic middlemen emerged who dedicated themselves to the cause of Sacramento’s stability and prosperity. These city fathers, whose ranks were replenished over the years, were determined that Sacramento should overcome fire, flood, and economic uncertainty. Sacramento’s desire to survive was summed up in the city motto: Urbs Indomita, Indomitable City. When other instant cities disappeared or were reduced to tourist sites, Sacramento continued to improve, expand its territory, and provide the urban amenities necessary for a “respectable city”: schools, churches, and cultural venues. The Catholic Church got a firm start in Sacramento’s earliest years and grew with the city, becoming an active partner in the city’s continual growth.
The history of the Catholic Church in Sacramento reflects in many ways the role of religion in Western cities. As historians like Ferenc Szasz and others have noted, religious bodies (with the exception of Mormons) were never very robust in the communities of the American West. Primacy was given to commerce and civic advancement rather than religion. Religious groups had a hard time settling in the free-wheeling and transitory communities born in heat of mining rushes. Ministers of all traditions who came to preach to the miners found themselves side-lined and could not count on stable congregations or even erect permanent quarters. Sacramento was this way until the gold fever subsided and the city decided to “settle down” and become a “respectable” community. The Catholic Church was from the beginning part of this urban consensus.
With land donated by California’s first governor, Peter Burnett, a Catholic church was created in 1850 and a stable Catholic presence was assured by interested laymen like local doctor Gregory Phelan (a pillar in the city’s early medical establishment). That church, established near the riverfront, was built and re-built several times, each time stronger and more durable. Eventually this edifice was bypassed as the city moved east from the Sacramento River. In 1881, Sacramento was made the center of a new Catholic jurisdiction (a diocese). Its first bishop, Patrick Manogue, an old hard-rock miner turned church builder, seized the opportunity to put the Catholic community in line with the forces of urban development. He purchased land just one block north of the elegant state capitol building and erected the magnificent Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, a Renaissance gem whose spires dominated the city skyscape for many years. The cathedral, to this day a stunning architectural counter-point to the classical capitol building, was always perceived as an asset to the “greater glory” of Sacramento. Referred to simply as “the Cathedral” even by non-Catholics, a medley of citizens feted and toasted Bishop Manogue. Non-Catholics gave generously to the building and works of art were donated by people of other denominations or even of no faith at all. Across the street from the new Cathedral, a thriving boy’s school run by the Christian Brothers trained young men for professional careers.
Catholic investments in urban space continued to advance wider civic goals. In the late 19th century, when California’s mission revival was underway, the city rehabilitated the old Fort Sutter as a sign of its linkage with a heroic past. Between 1908-1910, German Franciscan friars rebuilt their St. Francis Church to be a replica of Mission Santa Barbara. Since the church was adjacent to the restored fort, city boosters took pictures of these buildings together, suggesting that they were contemporaries. Those who saw the pictures and read advertising copy could be assured that Sacramento had all the amenities that made California desirable to potential eastern and Midwestern migrants: a good climate, citrus fruit, robust schools, beautiful public buildings, and a link to California’s romantic past.
The Sisters of Mercy and the Franciscan Sisters of Penance and Charity created popular schools. St. Joseph’s Academy (today a parking lot) was a girl’s school that welcomed grade-schoolers through high school and beyond. A Normal school program at St. Joseph’s provided teachers for city schools. The Sisters of Mercy also opened a hospital that provided health care to Sacramentans (known only as the Sister’s Hospital). In the 1920s it moved to a more spacious location where it still is today. The Franciscan Sisters taught in St. Stephen’s School in Sacramento’s ethnically diverse West End and also opened a “Day Home” to offer child care for Sacramento women who did seasonal work in the city’s thriving canneries.
Railroad, manufacturing, and canning work attracted scores of European and Mexican immigrants to Sacramento. This mixture of various nationalities on the city’s West End was richly described by writer Ernesto Galarza in his autobiography Barrio Boy. In this part of town, Catholic churches helped provide for immigrant groups by offering them the shelter of their own churches and a thriving Catholic school. Out of St. Stephen’s Church on the West End, repurposed out of an old carriage house, emerged separate parishes and ministries for the city’s Portuguese, Italians, Mexicans, and Japanese. These churches offered services in native tongues and also provided venues for an array of social and cultural activities. Church festivals, parades, musicales, and fund-raisers helped create bonds of unity and social peace for the community.
Later, when the city’s Latino population soared in the 20th century, Catholic leaders helped gather and organize the growing community. This work was done first through the ministry of the Cathedral parish, one of whose priests, Stephen Keating, gathered Mexican children for instruction and sacraments. Later, those efforts led to the purchase of a Mexican Chapel (Our Lady of Guadalupe) followed by the construction of a new Mexican national parish, also named Our Lady of Guadalupe. While Latinos had a diverse array of community-building organizations, Guadalupe provided an important center for worship, cultural expression, and public devotion. To it came Cesar Chavez after his famous march from Delano on Easter 1966.
The recent movie Lady Bird, set in Sacramento, highlighted some of the familiar scenes of the city: the Tower Bridge, the Tower Theater, and the “Fab 40s” neighborhood. It also included vignettes of the Catholic presence in the community and the church’s impact on the film’s characters. The portrayal of the church was in many ways typical of the role and influence of this religious body in California’s capital—present but not dominant and influential in ways not easy to discern.
 Marc Eifler, Gold Rush Capitalists: Greed and Growth in Sacramento (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002).
 Ferenc Szasz, and Margaret Connell Szasz, “Religion and Spirituality,” in Oxford History of the American West, Clyde A, Milner II, Carol O’Connor, and Martha A Sandweiss, eds., 359-91, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994)
 Ernesto Galarza, Barrio Boy (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991).
In 1850, Sacramento became a city…at least on paper. At the start of the decade, Sacramento was without much of what defines a city (and Sacramento in particular). It had no flood or fire control, no police, no jails, no state capital, and no railroads. Among the city’s hundreds of structures there were no libraries, museums or schools, and only a single church building had been erected.[i] But over the ensuing decade, the ephemeral, uncultivated city became rooted and established, not through success, but through disaster — through innumerable fires, floods, epidemics and upheavals. Sacramento’s response to the trials of the 1850s would earn it the appellation “Phoenix City.” And it would emerge from the ashes as a great “City of the Plains,” a hub of government, transportation, trade and manufacturing.
In 1850s California, cities were built overnight and disappeared just as quickly. This was especially true in the Sacramento area, where all manner of little settlements competed for Gold Rush money. Some, like the “paper” town of Boston, located north of the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers (today a little south of it) laid a street grid and found their way onto maps of the period, but never really materialized. Others, like the town of Hoboken, served their brief purpose before vanishing. This makeshift town formed on high ground during the flood of 1850 at the present-day site of Sacramento State University. During a major 1852-1853 flood, Hoboken grew into a full-fledged city. Scores of advertisements for Hoboken businesses appear in Sacramento’s Daily Democratic State Journal from 1853. It was served by several steamers; featured hotels, saloons, and dozens of stores; and even elected a mayor. But the city departed with the waters a few months later.
Sacramento’s status as the chief city at the confluence wasn’t a foregone conclusion. It competed primarily with Sutterville, but also Fremont, Washington (first called Margaretta, and today West Sacramento) and many other small settlements fashioned by the “golden wand,” but lost to time and misfortune.[ii] While the antagonism of rival towns placed pressure on the city to prove its eminence, disasters tested its fortitude.
Sacramento’s first real test was a cholera epidemic that hit in the fall of 1850. Steamboats served as traveling incubators of the disease, and the port cities would eventually trace the plague’s arrival to steamers bound for San Francisco and inland cities from Panama.[iii] Overland immigrants carried the disease, too, and Sacramento’s location made it uniquely vulnerable to both fronts. The public health response (as ineffective as it was) came too late, and Sacramento went from a handful of cases to hundreds within a few weeks. After efforts were finally made to improve the sanitation, the city recovered.[iv]
Sacramento also suffered devastating seasonal floods – not too surprising given the city’s location on low-lying river land and its new-found love for hydraulic mining. The Sacramento River rose over 20 feet during several floods in the 1850s, so high that people were able to navigate sailboats through the city streets, and businesses operated out of the second floors of many buildings by the riverfront.[v] The city has just a few points of elevation, and people found their way to them: present-day Cesar Chavez Park, Sutter’s Fort and Poverty Ridge.
And Sacramento faced the threat of fire, which would spread like a wild inferno through the city’s wooden structures. In November of 1852, fire took most of the city, including nearly every public building.[vi] But by one month later, 761 new buildings had been erected, many of them brick with iron-shuttered windows, and the city passed an ordinance prohibiting the construction of wood buildings.[vii] The new Sacramento would be more substantial and never again face such devastation by fire.
Just as the city struggled for control over its natural surroundings, it also struggled to establish the rule of law. In 1850, squatters rioted over claims to Sutter’s land grant, shooting the mayor in the process (he died soon after from cholera en route to San Francisco). And citizens still occasionally administered vigilante justice. But Sacramento took tentative steps toward civility. With the rule of law shaky and the flood waters always a threat, Sacramento decided to house its county prisoners on a floating jail. The first was the Strafford, which served as the jail in the spring of 1850. It was followed by the Stirling, which foundered, and finally, the La Grange. The ship housed county prisoners for over a decade.
Over time, Sacramento gained its footing and control over its surroundings. The Phoenix City began to rise out of the ashes. Levees went up at R and Twenty-First Streets and along the American River. Along the R Street levee ran Sacramento Valley Railroad, the first railroad company incorporated in California, which began service from one end of the county to the other in 1856. The American River was redirected northward near the confluence and near, freeing up more land for the city. Trees sprouted across the scarred and muddy landscape, a foretaste of Sacramento’s future as the “City of Trees.” A police force and fire department along with the first City Water Works brought additional order to the city.
Political, religious and cultural institutions and many of Sacramento’s great businesses were established in the midst of the chaos. The State Capitol returned to stay in 1854 and set up shop in the new Sacramento Court House (the current capitol would be constructed in the 1860s). All of the city’s major newspapers had started operation by the 1850s, including the Sacramento Transcript, Sacramento Union and the Sacramento Bee. The first public school opened its doors in 1853, and churches were built to house congregations that had been meeting in the shade of oaks and sycamores. And out of the literal ashes of a Mercantile Library Association (destroyed in the 1852 fire) rose the Sacramento Library Association, founded in 1857 as a fee-based library boasting a member roster of notables, including all of the Big Four transcontinental railroad tycoons: Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, Colis P. Huntington and Mark Hopkins.[ix]
By the late-1850s, the only thing Sacramento had to fear – apart from ongoing flooding until the streets were raised in the 1860s – were sky-high taxes due to the cost of recovering from so many calamities. But with a tenacious and resourceful spirit, Sacramento and its inhabitants stayed put and became a real city. After overcoming numerous floods, fires and epidemics in the first half of the decade alone, the Sacramento Union declared, “The Phoenix City of the Plains stands before the world to-day a proud monument of the undying energy and exhaustless mental and physical resources of her citizens.”[x]
Amanda DeWilde has worked as an archivist in Sacramento Public Library’s Sacramento Room since 2010. She earned her BS in History from Southern Oregon University and MS in Information Studies with an emphasis in Archives from the University of Texas at Austin. She is co-author on the upcoming History Press publication, WWII Sacramento, which will be available April 16.
[i] The Methodist Episcopal Church met in a small chapel at Seventh and L Streets beginning in the fall of 1849.
[ii] “The Cities of California,” The Republic, August 15, 1849, 3. For profiles of the region’s small cities and towns in 1849, see also Walter Colton’s Three Years in California (New York: A.S. Barnes, 1850), 415-417.
[iii] Mead B. Kibbey, J. Horace Culver’s Sacramento city directory for the year 1851: with a history of Sacramento to 1851, biographical sketches, and informative appendices (Sacramento: California State Library Foundation, 2000).
[iv] “The Late Epidemic,” Sacramento Transcript, November 13, 1850, 2.
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.
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.
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