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The Gentrification of Sacramento's Oak Park

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A new mural rests on the outer red brick wall of Arthur Henry’s Supper Club in the North Oak Park area of Sacramento.  The painting resembles a colorful and abstract view of the workings of human organs, yet it’s one unwanted addition to the mural that stands out the most.

"Gentrify 101: Make it hip! (Fuck that)" is tagged in white at the bottom of the art.  It’s an obvious slight toward the ever-expanding gentrification of one of Sacramento’s toughest neighborhoods.

And, to an extent, the anonymous tagger is correct. The mural is just one of several attempts at addressing blight in the area by bringing in new upscale housing in the form of lofts, new businesses and, in this case, art.

Oak Park Mural
The tagged Arthur Henry’s Supper Club mural in North Oak Park, Sacramento, CA.

Up until recently, the tight-knit Oak Park community carried the stigma of being a neighborhood with a high poverty rate, gang violence and neglect. And for a long time, that was mostly true.

Both the poverty and crime rates in the area sat well-above the city’s average for years. And with no continuous financial investment into the area until recently, many of the properties in the area sat in a state of decay.

There were early efforts to change all of that. In 1973, the city established the Oak Park Redevelopment Project Area to help bring a resurgence to the city’s first suburb. In the 2000s, changes began to become more visible.

"Closed for Redevelopment:" Still from 1983 KCRA TV news clip on Oak Park crime, blight and redevelopment.
"Closed for Redevelopment:" Still from 1983 KCRA-TV news clip on Oak Park crime, blight and redevelopment. | archive.org

Now, with its proximity to downtown Sacramento, more people are moving to the neighborhood, forcing residents who have lived in the area to move because of increasing housing costs.

It’s the gentrification that the anonymous tagger addressed: fixing blight with new, hip attractions to bring in new, hip residents.

Racial Tensions and Riots in Oak Park

Oak Park was not always known as a struggling community. In its infancy, Sacramento's first suburb became something of a second central center with affordable housing, thriving businesses and entertainment.

As economic conditions continued to improve in the early 1900s, so did the area. The California State Fairgrounds was moved to Stockton Boulevard, an area on the east side of Oak Park, and another streetcar line was added, connecting Oak Park to downtown Sacramento.

The area was a haven for working class families. Although it was primarily White families, Oak Park was home to a few Black and Mexican-American families.

Oak Park in Sacramento, showing trolley cars, ca.1900. / USC Digital Library
Oak Park in Sacramento, showing trolley cars, ca.1900. | USC Digital Library

But as with most of the country, the Great Depression and World War II greatly affected the community's growth and laid the groundwork for "White Flight." Businesses began to shutter, jobs were lost and home values plummeted. The streetcar line that connected workers from Oak Park to downtown stopped, and the city's amusement park, Joyland, was closed.

Homeowners who could not maintain their properties began to sell or rent and started to move to newly-built and less-expensive suburbs.

Soon, the area became an oasis for the African Americans and other minorities who were displaced from the city's West End through urban renewal. Unlike many other neighborhoods in Sacramento, Oak Park was not subjected to the kinds of racial covenants that restricted home and land ownership for nonwhites.

 

Many White-owned businesses that closed were soon replaced by new or relocated Black-owned businesses. As the area's new residents began to create a new culture, they were literally split from the rest of the city with the completion of Highway 99 and Highway 50.

In 1968, the California State Fair Commission opted to move the fairgrounds from its Oak Park location to a northern part of Sacramento, contributing to the area's economic waning.

Oak Park's continual decline brought an increase of crime, and with it, a heavier police presence. Sacramento’s police department began to enforce a law-and-order-style approach that often led to racial discrimination.

Tensions between the community and police hit a high point of furor in 1969 when officers raided the headquarters of the Sacramento Chapter of the Black Panther Party, sparking what became known as the Oak Park Riots. The clash between the community and police worsened the relations between the two and led to more shuttered businesses as people chose to leave the area.

The following year, four members of the city’s Black Panther Party were arrested after police alleged that they fatally shot an officer while he was driving through the neighborhood. After an eight-month trial, the Oak Park Four, as they were later known, were acquitted of all charges.

Revitalization or Gentrification?

It was not difficult to miss. A new Starbucks located on the corner of Broadway and 35th Street, just a few blocks from the former headquarters of the Black Panther Party. For some, the business signaled caffeine for coffee lovers, but for others, it was a sign of what was to come.

The Starbucks was part of former Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson's development project, which renovated the historic Guild Theater and Woodruff Hotel. While the theater remained, the hotel was transformed into loft apartments, a bookstore, a barbershop and an art gallery.

The project was paid for in part by loans and grants from the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency, as well as from Johnson's St. Hope Development Corporation.

Then-city councilmember Lauren Hammond, who represented the area, said the development would "benefit the community."

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"This project is a much-needed catalyst that will boost the economy and vitality of the Oak Park community," Hammond said.

It was Oak Park's first major change in years.

The city first began its efforts to revitalize the area's economy in 1973 when it established the Oak Park Redevelopment Project Area through SHRA.

The Woodruff Hotel and Guild Theater corner piece of property that former Mayor Kevin Johnson purchased. Today, it is the site of Underground Books and a newly renovated Guild Theater.
The Woodruff Hotel and Guild Theater corner property that former Mayor Kevin Johnson purchased. Today, it is the site of Underground Books and a newly renovated Guild Theater.
Old Soul Bakery-cafe in Oak Park
Old Soul bakery-cafe in Oak Park, a recent site of redevelopment.

The plan implemented a tax that new homeowners paid when buying within the neighborhood. The money from the tax would go into a SHRA fund to be reinvested in Oak Park, addressing residents' complaints of "widespread deteriorating housing and commercial property, inadequate public infrastructure, empty lots and abandoned buildings."

Over the years, SHRA started purchasing smaller lots in the area to turn into larger parcels for new development.

There were various other changes to the area over time, including the addition of public housing on 35th Street near the former headquarters of the Black Panther Party.

Despite efforts over the years, the area still suffered from deteriorating buildings, boarded-up houses and crime-ridden streets.

The area didn't see major cosmetic change until the 2000s when investors, fueled by incentives from the city and a successful deal between SHRA and Johnson's 40 Acres, began to buy property and develop.

The city's continued efforts to revitalize the neighborhood included an expansion to the Oak Park Community Center, installing new street lights and renovating McClatchy Park and the addition of new mixed-use lofts.

Kevin Johnson announces his candidacy for the position of Sacramento Mayor at the Guild Theater in Oak Park, Sacramento, California, March 5, 2008.
Kevin Johnson announces his candidacy for the position of Sacramento Mayor at the Guild Theater in Oak Park, Sacramento, California, March 5, 2008. | Sacramento Bee / Getty Images

On the Move Again

As the city continued to put money into changing the neighborhood from poverty-stricken to a trendy place to live, residents who've lived in the community for decades got the short end of the stick.

For years, homes in Oak Park were mostly owned by absentee landlords who left properties to wither away despite collecting rent. That soon changed.

In 1997 the city established an incentive program — the Boarded and Vacant Homes Program — which resulted in more than 100 owner-occupied residences in its first five years.As the years went on, more houses were bought, more houses were renovated, and more houses were sold.

In 2014, then-mayor Johnson broke ground on what was arguably his biggest accomplishment during his tenure — the Golden 1 Center. The new arena, home to the Sacramento Kings, solidified downtown as the city's hub.

The areas surrounding the arena, Oak Park included, felt the impact through housing costs.

The price to buy a home Oak Park has risen 10 percent in the last year alone. According to housing websites, rents for a two-bedroom in the neighborhood have reached upwards of $1,500 per month, and some houses are selling for close to $450,000.

Now, businesses that once catered to the minority community they served are being replaced by health bars, coffee shops, breweries and boutique shops. The red-brick buildings once left abandoned and battered are now covered in colorful, cartoonish murals.

In an area that, according to Census data, once held a 34 percent poverty rate and had over half of its residents paying more than 35 percent of income on rent, the changes signal trouble for residents in the renter-heavy Oak Park.

To put it simply, residents who have lived in Oak Park for decades, communities who were pushed out of the West End in the '50s and raised their families in areas where nobody wanted to live, are on the verge of being priced out.

Construction of the Golden 1 Center.
Construction of the Golden 1 Center

Top Image: Grounded. A real estate company that flips houses in the Oak Park neighborhood.

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