K Street's rich history goes back to Sutter era

09/02/2012 12:00 AM

08/31/2012 8:44 PM

Sacramento's K Street is an urban history of downtown Sacramento, from before John Sutter's arrival until the Alhambra Theatre's demolition in 1973. Downtown Sacramento was not limited to K Street, but it symbolized Sacramento's urban ambitions. K Street was the hub of citywide, statewide and continent-spanning transportation networks, from the days of riverboats, stagecoaches and railroads to the era of national highways. Despite floods and fires, K Street endured because Sacramento's crucial location was ideal for business.

The best-known aspects of Sacramento's history, the period of Sutter's Fort, the Gold Rush and completion of the Central Pacific Railroad, are merely the prologue to K Street's story. Long after John Sutter and the "Big Four" left Sacramento, a generation of Sacramento businessmen built economic empires along K Street. Their legacy of philanthropy inspired a subsequent generation of progressive businessmen who used K Street for public celebrations and civic boosterism.

Generations of Chinese and Japanese immigrants lived in the neighborhoods north and south of K Street, Yee Fow and O-Fu, starting their own businesses and contributing to the diverse ethnic mixture of Sacramento's downtown. Along the waterfront end of K Street, thousands of migrant workers crowded the Labor Market, seeking work in Sacramento's industries.

In the 20th century, K Street prospered as the commercial heart of the Sacramento Valley, connected by steam and electric railroads. In addition to specialty retail and department stores, K Street was the region's finest entertainment district. Vaudeville and burlesque, live music and dancing, drinks and dining, and movie theaters of all sizes were found on K Street.

Even Prohibition could not silence K Street's jazz clubs, featuring an interracial mixture of touring national performers and a diverse array of local talent. Sacramento's jazz legacy grew through the 1930s and 1940s, diminished only when American youths discovered rock 'n' roll, and when the neighborhoods alongside K Street were depopulated and demolished by redevelopment projects in the 1950s.

Sacramento's baby boom generation grew up on K Street, entranced by Christmas displays at Weinstock's and Breuners department stores as children. As teenagers they cruised K Street, crowded drive-in restaurants, and danced to rock 'n' roll performed live on K Street's stages. Downtown business interests were dismayed by the cruise, which they perceived as juvenile delinquency, the flight of Sacramento's middle class to new suburbs and loss of sales tax revenue to suburban malls. They planned a pedestrian mall to draw shoppers back downtown, and an interstate highway route to provide easy access to K Street's new anchor stores. Despite their best efforts, the new mall did not meet its planners' expectations.

In 1972, young Sacramentans organized to save the Alhambra Theatre, an architectural gem at the foot of K Street, holding a series of rock concerts and a public vote to buy the theater. Their effort failed, but demolition of the Alhambra raised awareness of how much of the city's urban core was lost in the name of progress and modernity.

Discussions of K Street's past inevitably lead to questions about its future. These stories of K Street's heritage of entertainment, philanthropy, celebration, struggle, entrepreneurship and community, and the era when K Street was our regional economic axis, are not intended to enshrine the past, but to inform contemporary decisions. The history of K Street is still being written. How will today's decisions shape its next chapter?

William Burg, author of "Sacramento's K Street," will be at "Chalk It Up" in Fremont Park at 16th and Q streets on Monday with signed copies of his book available for sale.

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