Marcos Bretón

Sacramento’s evolution shows a city in constant renewal

In the evolution of downtown Sacramento, “now” and “new” have never been the same. Right now, Sacramento is transfixed with Golden 1 Center, new home of the Kings and an entertainment venue worthy of a bustling region.

After years of failed attempts, the state-of-the-art arena is a triumph of persistence for a community long maligned for inertia and inaction. Golden 1 Center is a business opportunity, a catalyst for development in previously shuttered buildings. Along with the coming development of the downtown railyards, Golden 1 Center embodies Sacramento now: excited, confident, hopeful for the future.

Is all of this emotion new to Sacramento? No, it’s not.

For as long as photographers have chronicled the evolution of downtown Sacramento, hope and optimism framed every shot. Whether black and white or color – whether grainy film or digital image – downtown Sacramento hasn’t simply been a civic center in transition.

It has been the place where a region deposited its faith in the idea of a city wedged between two rivers. A visual history of downtown Sacramento reveals a tug of war between whether the city center should be functional or aspirational. Sacramentans have chosen sides over the decades and fought for one side or the other as if the two identities were mutually exclusive.

They are not, but more about that in a moment. Going back to the late 1920s, J Street has been the heart of our downtown. Streetcars used to rumble down J, past the Travelers Hotel and other landmarks that were iconic until time wiped them away.

Golden 1 Center is where the Downtown Plaza was built in the 1990s. The plaza was touted as the site of Sacramento’s urban renewal. The day it opened, the crowds came as did the TV cameras. But it didn’t last and was wiped away.

A century before, trains pulled up to that same spot in a Sacramento that was barely taking shape. The Golden Eagle Hotel at Seventh and K used to be a showplace. It was lined by dirt streets and horse stables. The Hotel Marshall, the Greyhound station, the Merchants National Bank, the Hard Rock Cafe – all of them embodied hope and energy. All of them faded away. It’s what happens in cities everywhere. But the memories of Sacramento’s ancient landmarks should also infuse Golden 1 Center, and all the development around it, with a sense of humility.

As Sacramento rightly puffs up its chest about its new beginnings, the city and its residents should remember previous new beginnings.

The 1986 image of light-rail tracks that were supposed to energize K Street? It didn’t happen. By the late 1970s, the gleaming Renaissance Revival style of the Southern Pacific Depot had fallen into disrepair. The old Chinatown? It became a site for archaeological digs by the early 1990s. Old Sacramento was in terrible shape by the late 1960s. The old Delta King had to be saved from the ravages of time, but Sacramento did it.

Consider the 1982 image of the Delta King, looking nearly dead, and compare it to the vibrant slice of Sacramento history it is today. The city saved the landmark, because the city is about more than being just functional. Sacramento has a soul. You can see it in the 1895 image of an electric carnival staged at the state Capitol. Sacramentans flocked to the carnival then to enjoy being out in their city. That same spirit caused Sacramentans to flood to the streets and balconies to see the Space Shuttle Endeavour as it flew by in 2012.

The Rolling Stones once rocked Memorial Auditorium. Now, with Golden 1 Center booking musical acts for 2016, there is actually a chance the old geezers will rock Sacramento again. Why not? Sacramento may have fought over what it wants to be, but history is proving it a worthy fight to have.

A constant push for change and growth has proved that the people of Sacramento cared about its downtown. Jobs and residents fled to the suburbs for a time, but now people are coming back. A new day dawns. The city proves it can be functional and aspirational. The identities are not mutually exclusive. The future is bright – and ever changing.