Marcos Bretón

Sacramento probably shouldn’t exist – but here’s why it does

Father Steven Avella follows Deacon Raul Leon up the aisle to celebrate Mass at the Cathedral for the Blessed Sacrament on Sunday, July 31, 2016 in Sacramento, Calif. Avella is a Sacramento-raised Catholic priest who is also a historian.
Father Steven Avella follows Deacon Raul Leon up the aisle to celebrate Mass at the Cathedral for the Blessed Sacrament on Sunday, July 31, 2016 in Sacramento, Calif. Avella is a Sacramento-raised Catholic priest who is also a historian. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Sacramento always has been a “woulda-coulda-shoulda” city.

It could have disappeared after the fervor of the Gold Rush. It probably should have. Pressed between two rivers, it was oppressively hot, dusty, provincial, dull and lowbrow. Who would have wanted to live here if they could live somewhere else? Massive wealth passed through here on its way to other more glamorous locations like San Francisco. So did the big brains and money of the 1840s and 1850s.

More than a century later, I vividly remember Joe Serna Jr. – Sacramento’s most beloved mayor – telling me in January of 1997 that Sacramento never should have survived. Floods, fires, and diseases should have removed it from the map. Small minds almost did when they tried to prevent the railroads from locating here, which would have deprived Sacramento of a critical job source and its early identity. The state Capitol easily could have been ripped away and moved to another, more interesting city with cooler weather.

Serna regaled me and others with these tales of civic woe as we rode with him to survey the damage of massive flooding that struck the Sacramento region that winter. The words seemed jarring coming from the most pro-Sacramento person of his day. During the ride I thought, “Why I am living here? Why don’t I return to the Bay Area, where I grew up? Or move to Los Angeles? New York? Overseas?”

I had my chances to try all those options, but I stayed. Joe Serna stayed. The founders who pushed back against Sacramento’s “cowtown” reputation, as did generations of people after them. It’s why Sacramento survived when it shouldn’t have. It survived because communities of people saw beauty and potential amid flood plains and sweltering summers. Those communities helped Sacramento reinvent itself as a Gold Rush city, a railroad city, an agricultural city, the Capital City, a military-base city, a government-jobs city, and finally to the modern city on the cusp of more change today.

There really hasn’t been a book that captures the origins of this evolving narrative as well as a new tome by a son of Sacramento named Steven Avella, author of “Charles K. McClatchy and the Golden Era of Journalism.” While the book focuses on the indispensable editor who made The Bee a cornerstone institution in the region, it’s about more than just a newspaperman at the turn of the 20th century. It’s about how Sacramento became a city when it shouldn’t have. It’s about a fascinating time in California history when people from elsewhere came here and fought to keep the city alive – a spirit that endures to this day.

So why tell this story through the eyes of the first CK McClatchy? Because McClatchy defined the narrative of Sacramento in the pages of The Bee during his half century as editor, from 1883 to 1936. Because McClatchy was born in 1858, just eight years after Sacramento was incorporated. The city and the man came of age together.

The man took over the newspaper from his beloved father, James, and spent the next half century writing words that extolled local virtues of Sacramento that others didn’t see. He attacked people who attacked Sacramento. He went toe-to-toe with powerful forces – railroad companies, big mining interests, corrupt politicians and anyone who challenged the rights of free expression. He also championed the arts, good schools, civic pride, civic growth and civic love.

As Sacramento grew, McClatchy’s stature grew. What was good for him and his family proved good for Sacramento. “He was the most important man of Sacramento history during his era,” said Avella, who also authored “Indomitable City,” a lovely history of the state capital. “(McClatchy) was the most widely known person of his time. Not the most loved, but the most respected.”

A historian, scholar and priest, Avella, 65, grew up in Sacramento. He is one of those who moved here from someplace else – Southern California by way of Chicago. In the early 1960s, kids like Avella, famed baseball manager Dusty Baker and many others came here because their dads worked at the old McClellan Air Force Base. That crucial source of jobs not only kept Sacramento viable, it brought bright imaginations and generations of kids who would grow up to do good works in Sacramento and beyond.

Avella built his life elsewhere but with Sacramento in his heart. He isn’t well known in the city he has spent his adult life immortalizing because Avella left town at 14. He went into the Catholic seminary in the eighth grade, in the mid-1960s, in a practice largely discontinued by the church today because 14 is too young to be committing to a life of celibacy and service to Christ. Of his class of 43 seminarians from the defunct St. Pious Seminary in Galt, Avella is only one of three men who remain priests to this day.

Instead of being a Diocesan priest, Avella yearned to teach. He was educated and trained as a historian and has taught at Marquette University in Milwaukee since the early 1990s. But he kept coming to Sacramento every summer, to celebrate Mass whenever needed – and to study and write about the history of his city. His interest was stoked by the long bus rides he would take, often alone, when growing up in Orangevale. It was a rural area then. Avella was practically a farm boy. He would later learn how the McClatchy family had championed development in Orangevale, then considered the hinterlands of Sacramento.

Those long bus rides, and countless hours spent at the old Beers bookstore, that sparked Avella’s interest in McClatchy. The more he studied Sacramento’s downtown grid, its gorgeous neighborhoods, its seedy west side, the more he saw the fingerprints of CK McClatchy.

The initial development of Sacramento – with its bitter fights and personal animosities – took place with C.K. McClatchy in the middle of it all. Beginning in 1998, Avella found some of the story in McClatchy’s personal papers, held at the Center of Sacramento History. It would take him nearly 20 years to track the rest of it over thousands of hours of research. Avella is a man of God, but this book is a work of scholarship.

And what a story he found: McClatchy engaged in bare-knuckle fights in public, in print, with anyone who challenged him. There were lawsuits by the dozen against The Bee in those years before press protections were shored up in the courts. There were bitter turf wars and investigations into local brothels. Though Catholic himself, McClatchy was not afraid to take on preachers and hypocritical church people. And if you criticized The Bee? God help you.

Avella laughed when considering Linda P.B. Katehi, the embattled UC Davis chancellor who resigned Wednesday following an investigation of her actions that found she had violated university policies. Katehi’s staffers had disparaged The Bee and its coverage in correspondence that recently became public. “If C.K. were here, he would have had her for lunch by now,” Avella said.

“C.K. was Sacramento’s window on the world,” he added. “He outlived presidents and mayors and governors.”

There are stories in Avella’s book that don’t always paint subjects in the best light. In skirmishes with rival publications, McClatchy would dig up dirt to use against opponents. Sacramento could be brutal and vicious in its early years. In Avella’s pages, the threats against Sacramento and The Bee make current obstacles facing the city and its daily newspaper seem tame by comparison.

But more than the fights, what shines through in Avella’s book – and work – is love and faith and community. He answers the question that Serna raised with me, as the floodwater rose in Sacramento nearly 20 years ago: Why are we here?

“I still see people working for the good of the city,” Avella said. “It has literally weathered the forces of nature. It has reinvented itself a number of times. Its best years still lie ahead.”

C.K. McClatchy couldn’t have said it better himself.

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