“All that is constant about the California of my childhood is the rate at which it disappears.”
– Joan Didion in her essay “Notes from a Native Daughter”
When Mother came to visit me while I lived in Sacramento in the 1970s, she often wanted to go to Rumpelstiltskin, a yarn and textile store that endures today in a brick building near 10th and R streets. I never gave much thought to R Street then. It was in an aging industrial area south of downtown Sacramento, where many of the streets seemed like movie sets built to depict an earlier era.
Enhancing the city’s back-in-time feeling were the downtown’s tree-shaded streets, its old homes and long-established businesses that I frequented in part because they felt like they belonged to another time.
Three of those establishments were on J Street. The Broiler, a dimly lit restaurant at 1013 J St., where I loved the steaks and martinis. Newbert Hardware at 1700 J St., now the site of a BevMo, where Father and I once marveled at the open bins of nails of all sizes. The Country Maid Restaurant at 1030 J St., also gone, with its booths where I devoured many hamburgers and milkshakes.
Though I didn’t fully sense it then, I was embracing a world that was already ebbing away. In 1973, the old Alhambra Theatre, with its Moorish architecture and imposing presence, was torn down after voters rejected a ballot measure allowing the city to purchase the building. A Safeway sits on the site at J Street and Alhambra Boulevard today. The only reminder of the theater’s existence is a tiled fountain looking oddly out of place – tucked away on the south side of Safeway’s parking lot.
Mired as I am in my memories, I have watched the rebirth of R Street and adjacent blocks with interest and slight regret.
In the area are 17 retail businesses, 13 bars and restaurants, four salons, three fitness establishments, seven art galleries and 13 offices. Another seven projects are being planned or constructed, said Michelle Smira Brattmiller, administrator of the R Street Partnership.
“This was really driven from the ground up,” Brattmiller told me. “Property owners had the foresight to envision what R Street could and should be. Along with the galleries and artists, there are four architecture firms either there or about to be there. That really adds to the artistic flavor of R Street.”
Wendy Saunders, executive director of the Capitol Area Development Authority that has had a hand in building 1,000 new housing units and 750 renovated units south of the Capitol, said her public agency supports housing in the area because “we believe that people living downtown is a big part of animating the environment. Our focus is on restoring an urban neighborhood to its former vibrancy.”
“People coming to a convention in Sacramento aren’t going to go to Carmichael or Greenhaven or Curtis Park,” Saunders added. “The core of a city is the image which that city projects to the nation and the world.”
There is no doubt that along with the jobs, housing, business profits and culture that have come with this renaissance, the vitality of the R Street area and of several other pending downtown projects represents a strong move forward in the arena of urban planning.
For starters, I can’t argue that the industrial R Street as I saw it in the 1970s should have remained exactly as it was back then. When I visit the city now, in that neighborhood I see crowds of mostly young people milling about and dining in outdoor cafes.
Viewing the pulsing energy of this streetscape, I can’t help wondering whether the late Lewis Mumford, one of the foremost voices on city planning in the 20th century, might regard all this as a praiseworthy step toward creating more of a true community at the heart of the city.
For Mumford, the spread of suburbia in America was appalling.
In “The City in History,” he wrote in 1961: “In the mass movement into suburban areas a new kind of community was produced … a multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly, at uniform distances, on uniform roads, in a treeless communal waste, inhabited by people of the same class, the same income, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same tasteless prefabricated foods, from the same freezers, conforming in every outward and inward respect to a common mold. … Under the present dispensation we have sold our urban birthright for a sorry mess of motor cars. …
“The town housewife, who half a century ago knew her butcher, her grocer, her dairyman, her various other local tradesmen, as individual persons, with histories and biographies that impinged on her own, in a daily interchange, now has the benefit of a single weekly expedition to an impersonal supermarket, where only by accident is she likely to encounter a neighbor.”
I share Mumford’s view of suburbia, and when I lived in East Sacramento, my home was only about two miles east of the Capitol, where I worked as a reporter.
So what is it that gives me a bit of a pause when I see bustling streets in an area that felt four decades ago as if it were a world left behind by an exodus to suburbia?
It is, I suspect, partly that I loved the cocoon I found in the heart of the city in the 1970s. That cocoon felt comforting to me and, I imagine, to others who valued the core of the city precisely because it echoed the past and was so unlike the frenetic sameness of so many of the suburbs sprouting all over America.
There is something more, though, behind my longing for Sacramento as it was when I called it home. It is that change inevitably is an enemy when it comes to remembering: As the face of the city alters, it becomes harder to recall memories of the good times with good friends, some of whom are gone. So I try to comfort myself a bit. I tell myself Gunther’s Ice Cream Shop is still there, and the summer evenings – when the Delta breeze cools the city – are still as sweet as ever.
Susan Sward is a freelance writer in San Francisco. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.