Erika D. Smith

The double-edged sword of gentrification

Patti Miller, better known as Patris Miller, stands by one of her paintings in her studio in Oak Park.
Patti Miller, better known as Patris Miller, stands by one of her paintings in her studio in Oak Park.

Patti “Patris” Miller is known around Oak Park as the optimist. The slight woman with the can-do attitude who, for years, has approached every seemingly intractable task in the rags-to-riches neighborhood with a smile on her face.

But the day we met at Old Soul, her eyes were sad. Troubled even.

Within a few days, she knew a sign would be going up outside of her art studio on Second Avenue, a business she has run for almost five years in a neighborhood where she has lived for 25 years.

“For sale,” it says. What it really says is, “priced out.”

Patris Studio Gallery is about to become the latest victim of gentrification. The owners of her building are selling it, not really for profit, but for personal reasons. No matter, it’s a bittersweet pill to swallow for Miller, who moved to Oak Park back when it was overrun by drug dealers and helped lead efforts to revitalize it.

“I saw the beauty in Oak Park and now everybody sees it,” she said.

Miller is truly a victim of her own success, as are so many of the people who worked so hard and contributed so much to infuse a depressed Oak Park with new businesses and energy, only to see longtime, mostly black and brown residents being forced to leave as rents skyrocket. That’s the inescapable, double-edged sword of gentrification.

Miller isn’t black. She’s a white woman who grew up in Montana.

But if I’ve learned anything about Oak Park, it’s that it’s a neighborhood that while, yes, was most recently home to black Sacramentans, also has housed an eclectic mix of people of all races and ethnicities. In her time here, Miller has earned her right to call the neighborhood home.

Fresh out of college in Minneapolis in 1986, she moved to Fair Oaks at the urging of her aunt. She landed a job as a teacher for Rio Linda School District helping the children of Asian refugees. It was work she had done in college, but Miller wasn’t much of a suburbanite.

“My heart was really in the city, in the inner city,” she said. “It just so happened that this whole area was inner city at that time.”

She started renting a room in Oak Park in 1991. She loved the neighborhood so much that she bought a condemned crack house in 1996 and, along with her husband, began refurbishing it.

“The sign on the door was like, do not enter. And I’m like, we’re buying this one.”

Miller also started volunteering at a church that had a gang outreach program. Eventually, she got involved with efforts to reduce crime in the neighborhood. Lots of neighbors were banding together to establish a drug-free zone.

Her efforts evolved into stints on neighborhood advisory committees, some strategic planning panels and membership in the Oak Park business association. She joined the group that helped bring supermarket Food Source to the food desert that was on Stockton Boulevard, and she organized Oak Park’s first multicultural festival.

Back then, drug houses were on almost every corner and Miller swears women couldn’t walk down the street because people “would think you’re a prostitute.”

“We were all kind of in this challenge of trying to make our neighborhood livable,” she said. “There were a lot of friendships started.”

But Miller’s mother died in of cancer in 1997, only in her 60s. Miller began thinking about her own life and what she wanted to be known for.

“I thought, I could become an artist and use my art to showcase how beautiful I see Oak Park as.”

So she started taking art classes at Sacramento City College and went to part-time at her job. That took her to midtown, where she studied with a master artist for years, until he retired and she took over his art studio at S and 12th streets.

The desire to return to Oak Park, not just to live, but to work, led to the risky business decision to close the midtown studio and open it at the corner of 35th Street and Second Avenue.

The was no trendy La Venadita taco joint across the street then. Nor were there pricey apartments. A lot of things were on the verge of happening, but getting art students to venture just a few miles from midtown required a whole lot of convincing.

While packing, she found her old “PR binder” – a now dusty packet of documents that she stocked full of good news about Oak Park. It was the only way she could convince potential art students to come down.

“I had the map,” she said, pointing at a printout. “See, it’s not that far, really. It’s not that far.”

Also, in that binder? Her artist statement about her commitment to the neighborhood. It culminated in her “Oak Park Treasures” series – less midlife crisis than a legitimate open-ended collection of paintings of scenes in the neighborhood and just outside its boundaries.

In 2003, The Sacramento Bee captured part of Miller’s process as she dabbed green onto canvas, adding detail to the trees towering beyond the old Oak Park library building near McClatchy Park library. Over the years, she often has been seen on a sidewalk, standing over an easel.

Last week, Miller read aloud what she once wrote. “My greatest aspiration is to support the renaissance of this neighborhood and invite others to enjoy the treasures of Oak Park.”

The irony.

Miller’s not mad about it. She is a little sad, though. A GoFundMe page has been set up to help save her studio.

“I understand there are forces beyond my control, but I’m still going to hang onto my vision as much as I can.”

Miller paused, watching her two small dogs weave through the studio cluttered with paintings and easels to bark and chase the shadow of a man on the sidewalk.

“My vision as an artist is to be not just an artist for myself, but an art resource for the greater community. How do I balance wanting to stay in the neighborhood, but maybe being priced out of my neighborhood?”

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith