Erika D. Smith

Fulfilling the empty promises of Oak Park

Tom Schnetz peers out of a window at his restaurant, La Venadita, which looks toward Broadway in April 29. The stylish Mexican eatery is one of several new businesses that have opened in Oak Park. Some residents see it as gentrification.
Tom Schnetz peers out of a window at his restaurant, La Venadita, which looks toward Broadway in April 29. The stylish Mexican eatery is one of several new businesses that have opened in Oak Park. Some residents see it as gentrification.

Victor Brazelton was hard to miss in the back of a room at Oak Park Community Center last week. He stood silently, all 6-foot-something-inches of him – so tall that he stoops when he enters a room – patiently listening to people complain about everything from the price of housing to a thrift store being replaced with a coffee shop.

At some point, though, his kind eyes flashed with impatience and anger.

“This isn’t about gentrification. It’s about not feeling welcome in my own neighborhood.” Brazelton said at an unusually packed meeting of the Oak Park Neighborhood Association.

“I’m talking about that when I walk into a business and I don’t see anybody who looks like me,” tapping his brown skin, the octave of his voice ringing with every word. “I don’t want to be priced out of the place where I grew up. I want to be able to walk into a business and feel comfortable.”

People, white and black and Latino, monied and broke, applauded. But in Oak Park, this is quickly becoming an old story.

Like many urban neighborhoods before it, in cities near and far from Sacramento, gentrification is taking hold here. Empty lots and crumbling buildings are being replaced with trendy restaurants, shops and apartments. And it’s racially tinged gentrification, too, which is all the more sad for a city as diverse as ours.

Brazelton was raised in Oak Park by his grandmother. He used to have an apartment there, back when he could find one for $600 a month and the neighborhood was known for poverty and violence. Now, he can’t afford the going rate of well over $1,000.

He moved into a storage shed for a while. These days, he’s homeless, couch surfing and attending Sacramento City College. He notices what he swears is a growing number of homeless youths milling about.

“Rents are rising,” Brazelton said, “but the median income of (longtime) residents isn’t.”

To combat this and the other downsides of uneven economic progress, Mayor Kevin Johnson last month announced a plan to turn Oak Park into a “Promise Neighborhood,” backed by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. As much as $30 million could go toward making sure kids growing up in an area that spans two square miles have the tools they need to go to college or get a job.

So improving educational outcomes is definitely the focus, but becoming a Promise Neighborhood also would bring in new jobs and housing options.

It’s a grand plan that involves more than 20 partners, including UC Davis, University of the Pacific and its McGeorge School of Law, Sac State, SMUD and the Sierra Health Foundation. Assuming Sacramento is indeed one of the five cities selected, college scholarships and openings at a UC Davis clinic will be in the works for Oak Park.

“We’re going to transform 50 blocks in 15 years,” said Stephanie Bray, president of the United Way California Capital Region.

That’s nothing to sneeze at. It certainly jazzed the crowd of boosters at the Guild Theater and an overflow room at Underground Books last month to announce the plan. Most stuck around for two hours to revel in the possibilities.

But the mood there couldn’t have been more different than the mood inside Oak Park Community Center last week. So much so that a woman dispatched to explain the Promise Neighborhood plan to the assembled residents threw out her talking points and addressed some of their concerns head-on.

The collective response was somewhere between hopeful and cynical.

“This can be a wonderful and beautiful thing,” said Tanya Faison, head of Black Lives Matter Sacramento, which has been critical of gentrification, “but it’s in the hands of someone who has already done the damage to Oak Park.”

The mayor’s plan is big and ambitious. There are bound to be some skeptics and outright haters.

But the debate highlights a very real disconnect between some residents and some of the movers and shakers within City Hall. And I don’t think this is just an Oak Park phenomenon.

When it comes to affordable housing and addressing whether poor black and brown residents are being pushed out of neighborhoods in favor of wealthier hipsters, the city doesn’t have time to do the kind of hemming and hawing it often does on other big projects. (Ahem, finishing the bike lanes into downtown, anyone?)

Ain’t nobody got time for that.

No one can deny that Johnson has done a lot to bring new energy and economic activity to the central city during his time as mayor, and he’s working to make sure it’s sustainable. But his plans are clearly more of a long-term thing.

In the shorter term, it’s up to Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg and the City Council to help make sure people are still able to afford and enjoy all the great things happening in Sacramento.

It will be a challenge. Lost in all of the hoopla about young people moving into midtown are the people, facing the prospect of rising rents as Golden 1 Center nears completion, who are moving out – often into slightly less expensive neighborhoods such as Oak Park, displacing residents there.

That’s Brazelton’s biggest problem with the Promise Neighborhood plan. Where do people like him go until all that it promises becomes reality? “Where do people go in between?”

That’s a very good question.

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