By William Burg Photos courtesy of the Center for Sacramento History
In 1887, real estate developer Edwin Alsip subdivided the 230-acre William Doyle ranch into 56 whole and partial blocks and gave the subdivision the name “Oak Park,” named after an eight-acre oak grove at its center.
This grove became the neighborhood park, and the terminus of the Central Street Railway streetcar line, also owned by Alsip’s firm, which connected Oak Park to downtown Sacramento. The streetcar was originally horse-drawn; in 1891 horses were replaced by electric trolleys. The main artery through the new subdivision was Sacramento Avenue, a 100 foot wide boulevard for both wagons and streetcars, now known as Broadway.
Alsip’s subdivision was not immediately successful. The first purchasers were real estate speculators, who held the vacant properties to sell later. Early advertising boasted “No City Taxes!” but this also meant no city services, like water or sewers. A recession in 1893 also slowed real estate sales. The first business established in Oak Park was Steen’s Bar, opened in 1892 as the Electric Railroad Exchange due to its location across from the streetcar terminus by the park.
Between 1900 and 1910, economic conditions improved and Oak Park attracted residents and businesses. In 1906, the California State Fairgrounds were moved to the far side of Oak Park on Stockton Boulevard, and in 1910, the Central California Traction Co. (CCT) brought another streetcar line to Oak Park. The low cost of Oak Park lots drew many working people, but not many middle-class or wealthy buyers. Many residents soon decided that growing problems with sewage and inadequate water supplies outweighed the advantage of no city taxes. By 1909, Oak Park businesses began a move to incorporate Oak Park as part of Sacramento, with broad neighborhood support, and in 1911, Oak Park and other nearby neighborhoods were annexed to the City of Sacramento.
Before World War II, most people in Oak Park were of European ethnicity, although African Americans and Mexican Americans were present in the neighborhood. George Dunlap, an African American cook who learned his trade in Southern Pacific’s dining cars, moved to Oak Park in 1906, when the property near his house (at 4322 4th Avenue) was still mostly strawberry fields. Dunlap turned his culinary skill into a string of restaurants, including a diner at the California State Fairgrounds and dining car service for the Sacramento Northern Railway’s passenger trains and their Suisun Bay ferry Ramon. In 1930 he turned his house into Dunlap’s Dining Room, legendary for its Southern cooking and hospitality until it closed in 1968.
After World War II, many more African Americans moved to Oak Park. This reflected their increased number in Sacramento generally, but also Oak Park’s availability to nonwhites when many other suburbs were racially restricted. This process was intensified by the displacement of many African Americans from the “West End” neighborhood of downtown Sacramento (the area now occupied by Capitol Mall, Interstate 5, Old Sacramento and the O Street pedestrian mall) by urban renewal. In 1957, the Shiloh Baptist Church, an African-American congregation dating back to the Gold Rush, relocated to Oak Park from Sixth and P. Other social organizations followed the relocated residents, like the Women’s Civic Improvement Club (WCIC) in 1966.
George Seabron began selling real estate to Sacramento’s African-American community in 1958. He worked with the NAACP and the Urban League working for fair housing, and was active in Democratic politics, running campaigns for Governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown and Hubert Humphrey. In 1969, Seabron and partners purchased a grocery store at 2949 35th Street, intending to provide not only foodstuffs but training and jobs for the community. One of Seabron’s partners in this project was Robert Tyler, the leader of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) in the 1960s, Executive Director of the Sacramento City and County Human Rights Commission, and a founder of the National Association of Black Social Workers.
Oak Park’s economic health declined after World War II. The streetcar lines that carried workers downtown stopped in 1947, and in the 1950s and 1960s, many of the jobs that sustained neighborhood residents disappeared as Sacramento’s central city became less industrialized. Many older businesses closed or moved, and while some were replaced by new African American owned businesses or businesses relocating from the old West End many storefronts simply went empty. Just as Oak Park asserted its new cultural identity as an African American neighborhood, it was cut off from the rest of town by the construction of Interstate 50 and Highway 99.
Yet, even as the neighborhood suffered decay, cultural institutions like the Belmonte Art Gallery (see page 24), the African American interest newspaper The Sacramento Observer, and the Guild Theatre (an art-film theater and later a live music venue) thrived. The Sacramento Black Panthers provided tutoring, legal aid, and their signature free breakfast program for school children. But problems that accompany poverty increased. Racial tensions, including issues of police-community relations, ran high. These pressures came to a boiling point on June 16, 1969, in a confrontation between Oak Park residents and police, the Oak Park Riots. In 1970, the shooting of a police officer resulted in the arrest of four Sacramento Black Panther Party members, known as the Oak Park Four, who were acquitted after an eight month trial. A spate of Urban Renewal demolitions of many of Oak Park’s business buildings symbolized the neighborhood’s economic decline, but its character as a working-class neighborhood has never fully faded.
More recently, Oak Park has become the focus of urban revitalization. Restoration of the Guild Theatre and Lewis Building were early signs of Oak Park’s recovery, but the current recession has stalled development just as it did in the 1890s. However, in the 1890s Oak Park was outside the city, and largely undeveloped. Today, Oak Park’s wealth rests in its culture, its historic buildings, and its people. The Oak Park Neighborhood Association advocates for responsible neighborhood development, organizations like the WCIC and the Sacramento Observer newspaper are just a few of Oak Park’s long-standing institutions, and the restored Guild complex is replacing its recently closed Starbucks franchise with the locally owned Old Soul Coffeehouse. The city of Sacramento has approved a new master plan for McClatchy Park and is preparing to approve portions of Oak Park as historic districts. This one-time suburb has become an indelible part of our city’s identity, and despite the economic obstacles in its path, shows no sign of surrender.
Author’s note: Much of the information in this article was taken from a walking tour of Oak Park created by Sacramento State University geography professor Robin Datel. The full tour and accompanying map is accessible online at www.sacramentoheritage.org.