When I heard the words “Oak Park” after moving to Sacramento, the first thing that came to my mind being from Southeastern Wisconsin was the affluent village and suburb located just outside of Chicago which is the hometown of comedians Bob Newhart and Betty White as well as Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonalds and Sam Giancana, the mafia boss who allegedly shared a mistress with JFK.
But here is Sacramento, I learned, it is a neighborhood on the south side of the city informally bounded by Broadway to the North, Stockton Blvd. to the East, CA-99 to the West and Fruitridge to the South where the current mayor, Kevin Johnson, grew up and still calls home.
Oak Park is an area whose history stretches back to the early 1900s when it was a culturally thriving and economically vibrant destination (actually Sacramento’s first suburb which was annexed into the city in 1911), due in part to its strong sense of community and its ties with and proximity to the Historic site of the California State Fair grounds. It was a strong working class area until the 1960s when freeway expansion both isolated the area from the downtown area and led to the migration of many of its residents to more distance suburbs. The 1980s and 90s saw a further deterioration of the area as it experienced increase in petty crime, prostitution, gang activity and drug dealing. The early 2000s saw the beginnings of a reversal of fortune for the area as absentee landlords and real estate speculators gave way to a return of working class families purchasing homes with the aid of government-assisted loans. This recovery was cut short as a result of the economic fallout of the Great Recession of about five years ago. Foreclosures in the area skyrocketed. Properties either became vacant or were again bought up by absentee owners.
In the last couple of years, through the private efforts of many people and the efforts of the local neighborhood and business associations as well as political work by Mayor Johnson, as well as area Council Member, Jay Schenirer, there have been signs of renewed vigor in the area mirroring the turnaround of pre-Great Recession times. The expansion of the UC-Davis Medical facility just to the north of the area has also set the stage for a potential return to more vibrant times.
The question is whether this recovery is one which will reach into the heart of the community or one which will be limited to certain points in the area. While the Broadway Triangle as a point of new building and potential new enterprises as well as the UC-Davis entry into the area are signs that a sustained rebound is possible for the area, local business and community leadership acknowledge in interviews that the extension of rebirth into areas away from these points is slow and tentative,at best, currently.
A detailed listing provided by the local Council Member shows that just over $8 million of the $13 million of city funds brought into the community in the past three years are limited to two projects(the Broadway Triangle development and the nearby 3rd Avenue Plaza) which are no fully finished yet and whose purpose is still being worked out. Discussions on the Oak Park Neighborhood Association Facebook site point more to hopes that these locations will attract new businesses to the area which will train and hire local residents. The emphasis in the short term is creating a newer, more vital physical environment in the area which will create a perception of resurgence in the area. It is hoped that this change in the perception of the condition of the area will lead to real change and creation of opportunities for the residents of the area in the longer term.
So, is there a renaissance going on in the Oak Park area? The answer is: Yes…and no.