Names tell stories

Neighborhoods recreate Sacramento’s history

Don and Virginia Rivett have lived all of their 84 years in Sacramento, watching the city transition from a little town with dirt roads, little communication and horse-drawn cars to a bustling, expanding metropolitan city.

Both active local historians, they believe the tales of Sacramento’s many diverse neighborhoods paint a portrait of this community and chart its history. Just the stories behind the names of the neighborhoods give younger generations a peek into the early days of the central city.

Gently twisting the gold wedding band on his age-freckled hand—the symbol of 56 years of marriage—Don Rivett starts to tell stories, stories similar to those told by other local historians, stories of Sacramento’s neighborhoods.

The incessant flooding of the 19th century shaped much of what Sacramento is today, said James Henley, local historian and manager of the History and Science Division of the city of Sacramento.

Flooding devastated the newly developed city, changing how it developed and giving an identity to some neighborhoods. Much of the old Sacramento actually lies beneath Old Sacramento because the streetline was elevated by 12 feet. Many current basements are actually the original first floor.

A steep Midtown hill leads to one of the most prominent neighborhoods in Sacramento. This lavish neighborhood is ironically called Poverty Ridge (21st-22nd streets, T-V streets), named for the poverty-stricken citizens who were forced to high ground by flood waters.

The gloomy hillside of disheveled and disordered tents that appeared whenever the waters rose in the flatlands gave the hill this name, because “everyone there looked so poor,” Henley said.

In the late 19th century, developers built mansions on Poverty Ridge—most of which are still standing today—and attempts were made to change the reputation by re-naming it “Sutter’s Terrace.” The name didn’t stick, and the neighborhood is still known as Poverty Ridge.

Another area that took its identity from the floods is Alkali Flat (A Street South-G Street, 13th Street to the Old Southern Pacific Railyard). What now encompasses J. Neely Park, the Crystal Dairy and modest homes painted in a pallet of pastel colors, was once a flatland vulnerable to flooding.

Henley said that the excess water would flood the area, dry, and leave behind a chalky residue of minerals, called alkali. He said the name stuck because a neighborhood boys’ baseball team named themselves the “Alkali Flat Gang.”

The Rivetts remember going out to Whiskey Hill (on 12th Avenue and Franklin Boulevard junction)— another high ground that was known for gambling and boozing. Horse races were held here, and afterward the crowd ventured to the saloons. Don remembers people getting “awfully rowdy.” Fellow local historian Jeff Redmond said that this was the spot to get bootlegged liquor during the time of prohibition.

Yet most Sacramento neighborhood names don’t reflect such colorful activities as much as they catalogue prominent Sacramentans over time.

Curtis Park was named after William Curtis, who established a successful dairy farm in central Sacramento in the mid-1800s.

Land Park was named after former mayor and hotel owner William Land, who bequeathed $250,000 to Sacramento to develop an urban park, “where the general masses of the public could go,” Henley said.

McKinley Park was named in remembrance of President William McKinley. The area was once called East Park when owned by the Sacramento City Railway Company. In the 1870s, the company tried to promote streetcar excursions out to the newly landscaped area. When the plan flopped, the land was sold to the city for $12,500, and since then has become well-known for the rose garden, duck pond and library.

Newton Booth neighborhood (24th-29th streets, W-R streets) was named after Booth, who was the governor of California from 1871-75 and the U.S. senator from California from 1875-81. Susan Pikowski, of the Newton Booth/Poverty Ridge Neighborhood Association, said that in the 1970s, a “bad land use decision” was made to put up apartments and tear down Victorians. Pikowski said that the multicultural community managed to preserve some of the historical buildings, including the large brick building that was once Newton Booth Elementary School.

Some neighborhoods were given certain names just because the developer liked the sound of them. Oak Park, once a flourishing community, was named after a community outside of Chicago. “The developer liked it and brought the name over to the West,” Henley said.

Boulevard Park was a name chosen by developers, while transitioning the area from the Union Racetrack to a well-to-do neighborhood. The racetrack was originally encompassed by a brick wall and once held the California State Fair horse races for 40 years.

When the racetrack moved to the State Fairgrounds on Stockton Boulevard, the area was transitioned into a residential area, lined with Craftsman and Colonial Revival homes. Boulevard Park can be recognized by the distinctive grassy strip on 21st and 22nd streets—the only area in Midtown with such medians.

The origins of the Arden area name remain a mystery among local historians. A popular belief, according to Henley, is that the developer named the area after the Arden Forest in England.

“The Arden area was dense with oak trees,” Henley said. “It had a romantic feel to it.”

Virginia Rivett perked up in her chair. “Ever heard of Homeland?” she asked, with a playful, knowing smile.

In the late 1920s, a real estate agency had a contest to see who could come up with the best name for a new development in an open country, which covered what is now 19th Street to Land Park Drive, and Broadway to 4th Street. An ad for the contest was placed in the newspaper. The winner would receive a $100 prize, and that’s just what her mother did.

“The second she saw the ad, she thought, Homeland!” Virginia said. “And she won. And the area is still known as Homeland.”

Lemon Hill (at Power Inn and Stockton Boulevard) was probably an attempt to cash in on the booming citrus industry during the first part of the 20th century, the same boom that gave Orangevale and Citrus Heights their monikers.

But Don Rivett believes that Lemon Hill was a misnomer, that the area was actually named after the Osage orange, an inedible and warty-appearing fruit grown on thorny trees. He said that when wood was scarce in Sacramento, Osage orange trees were used as fences. These trees were particularly copious at what is known as Lemon Hill.

But fences weren’t too common back in those days. Don said neighborhoods were different back then, “you trusted your neighbors, you relied on your neighbors.”

Don also said many of the neighborhoods consisted of a community that shared similar backgrounds, such as race and creed.

“That’s probably what I miss most about those times,” Don said. “I think the sense of community is lost. I used to go downtown and know half the people on the street,” Don said, shaking his head slightly.

Virginia re-entered the room, purse strapped around her left arm and shopping list in the opposite hand. She announced she was leaving for the store. Virginia crept down slowly, and gave Don a quick kiss on his lips.

“Hope we helped,” she said with a smile. “There’s not many of us old-timers around here anymore that have actually seen the history take place.”