¿Qué pasa, Del Paso?
The boulevard’s a magnet for artists, lure to a tenacious set of businesses and people—and has a reputation for being a bit bad. Welcome to Sacramento’s eclectic main street.
Stir together one part Mayberry, one part bohemian arts district and one part Skid Row, and you get something like Del Paso Boulevard. The stretch of old North Sacramento (or, as it is sometimes, hopefully, called, “Uptown”) is both a historic byway and an avant-garde experiment. Here you’ll find greasy spoons and vegan cafes, halfway houses around the corner from boutique hotels, and family business that have stuck it out on the boulevard for decades alongside hookers who have, too. Welcome to Sacramento’s eclectic main street.
Newspaper reporters parachute into the neighborhood from time to time, to write stories about how the boulevard is making a comeback, or about how it was making a comeback but is backsliding. It’s all more complicated than that, of course.
Since SN&R recently moved its offices to Del Paso Boulevard, it seemed like a good time to take a look at what’s going on in our new backyard. Yes, we found a neighborhood trying to shake off the effects of a bad economy and a bit of a bad reputation. But it’s also a place of surprising diversity, where people are trying new things, sometimes because that’s all they can do.
“It’s a very tenacious neighborhood,” said Kim Scott, a painter and one of the founders of SurrealEstates, an artists’ housing development just off the boulevard. During boom times and bad times, the area (roughly the stretch from Highway 160 to El Camino Avenue) has been a magnet for artists and others (like SN&R) escaping the downtown scene for one reason or another.
“It’s not just because it’s cheap. It’s because it’s interesting. It doesn’t yet have the Good Housekeeping seal of approval,” Scott explained. That’s what she likes about the neighborhood. She doesn’t like it when TV news reporters confuse the area with Del Paso Heights, and the fact that the neighborhood still doesn’t have a grocery store.
This too will pass, said Dan Friedlander, a Del Paso developer, booster and dreamer who has invested heavily in some cool and quirky real-estate projects—like The Greens, a retro-chic hotel and art space that was once a cheap and somewhat notorious Arden Motel.
“Del Paso will be an amazing street someday,” Friedlander said. “We are halfway there.”
Boulevard of dreams
Del Paso was already an amazing street when Cindy Duarte was a girl in the 1950s and ’60s. Then there were not one but two grocery stores. There were two movie theaters, two drugstores, a bowling alley, an ice rink and a roller rink.
“You could walk down the boulevard and feel safe. There was a real small-town atmosphere. It was like Mayberry,” said Duarte, co-owner of Cook’s Ace Hardware, one of the largest and oldest businesses on the boulevard. The store has been in her family for four generations.
The hardware store was started by Duarte’s grandparents, Roscoe Cook and his wife Susie, in 1944. It started off as an auto-parts store, when Del Paso Boulevard was part of the route of the 2,300-mile-long Highway 40, extending from San Francisco to New Jersey. Back then, the boulevard enthusiastically embraced the emerging car culture. Del Paso became a sort of auto row, packed with auto dealerships, parts stores and gas stations.
By the 1910s, Del Paso was becoming a prosperous suburb, advertised by the North Sacramento Land Company as boasting good soil, no city taxes and just 10 minutes by electric streetcar from K Street. North Sac’s Woodlake neighborhood is still one of the more desirable locations in the city. In 1924, North Sacramento residents voted to incorporate and form their own city, and at its height in the 1960s, the city had about 16,000 residents.
The Cooks had emigrated from New Hampshire to the area during the 1930s. After working for the railroad company and then a Modesto milk farm, Cook opened an auto-parts store on the boulevard.
Over the years, the store would expand several times, adding whatever the neighborhood needed: clothes, furniture, appliances—until the store grew to its current footprint.
As a girl, Cindy worked in the store along with her four brothers and sisters. “They paid me 50 cents a box to lick the stamps for the envelopes,” for the customers’ charge accounts. Later, the store got a machine for that. Today, instead of licking envelopes, you’re likely to find Duarte running the counter, where neighbors can come in and pay their SMUD or their phone bill. It’s an old-school touch that you see less and less of as the neighborhood hardware store gives way to less community-oriented chains. Roscoe Cook passed away in 1974, Susie in 1997, but the store has stayed in the family. And in recent years, a fourth generation of nieces and nephews have taken their turns manning the counter.
Cook’s is part of the old neighborhood that still remains, and includes such venerable businesses as Taber Furniture and the diners Lil Joe’s and Sammy’s. But gone are the Ben Franklin five-and-dime store and Rexall drugstore. Today, the Iceland ice rink remains, but not the teams from the North Sacramento ice-hockey league, like the Aerojet Rockets, and Miles’ Argonauts, named for Miles Urton and his Argonaut bar. Gone are the bowling alley, the roller rink and the two movie theaters.Main streets to malls
By the time Cindy Duarte hit high school, Mayberry was fading away.
First came the encroachment of the city of Sacramento. The city annexed empty tracts of farmland on either side of North Sacramento. On one side sprung up south Natomas. On the other, Arden Fair mall, completed in 1957. In Sacramento, as in the rest of the country, Mayberry was on its way out.
“This was a period of the demise of main streets,” not just in North Sacramento, but around the country, said Bob Slobe, one of the heirs of the North Sacramento Land Company. His family pretty much built North Sacramento and the Woodlake neighborhood. “People changed the way that they shop. Pretty soon the mall had won out over our main street.”
Then came the merger with the city of Sacramento and the loss of North Sacramento’s cityhood. The merger was hotly contested, losing narrowly in 1963 and winning by just 15 votes in 1964. Part of the idea of the merger was that North Sacramento could save money by combining basic services with its neighbor to the south.
Instead, Slobe said the city of Sacramento took taxes out of the neighborhood and returned low-income housing and an overconcentration of social services. He returned in the late 1980s, after college and a decade living on the East Coast. He found the boulevard transformed by poverty and neglect.
“I thought, surely they wouldn’t just throw this area away. We’ll just fix it up; it will be easy,” said Slobe. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t easy getting the area declared a redevelopment area in 1992, which Slobe helped to do as president of the North Sacramento Chamber of Commerce. It hasn’t been easy since.
Area City Councilwoman Sandy Sheedy said old North Sacramento had plenty of problems before the merger. Throughout the area are streets that have never had sidewalks, storm drains or curbs. On a recent tour, Sheedy pointed out one particular block where “Every time it rains, it floods.” Fixing just that one block would cost $700,000, Sheedy explained.
But the area’s problems also invite creative solutions. Sheedy wrangled city money and approval for Sacramento’s first “green street,” along a five-block section of Dixieanne Avenue, a crime-plagued neighborhood off the boulevard. Instead of just sticking in curbs and gutters, the city planted grasses and trees and other plants in strips which serve as detention basins to filter storm water before it flows into local streams. Along with some street sculpture, the whole project cost $2 million, which Sheedy called a “relatively cheap” and environmentally friendly way of bringing infrastructure up to snuff.
And the idea of the main street is making a comeback, thanks to “smart growth” planning principals and a new emphasis on pedestrian-friendly environments and neighborhood-scale retail mixed in with housing.
In an effort to bring back some of that main-street feeling, the city recently restored diagonal parking on Del Paso, allowing cars to pull in headlights first, at an angle to the curb. The idea is not just to evoke the good old days, but also to make parking easier and more inviting, and to slow down traffic along the strip.
But the conversion has gotten mixed reviews. “All the old-timers told them not to do it,” Duarte said with a laugh. “They knew from before that cars would get rear-ended, or jump the curb and run into buildings.” And indeed, today, Duarte and other merchants told SN&R the parking is more difficult now, because leaving a space requires backing out into traffic. And Duarte said potential customers are avoiding the street at peak times because the traffic has slowed down too much.
But other street improvements, like planted median strips and the addition of public art along the strip, are popular.
“North Sac is back!” said Khalid Farhoud, the 49-year-old owner of Sammy’s diner. Farhoud is unequivocal about how much the street has improved since his arrival in 1986. Of course, Kal, as regulars call him, didn’t know the Mayberry days. And consider where Farhoud came from: the Ein El-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp south of Beirut, Lebanon. In the neighborhood of his childhood, “They call my street the ‘Street of Death.’” Even at its worst, Del Paso Boulevard was no street of death. But Farhoud said the boulevard is “like heaven” compared to when he first arrived.
Of course, some spots are more heavenly than others. One of the great challenges for James Hall, owner of Decades costume shop, is being next to the Sunland Liquor Store, which Hall calls “the worst corner on Del Paso.”
But when SN&R visited Hall and his employees, Chance King and Lyle Janis, the scene was festive inside. It was just a couple of days before New Year’s Eve. While much of Del Paso Boulevard was quiet that winter day, the Decades trio was trying to keep up with the rush.
The store was packed to the ceiling with costumes and vintage clothes. On the counter by the front door, Hall provides a helpful menu, with dozens of tips for outfits based on the store’s stock. Among the many, many suggestions: Paul Revere, Cyclops, nurses, convicts and bananas.
Two separate couples were browsing for something for a “riverboat gambling”-themed New Year’s party at the Sacramento Yacht Club. One couple had even rented the movie Maverick the night before for research purposes.
A young man returned a Santa outfit and other costumes from an ice show at Iceland. Another couple had some old jackets and costume jewelry they wanted to sell. All the while Hall ran back and forth, checked receipts, answered questions from customers and the reporter alike with good cheer.
“I hear people say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to go to work on Monday.’ I can’t wait to go to work on Monday,” Hall said. And, for some reason, it turns out that the costume-rental business, at least this costume-rental business, is somewhat recession-proof.
Which is not to say there aren’t problems. A few days earlier, a young man tried to steal a cell phone off the counter, because he said he needed to get himself admitted to detox immediately. On another occasion, Hall saw a group of young men screech their car to the curb, jump out and begin beating an old man of about 70. Hall called the police; when someone else yelled to stop the beating, one of the assailants shouted back, “That’s my Dad!”
Like other merchants, the Decades crew has mixed feelings about the street-beautification efforts. “It’s pretty, but it isn’t addressing the real problem,” said King.[page] Crime, liquor and porn
So what’s the real problem? Locals say it’s crime magnets like “The Compound,” also known as the Dixieanne Apartments, a drug- and prostitution-plagued 30-unit apartment complex on Dixieanne Avenue, a couple of blocks off of Del Paso—not far from Sheedy’s green street.
Sacramento Police Capt. Daniel Hahn, who is in command of the city’s north area, said the compound has quieted down recently, since the city attorney took the apartment owners to court. Another problem spot is the Royal Oaks apartments a few blocks away. Driving by it today, you wouldn’t be sure it was open or abandoned. There are plywood pieces over windows and patching up walls, and to say it needs a paint job would be absurdly understated. Drugs and prostitution have been a problem here, too, but Hahn said the Royal Oaks is “looking pristine” compared to several months ago.
Then there are what one merchant calls the “ethanol distributors,” the Sunland Liquor Store, and its neighbor a block away, the B&W liquor store.
Woody Boyd, owner of Boyd Luthiery, said of the Sunland, “If that place disappeared tomorrow, things out here would be different within hours.”
Boyd’s shop, where he builds guitars and repairs them while you watch (and holds a very popular open-mic night hosted by Sal Valentino), was right next to the Sunland for a couple of years.
But Boyd, a former sheriff’s deputy (though you might not think it with Woody’s skinny frame and long white hair and beard), had to relocate up the street to escape the liquor-store scene—the fights, the loitering, the drunks passed out on the sidewalk.
Every month, Hahn sends a report to residents and business owners in the area, and the stats show that crime is down in the area over the last year. There was a terrifying string of street stabbings, none of them fatal, in 2008. But in 2009, the neighborhoods around the boulevard saw only three homicides—the lowest number in years.
The most effective way to fight crime in an area, said Hahn, is to have “eyes on the street.” Every new business or art space or office that opens up helps. Every one that closes hurts. “The Starbucks closing, that didn’t help. All these places that bring workers and customers, who have legitimate business on the street, that’s what makes it uncomfortable for the criminal element.”
Cameras have gone up at several intersections, and the city is about to impose a “civil injunction” on the boulevard—a court order banning certain people from hanging out in the area. The injunction will apply to known criminals, prostitutes, pimps and dealers who’ve made a nuisance of themselves over the years. Among them is a hooker who Hahn said has been on the boulevard for 35 years.
On other parts of the boulevard, land uses seem strangely at odds. On Del Paso, the North-Sacramento-Hagginwood Library is a block away from the Wind Youth Center, which provides services and a safe place to stay for homeless teens. That’s a good pairing, but the quickest path between the two is a straight line alongside the Goldies Adult Superstore.Artists guard the boulevard
Along with cops and cameras, Del Paso has long been banking on artists to look after the neighborhood. Influential galleries have come and gone. But the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission, SurrealEstates, the Temporary Contemporary and the Del Paso Works building, among others, remain.
In 1995, the Del Paso Works building, at 1001 Del Paso Boulevard, opened up in an abandoned warehouse that locals says was used to build P-38 fighter planes during World War II. Today it houses an incredible diversity of local artists’ studios.
There’s the Kuumba Collective Art Gallery, one of the only galleries dedicated to showing African-American Art. “This is work you won’t see downtown,” explained Marshall Bailey, director of the Kuumba. Whether it’s the spiritual themes by the Rev. FranCione, or Bailey’s own assemblages of African mud cloth, cowrie shells and found objects, or the work of the man Bailey calls “our own Rembrandt,” a 26-year-old named Jeff Carnie, whose work includes historical paintings from African-American history—all are the kinds of artists who would find it tough to sell their work in downtown galleries.
Elsewhere in the Del Paso Works building, you’ll see the vivid and otherworldly painting of Penelope Clement, who’s been in the space for 15 years now. Lately she’s been working on paintings for special tarot-card decks—the most recent called Stonehenge Speaks.
Then there’s Miguel Paz, a Bolivian-born sculptor who, when SN&R dropped in on him, was working on a fountain made of special clay.
“I call this clay Slobe clay,” Paz explained, adding that he had dug the reddish-brown material from a vacant lot at Del Paso and Arden Way—owned, like a lot of property, including the Del Paso Works building, by Bob Slobe. He also works with “Charland clay,” named for local artist Robert Charland, and mined from another nearby field. The neighborhood’s location in the flood plain near the confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers is lucky for the enterprising sculptor. “Just 4 inches under the soil, there’s some excellent clay here,” he said.
During the early mid- to late 1990s, shortly after the area was declared a redevelopment zone, landlords started something called Phantom Galleries—temporary, almost guerrilla, exhibits in empty storefronts.
Phantom Galleries was the precursor to Sacramento’s highly popular Second Saturday art walks, and for a while it was very successful on the boulevard. But partly because of the (sometimes deserved) perception that the boulevard is not safe, the momentum and the big crowds of Second Saturday shifted to downtown and Midtown.
But the artists themselves have put down serious roots. The SurrealEstates artist community opened in October 2006, after years of effort by Kim Scott, Robert Charland and their colleagues.
The Estates, consisting of 11 modest houses with upstairs lofts and separate backyard studio buildings, take up a half-block on Cantalier Street, on what Scott said was once “the worst crack corner in town.”
For Scott, SurrealEstates was a project 14 years in the making. Deals fell through; property that looked good turned out to be contaminated; in the boom years, investors snapped up property the artist group was interested in. But the group stuck it out, and she said the community stuck with them.
Thanks to some financial help from the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency and a succession of elected and business leaders, more than a dozen artists and their families now enjoy reasonably affordable mortgages and convenient studio space, while helping to make the neighborhood a little less appealing to the bad guys. “These are not people who care all that much if somebody’s smoking a joint. But they will be the first people to call the cops if something bad is happening,” Scott said.[page] Cheap rent = opportunity galore
In this mix of old and new, cheap but interesting, experiments can happen. For example, The Art of Food, an organic and vegan cafe run by chef Richard Hemsley.
Just before Christmas, Hemsley was offering up pumpkin soup, vegan burritos and something called hemp-nog. The cafe serves “raw food,” though Hemsley shies away from calling it that, as it evokes images of carrot sticks.
The Art of Food at first seems an unlikely addition to a strip dominated by burgers and fries (taking nothing away from a couple of high-end eateries on the boulevard, like Enotria Restaurant & Wine Bar and Supper Club).
“I’ve been asked many times why I didn’t go into the more affluent area of Midtown or downtown. But this is in the heart of the area that needs the most healing,” Hemsley said.
That and the rents are considerably cheaper than in Midtown.
Del Paso presents opportunities for development experiments as well. In his office in the Renaissance building that he renovated at the southern end of Del Paso, developer Russ Wyluda has some handsome drawings of a 117-unit condo building, with 16,000 square feet of office space underneath. It’s a project he has long dreamed of building right across the street from the Globe Avenue light-rail station.
In modern planning language, it’s called transit-oriented development, and Del Paso Boulevard seems remarkably well suited for it, with its light-rail tracks running straight up the street between Highway 160 and Arden Way. “This is a prime area for infill development. You’ve got four light-rail stations right here,” noted Councilwoman Sheedy.
But Wyluda got delayed by heavier than expected soil contamination under the site. Since every other corner on the boulevard once had a gas station on it, every other corner has contamination under it from leaking storage tanks. The cleanup is nearly done now, but the economy makes development unlikely any time soon. Asked when the Globe project was going to get built, Wyluda shook his head and said simply, “I have no idea.”
But the economy hasn’t stopped Dan Friedlander, who added to his unique collection of developments on the boulevard in 2008, opening The Greens Hotel, retrofitting the rundown and somewhat notorious Arden Motel.
Each of the Greens’ rooms is painted in bold colors, like chartreuse or orange. Each has Dutch doors that allow the top halves of the doors to open out onto the hotel’s common area (the Greens) at night. And each showcases original art, all for $109 to $139 a night. The Greens hosted the NorCal Noisefest electronic music festival last year, and Friedlander’s since opened a gallery space next door, the Temporary Contemporary. He plans to add to the Greens complex this spring with a sake bar called Moss.
He started with his Limn high-end furniture store on Arden Way, just off Del Paso, 10 years ago. Friedlander’s made most of his money with his Limn furniture store and other developments in San Francisco, but he grew up in Sacramento and figured he could help boost the boulevard.
“Ten years ago, I believed Del Paso would be Sacramento’s first perfect walking street,” he said. “It’s just the right length, 6 or 7 blocks, and with clearly defined endpoints and curious architecture.”
But Friedlander also called Del Paso an “outsider street.”
“This is its strength. Money and the moneyed set will never make Del Paso their Sacramento haunt. And who cares?” He pointed to the recent location of the So-Cal hot-rod shop to the boulevard, which along with “several other odd businesses point to a more likely direction for the boulevard.”
“Del Paso is finding its own unique look and feel, and the street doesn’t care how long it takes, as it is now deep into its reshaping,” Friedlander said. He thinks the boulevard will more and more be adopted by those adventurous people who are “hungry for a more full experience than shopping and hanging out at the mall.”
Of course, that’s all easy for an arty guy like Friedlander to say. But some of the old-timers see the strength in diversity and in the offbeat, too. “If there’s one word for it, I think it’s eclectic,” said Cindy Duarte. “That’s what I’d like to see happen, something eclectic.”
In many ways, that’s what it’s always been.