The secret history of Oak Park

Touring the once majestic, now re-emerging neighborhood as its popular farmers market returns

Oak Park is on its way back to its former majestic self.

Oak Park is on its way back to its former majestic self.

Photo by Derrick Davis

The Oak Park Farmers Market returns soon, May 5, on Saturdays at McClatchy Park, 35th Street and Fifth Avenue; 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

The farmers market in Oak Park isn’t one of those one-size-fits-all markets the rest of the city gets. There are bands, free massages, food trucks. The atmosphere speaks to an elatedness that has more to do with the joy of having something healthy and fun happening in the neighborhood than it does to heritage tomatoes.

And the farmers market shows that the citizens of Oak Park are starting to see the light after decades of darkness, and are quite happy to enjoy the party. And the cup gets fuller: McClatchy Park is being renovated to better to accommodate the Oak Park Farmers Market; there will be a new arch and an improved layout when it reopens on May 5.

Oak Park is a bit bigger than half of the Midtown-downtown grid, but there is a lot to see in this forgotten corner of the central city.

While Midtown was focusing on luring suburban eaters and drinkers, East Sac was becoming the family dream and Curtis Park was closely watching their neighbors (and their home values), Oak Park quietly decayed over the decades. Its bad reputation overshadowed majestic Victorians and rows of Sacramento bungalows lining leafy, tree-lined streets. Fences went up and the neighborhood went into hiding.

But now Oak Park is just starting to emerge, again—and there is a lot to rediscover. Starting at the farmers market at McClatchy Park, there’s a view that offers a glimpse of the last 100 years of Oak Park’s history.

Look to the northwest: The former city library, built in 1930, hints at the neighborhood’s former splendor. Directly to the north are housing projects built on the land of the former neighborhood shopping district, which was plowed over in the ’70s.

The library on 33rd Street and Fifth Avenue is one of Oak Park’s architectural treasures. It is not open to the public, and, formerly a city branch, the McGeorge School of Law adopted it and its upkeep, saving it from the awful fate known as urban renewal—a euphemism for complete destruction.

Some other local buildings weren’t so lucky; the urban-renewal movement popular in the ’70s bulldozed the stores, pharmacy and art gallery that once lived on 35th Street and replaced them with public housing. The community has taken decades to recover from this disturbance of its social fabric. But it is slowly coming back.

Today, for instance, it is hard to imagine the bustle that formerly existed in the multiblock area surrounding the 40 Acres project when it was first built in 1915. But the stretch along Broadway and 34th Street is still home to several old churches, which stand testament to the area’s former density.

And many of these churches are re-inventing themselves as a consequence of aging, shrinking populations and demographic changes. Plus, some of Sacramento’s most stunning churches are for sale, available to be adopted by a caring flock. Among the more attractive are the mid-century Shiloh Baptist Church on 3565 Ninth Avenue, and the first English Presbyterian on the corner of Fourth Avenue and 39th Street.

On the other hand, the Spanish-speaking Seventh Day Adventist Church on Fourth Avenue, the Samoan one on Fifth Avenue and 36th Street and the Tongan United Methodist church on 36th Street and Broadway are jumping. As is the Catholic church just east of Alhambra Boulevard on Broadway, where Mexican snacks are for sale after services on Sundays. Get the pupusas.

Oak Park also has secrets, such as the Hell’s Angels’ den on a pot-holed dirt road that Google identifies as the Seventh Avenue-Ninth Avenue Alley. Wander down this uninviting lane to view a two-story hog house with an orange fence labeled “Hell’s Angels” in Old English script.

The neighborhood near the Guild Theater is part of the Oak Park neighborhood tour.

Photo by Derrick Davis

Another nearby piece of history is a weathered farmhouse on Seventh Avenue, where the road is narrow and unpaved. The home was built in 1910, has three barns, a huge lot and is clearly among the first houses in this part of the city. It is hidden and surrounded by newer structures, such as the Sara Lee bakery, but it still stands.

Nearby First Avenue is a great place to walk and discover Oak Park. It is home to many Sikh families and smells of onion cooked with an untried spice entice. This aroma, and the extremely friendly children who swarm up with all the gossip of the street, make it seem like a distant country.

Second Avenue is also worth a stroll near the boarded-up Fairmont Grocery, at 3922 Second Avenue. It looks as if it has been shuttered since the ’70s. But rumor has it that it is still furnished and ready for business. Well, if it had electricity.

The neighborhood near the rejuvenated Guild Theater is included in Sacramento State professor Robin Datel’s wonderful Oak Park walking tour. She leads people past here, as well as the local post office—friendliest in town—which is the building that formerly housed Esther’s Pastries, Ron Vrilakas’current and future developments, and more. The tour is available online, but you can’t beat the camaraderie of meeting a group for the excursion when it’s offered.

Another interesting place for an amble is the triangle north of Broadway and west of Sacramento Charter High School. Especially notice the lovely rose garden on 31st and X streets, and the Madonna and child mural on 32nd and Y streets. This house is often decorated for the holidays. One Halloween, the yard was dug up and made into a mock grave. Prior to Mary, the mural was of Bob Marley, so it’s always worth checking out. Who will be immortalized next?

South Oak Park is divided from North Oak Park by Fifth Avenue, which basically is McClatchy Park, and the two neighborhoods are like night and day. The south has a higher crime rate and the typical home is still surrounded by a chain-link fence, and every few blocks there is a pile of garbage made by some illegal-dumping asshole.

But it is just starting to open up some, and there are definite signs of a bright future to come. For instance, “Rancho Luna” on 23rd Avenue, not far from Del Norte, looks to be a slice of paradise. It’s a huge 19th-century house with a wrap-around porch, vintage El Caminos in the driveway and a relaxing yard that shows that someone feels like the area is a nice place to reside. Mazes of empty lots are very close to reverting to a native habitat. Wandering through this landscape, it wouldn’t be too big of a surprise to see a vernal pool, as improbable as that might be.

The true hidden treasure of Oak Park, however, is its residents. These are the citizens who make Sacramento the most diverse city in the nation. People who paint their houses turquoise or chartreuse and bucked chicken and front-yard-garden bans. Neighbors that are not afraid to stand up to city council in great numbers when they see injustice.

The neighborhood is emerging into the sunshine and feeling so good that it can’t help but turn a farmers market into something more like a celebration.