Urban alchemist

Wendy Carter

Photo By Larry Dalton

What motivated medieval alchemists? Were they really just trying to get rich by turning lead into gold, or was there something else going on? Did the pursuit itself become the goal? For Wendy Carter, UC Davis graduate student and executive director of Alchemist Community Development Corporation, the process definitely is compelling, and the end result much less tangible, though potentially more rewarding, than gold. Communities are certainly full of chemical reactions, complexity, and elements that resist change. To learn more about Alchemist CDC’s activities, which currently focus on the Alkali Flat neighborhood, visit www.alchemistcdc.org.

How did you get into community development?

Originally, as an undergrad [at Cornell University], I was in international development. That was pretty much what I focused on. Latin America, Central America mostly, but by the time I graduated, I felt I just wasn’t going to be ready to work internationally. I needed language skills, experience. So I found out about the UC Davis program in community development, where I’m still going, that is like a sister program to the one that I was doing.

I took five years off after undergrad and worked at a variety of different things, all of which was leading me into this strange field of community development.

What projects are you working on right now?

Fund raising. What can I say? Right now, the best thing we can do is fund raise for our organization.

Can working for the community benefit be fun?

Yes. I think that’s the way. I think you have to try to keep it fun.

Alchemist is an interesting name for a development corporation. How did that come about?

We were brainstorming, and we decided we didn’t want to be another acronym. We were thinking about the Gold Rush, the history of the city and Lisa Nelson [Alchemist CDC’s board president] said “alchemy.”

So we talked about it and said this really works. Alchemy is the science of, well, attempting to turn lead into gold. It was this process where, over time, people learned all sorts of unexpected things—trying to do the impossible. They never turned lead into gold, but they learned all these chemical properties along the way. So that appealed to us: the whole process thing, and the transformation idea.

Are there any unexpected things you’ve learned trying to turn empty lots and abandoned buildings into … something else?

Yes, it’s almost all been unexpected, I would have to say. It’s so much harder than I expected, and I’m not used to things being easy in life.

What’s difficult about it?

Well, one thing I can say is that you have to deal with everybody’s issues. There are highly polarized voices in neighborhoods, and it’s very tempting to kind of ignore some of them, or ignore the ones you’re not hearing, even. You’re not hearing them, so it’s easy to ignore them. So it takes a lot of time to listen to all the different perspectives and try to bring that to a consensus. It takes a lot of time.

We are the only group really doing this kind of work in Sacramento as far as I can tell, taking this kind of approach toward working with community for development.

And that approach is …?

Having development come from grassroots. Having ideas come from the grassroots. Having benefits go back to people. Making sure there’s a clear link between what money gets spent on and the people in those neighborhoods benefiting from it. That hasn’t been done so intentionally before. People aren’t used to it, so they don’t really know how to deal with it.

When I look at other cities like Oakland, San Francisco, Boston—they have probably over 100 community-development corporations. They’re full of them, every corner of the city has its own, and they’ve been at it since the ‘70s. So I look at that and I say we should totally be having these buildings here and putting them into a limited-equity co-op. That seems so easy. This group is doing it. It seems so easy now because they know what they’re doing and the city is used to them.

Where would you like Alchemist CDC to be in five years?

If everything were to start rolling tomorrow and things went absolutely right, I think that Alkali Flat could be in pretty good shape in five years. I would say in terms of the neighborhood—the structures, the remaining ones—the rehab would continue.

I think it’s such a cool historic neighborhood. It’s by the rail yard, where the rail workers lived, so we’d want it to keep that. And for 12th Street to come into its own as a unique urban street. It’s almost completely empty between C and G [streets]. It’s not that big of an area, but it’s a hole in the middle of an important area of downtown.

The other main thing is not gentrified. The neighborhood improved without being gentrified—that’s the trick, which is, of course, what keeps us up at night. That’s why community ownership, land trust, co-op, community-owned businesses, and community involvement are our big things. We have a lot of ideas.