Book author, rail historian, connoisseur of urban grit and feisty member of troublemaking groups like the Sacramento Old City Association, William Burg is the home-grown product of Sacramento’s central city, a representative of the creative class who used to sneak out of high school in Citrus Heights to hop on light rail and come to the seedy downtown of the late 1980s. Now, as an adult, he refuses to live anywhere else, and he writes books explaining why. His first book for Arcadia Publishing, Sacramento’s Streetcars, shows us what was lost when the interurban railroad vanished.
What killed the streetcar in Sacramento?That’s not an easy question. In many ways, the bicycle is responsible. When people got interested in bicycles, they started getting interested in hard-surface roads. And the Sacramento Wheelmen were a local cycling club that advocated for hard-paved macadam roads to make cycling easier. And once you have hard-paved roads, using other inner-tube type vehicles like cars is also easier.
West Sacramento’s thinking about bringing back streetcars?Yes. West Sacramento’s historic situation is a classic example of what can kill a streetcar line. … If you have a streetcar line that goes out to this blank area where new development’s going to go in, it creates a lot of confidence in the potential buyer. OK, the streetcar’s here. I can still get to work, but I can live out in the country. It gives the impression of permanence. If the lots you sell are single-family homes with large lots, low density, you don’t end up with enough traffic to be able to maintain the streetcars. So, in 1924, there wasn’t enough traffic and the land company had sold all the lots. So the land company ends the subsidy, the streetcar goes away.
Where streetcars are profitable is in relative high-density where you’ve got a lot of people and lots of places to go. … That seems to be coming in West Sacramento. It’s a combination of the best things about this idea that was tried a hundred years ago. OK, we’re going to lay a line where there isn’t housing yet, and we’re going to make a plan to build housing that’s dense and livable and have lots of places for people to go to and walk from.
What part of Sacramento do you focus on as a historian?This is the place where everyone came. And because the neighborhoods around the central city were, for the most part, racially restricted—you couldn’t buy property in a lot of the early 20th century suburbs if you weren’t white—you ended up with a very diverse ethnic collection in the central city.
You could buy in the central city?But not in East Sacramento or Curtis Park, Land Park, etc., until the 1960s. There was an act passed in 1964, but the voters of the state of California decided they were going to overturn it with a proposition in the next year. And then finally the Supreme Court decided that it was unconstitutional and just not OK.
But what happened is that where people did go was the central city, the old city. While a lot of the middle class was emptying out, other people were moving in and creating a community. The more I hear about it, the more I think we’re going to regret what we lost in terms of cultural richness, architectural vibrancy and exciting-ness [after] the redevelopment of the west end and the area around Capitol Mall. Most of that complex in there that’s mostly state buildings and businesses, those were residential neighborhoods, they were business corridors, but they were non-white. That’s where Japan Town was. There was kind of a large Latino population. After World War II, there was a large black population. One thing I’d like to learn more about is that there was a cluster of these really exciting black-owned nightclubs along M Street—Capitol Avenue. … That’s the other thing. Sacramento used to be open late. In the 1940s, you’d come downtown at midnight on a weekday and get an ice cream and walk around and see people you know.
How did you first get interested in rail?Well, my dad was a model railroader and I caught the bug from him, and I still have it. I’m actually working on a model railroad of 1950s Sacramento in my basement, or at least a small chunk of it.
Professionally, you’re a caseworker with residents of SROs. Is it getting harder to find housing?Tremendously so. Low-income housing in Sacramento means affordable to someone making $36,000 a year. For someone on a retirement salary or disability, it’s almost unattainable. … Since I’ve been in the field, we’ve lost about a third of the SROs. They’ve either been closed down or demolished. The Californian, the Royal, the Clinton—they’re all gone … and I think some of the people who live in those hotels are some of the biggest supporters Sacramento’s got. They love Sacramento. They like living in this close-knit community, being real independent and being right in the middle of the city vibe. I understand where they’re coming in that respect.