With a new book about Midtown, historian William Burg explores the creative soul of Sacramento—past, present and future

He explores the creative soul of Sacramento—past, present and future

Sam’s Hof Brau, located on J Street, was a landmark blues venue before it closed in 1993.

Sam’s Hof Brau, located on J Street, was a landmark blues venue before it closed in 1993.

photo by Joe Perfecto

William Burg will discuss and sign copies of Midtown Sacramento on Thursday, August 28, at Time Tested Books (1114 21st Street, 7 p.m., no cover).

William Burg wasn't born here, but he’s as much of a native son to Sacramento as anyone. Born in Skokie, Ill., he moved to the area in 1973 after his father was accepted to UC Davis. The family circled the city’s perimeter, from Dixon to Citrus Heights, but Burg—who studied history at Humboldt State University—didn’t live in Sacramento proper until he moved to Midtown in 1993.

Burg still lives in Midtown, and over the years has written several books on Sacramento history including Sacramento’s K Street: Where Our City Was Born and Sacramento Renaissance: Art, Music and Activism in California’s Capital City.

His latest effort puts the lens squarely on the central city. Midtown Sacramento: Creative Soul of the City (The History Press, $19.99) is a detailed study of the grid that covers both its geographical and cultural evolution. Burg, who will sign copies of the book this Thursday at Time Tested Books, took a break from his day job as a historian with the California Department of Parks and Recreation to meet up at Adamo’s, a Midtown cafe located just steps away from the first place he called home. It’s just a stone’s throw, incidentally, from his current digs. Native son, indeed.

In the book, you mention first time you visited Midtown was in the '80s.

Yeah, that was the first time I came here on my own. I would take the bus [and] go record shopping [or for] comic books. My aunt lived down here, and she was involved in the local music scene, … going to the Oasis Ballroom and Sam’s Hof Brau … and she’d show me around: “Here’s Cheap Thrills, here’s Java City, here’s Gelato Robi.” All these places that were completely outside of my experiences.

When you moved here in 1993, where did you live?

Residents of the Merrium Apartments protest its impending demolition in October 1988.

Photo courtesy of Suttertown News Collection

At P and Q, in a punk house. … Rent was $125 a month. … I was working 20 hours a week, I went to four or five punk shows a week, and spent 40 hours a week hanging out at No Jive Java, Java City, The Weatherstone, Capitol Garage.

What was the experience like?

It was kind of a nexus. … There was always something going on downstairs—bands practicing and forming in the basement and occasionally shows happening in the basement. Punk houses sort of became ersatz hostels for touring bands … so there was constantly this networking effect. … There was a connection between the informal network of houses and small venues and paper zines where you could transmit information back and forth. I wrote a zine called No Scene Anywhere. I actually stopped writing it when I moved [to Midtown] because I was too busy doing stuff, but [it had been] my entry point, an opportunity to meet people and bands.

How did you decide on the historians for your book?

There are plenty of people I wish I had interviewed, but there wasn’t time. Or in some cases, for the last book, I’d scheduled an interview with [Royal Chicano Air Force member, artist and poet] José Montoya the day before he went into the hospital and then passed away. I interviewed Esteban Villa in part because I hadn’t had an in-person interview with a member of the RCAF, and Esteban was such an enormous part of that. [Sacramento preservationist] Brooks Truitt was another person I’d planned on interviewing, and then he passed away this summer.

How did you envision its scope, its focus?

One of the things that really struck me was a book that I picked up earlier, Neo-Bohemia, about Wicker Park in Chicago. It showed there’s this demographic change that happened in the 20th century: The number of artists per capita tripled, that meant that, in the early part of the 20th century, you only got these bohemian districts in cities that were large enough to have a sizable concentration of artists. … But as time went on in the 20th century, there’s more and more artists per capita, which means there’s more and more potential for these artistic neighborhoods to emerge, and that’s really what we see in Midtown—the emergence of an artistic capital. In some ways that’s because … there’s more of an artistic middle class. And while they’re still criminally underrepresented, there are more opportunities for participation of nonwhites in the worlds of arts and creative endeavors. And for women. And that meant all of a sudden, there are more potential artists, and they share that common bond of art, so there becomes opportunity to see this scene emerge. For many reasons, [however], it isn’t really recognized by the region as a whole or outside Sac, [and] it’s often overlooked. People tell me Sacramento doesn’t have any culture.

The Toy Dolls performed at Club Minimal, a Midtown punk venue, in January 1984.

Photo by John Muheim

Who says that?

I heard that growing up. I hear that from people who aren’t from Sacramento, but I also hear that from Sacramentans. “Oh, it’s a cultural vacuum.” It’s partially because there aren’t the long-standing institutions of white, bourgeois culture. We don’t have the 100-year-old opera house. We have an extraordinarily rich cultural tradition, but it tends to be working-class culture, it tends to be nonwhite culture, and thus it tends to be overlooked.

It's like the culture created in living rooms and backrooms and basements—things that aren't permanent institutions, things that are migratory.

Yes, they’re migratory, they’re temporary, they happen largely to people who encounter them. It’s a lot easier to find out about stuff these days. It’s partly why I’m interested in this room [Adamo’s] in particular, because it used to be Webber’s Book Shop, and then it was Cafe Neo. When I first moved here, I lived a block away. This is where I started going to local poetry readings and met people like Bari Kennedy and Michael Grosse.

It's interesting to think of the lives of creative spaces in Sacramento.

Part of that temporary nature is inherent to the culture. Things change, uses change, old buildings like this are the most usable for cultural uses. It’s not necessarily historical buildings—not the vintage buildings that are lovingly restored and sell for a million bucks now, but just plain old, cheap old buildings. Some of the most exciting things in the city are happening in probably the least lovable places—those old ’70s boxes. Look at Verge [Center for the Arts], look at Witch Room. … That was really the joy of going [doing research] and finding verification of stuff I’d heard about secondhand, about really ersatz places like the Stucco Factory, places like 14th and R—it was a gallery space, and Jerry Perry used to do shows there in the late 1980s.

Did anything in your research surprise you?

Burg has written six books about Sacramento, including his latest which chronicles the evolution of Midtown.

photo by Lauran Fayne Worthy

One of the things I’d always heard was that the basis of the preservation movement was the demolition of the Alhambra Theatre, and to some extent, the efforts to save Old Sacramento. But that’s a little different from why the Sacramento Old City Association formed. Things like Alhambra Theatre and Old Sacramento tend to be more of the celebratory uses of history, the idea that historical buildings are here primarily to interpret the past and as kind of high-value artistic spaces or educational spaces—rather than functional spaces. But SOCA formed [because of] housing, it was about being able to buy a house in this neighborhood and fix it. … The goals were to find a way for banks to provide conventional home loans … inexpensive housing, affordable housing. It was all about how do you repopulate a downtown whose life has been halved? A lot of the people who started [SOCA] weren’t longtime Sacramentans … [but] they knew was that there was a downtown that was effectively vacant and they wanted to bring people back, and the easiest way to do that was to buy houses and fix them up. … It’s about the viability of a neighborhood as an economic space—not as a museum with a rope around it.

In your research, did you develop an affinity for any one part of Midtown—past or present?

One surprising thing that struck me as being really cool, were the coffee shops that are no longer around. And the best, the one that I never saw, was Eye Dream Cafe. It was on 21st and L [streets], where there’s now a parking lot. It was open from 1992 to 1994. Along with The Weatherstone, it was the first place that had outside seating. And while Weatherstone, I guess, catered to more of a hippie crowd, Eye Dream was a punk hangout. They would have bands and poetry readings and late nights. … But it was demolished to create that parking lot, because the insurance company across the street felt like it needed more parking. … And that’s the irony, that the parking lot is hopefully going to go away to create new housing and Whole Foods, which is a different evolution of Midtown. Being turned back to where we’re suddenly spending a lot of money and effort rebuilding buildings that are functionally what we were tearing down 20 years ago.

What are your thoughts on Whole Foods going into Midtown?

Banks won’t lend money for something that big unless it’s something they feel good about. If you want to open a coffeehouse or a small indie record store, you need an old building. New buildings require old uses—things you know are going to provide significant, dependable income. … [Banks] are looking for something corporate, a large company that’s not going to fold. … I don’t think every new business in Midtown has to cater to me. I probably won’t go there … but we’re probably at a point where people do want to shop there.

Is Midtown still a place for young creatives and artists?

“Creatives” is a broad category. There’s a difference between artists and people who are poets and actors and painters and what you call creatives who are very often using a similar skill set but for different aims.

So let's narrow the question: Is there room for people living in a punk house?

The punk house is still there. They just charge twice as much, so $250 a month instead of $125. There’s always room, because the part of the thing about a city, even within a neighborhood, there are areas of ascendance and decline. The expectation that it will all be uniform is a suburban expectation. Suburbs you can build 1,000 units, and they’re all the same age, and they all decay at the same rate. The joy of an urban neighborhood, there are buildings that are brand-new, there are buildings that are 120 years old, there is a variety of affordability, block by block.