Updated on Aug. 12, 2022 at 12:35 p.m.
No matter where you stand politically or on the socio-economic ladder, if you’ve lived in North Sacramento a long time, your feelings about city government are likely to be similar.
“We’re a negative zero,” said Ed Vinson, 76, a former little league coach and community activist in Del Paso Heights.
“They found a new dumping ground,” said Bob Slobe, 67, whose family once owned large swaths of the neighborhoods that make up District 2.
Or as 69-year-old lifelong Northgate and Gardenland resident Rebecca Sandoval bluntly stated: "We've got shitted on."
Residents of these communities, which used to comprise a formerly sovereign city, say ever since Sacramento annexed them in 1964, the northern neighborhoods have been neglected and allowed to spiral into squalor.
“This used to be a great place to be,” said Sandoval, a Twin Rivers Unified School District board member. She said her childhood years in the 1950s and 1960s were safe and full of community activities: two movie theaters, an ice rink, a bowling alley and a vibrant shopping area on Del Paso Boulevard.
But the theaters long ago closed, and pharmacists and grocers have moved to the suburbs. The boulevard still today has empty storefronts. District 2 residents say while the rest of the city has built-up around them, the only thing cropping up in their neighborhoods are green weeds in the area’s numerous vacant lots.
”It's really very sad,” Sandoval said.
Over the past eight months, CapRadio journalists have been listening to residents of Hagginwood, Del Paso Heights, Old North Sacramento and other nearby communities. They’ve shared their frustrations, and also ideas about community-led solutions.
They’re people like Shoun Thao, 31, who believes improving neighborhoods starts by changing perspectives. In 2018, he launched the HOPE Center for the Noralto area’s large Hmong population.
The feeling of neglect, however intertwined with history, can be overcome, said Thao, and a first step is helping residents understand how to have a voice and get involved.
“How do we empower the community to say, ‘Hey, I could be the change for the community?” Thao asked.
'They thought of us as an ugly stepchild'
North Sacramento was once its own city, with a population of roughly 16,000 people, its own city council, police department and fire stations.
After North Sacramento voters initially rejected annexation, the City of Sacramento folded its neighbors into its boundaries in 1964. The final referendum went for Sacramento by a slim margin.
“It was sort of a hostile takeover,” said Franklin Burris, executive director of the North Sacramento Chamber of Commerce.
Before gobbling up the northern residents, the city had annexed surrounding areas, including Natomas, and regions above Auburn Boulevard and the American River.
“The city actually annexed around to try to stop the expansion of North Sacramento,” Burris said.
Before the annexation, Del Paso Boulevard was a downtown of its own, where local business owners made a viable income and neighbors met all their shopping needs. Annual holiday parades and light displays brought crowds to the strip.
As a small city, everybody knew each other, said Bob Klagge, 88, who used to be the city planner for North Sacramento.
There was community accountability and active political engagement. Residents attended council and planning meetings.
“Most people in town knew all of the police officers,” Klagge said. “We had close supervision.“
Before the merger, the City of Sacramento had promised to improve water quality and police protection. Local business owners in North Sacramento hoped consolidation would bring more customers, Slobe said.
But after 1965, the merger didn’t bring businesses more customers, and the once tight-knit community lost the small-town governance that made them thrive.
“The annexation was a disaster for us,” Slobe said. “It just let the potholes grow and let the poverty rise and the crime rate rise. … It was a place for the city of Sacramento to put everything bad.”
In the decades following the annexation, incomes, home values and homeowner occupancy dropped dramatically, according to a geographic study of North Sacramento by American River College.
The unraveling was due in large part to the lack of attention from the new, bigger-city politicians, said Klagge, who worked for the City Manager’s office after the merger.
“Downtown, they thought of us as an ugly stepchild,” he said.
White flight and economic blows
Not everyone feels North Sacramento’s troubles were tied to the new, shared boundaries with a bigger city.
After all, the perimeter of what was once North Sacramento is narrower and smaller than what most people know as North Sacramento today.
If you ask Alan Rowe, whose family moved to what is now Del Paso Heights in 1937, the area started struggling when white people began leaving in droves in the 1960s.
Rowe, who later became a school board member and director of a college prep organization, remembers Del Paso Heights in the 1950s as “a wonderful community to grow up in.”
Like Sandoval, Rowe recalls amenities like ice cream parlors, barber shops, and three grocery stories within an eight block area where he grew up in what is now Del Paso Heights. Restaurants, Safeway, gas stations were all readily available.
But “when the whites left, so did those resources,” Rowe said.
Urban Sociologist Jesus Hernandez says white residents in North Sacramento were “pulled” to eastern Sacramento suburbs like Carmichael in the 1950s and 1960s by new housing developments, schools and transportation routes.
Black residents, once a minority, became a defining community in Del Paso Heights, one of the communities where people of color settled because racially restrictive covenants, or legally binding restrictions on property, prohibited them from living elsewhere.
“Many of them were pushed from downtown redevelopments and the only places that they could go were north and south,” said Hernandez, a research consultant with JCH Research and author of the 2021 report “Race and Place in Sacramento.” “It was the exclusion from white space that led people of color to relocate to Del Paso Heights.”
When white residents were lured to the outer suburbs, businesses also left, and the new ones that opened were less “meaningful” to the community, Rowe said.
More economic fallout came in the early 2000s, when McClellan Air Force base closed and thousands of local civilian jobs went with it.
“When you close all those jobs, these people are not supporting businesses anymore.” Hernandez said.”These people are in difficult situations.”
Over the years, elected leaders and community advocacy wasn’t strong enough to bring in more business or development to drive the local economy, according to Rowe.
“Without having the political or financial means to really advocate and really fight for those changes for your community, you continue to get further and further behind everybody else,” he said.
‘They’ll tell you one thing, and get downtown and slide back’
While many white residents were fleeing the newly annexed North Sacramento to more expansive suburbs to the east, many Black residents in the Del Paso Heights neighborhood got busy developing leaders from the ground up.
David Covin, a PhD and professor emeritus of political science and pan-African Studies at Sacramento State, said in the 1970s the local school district was a centerpoint for organizing among Black parents to get more racial representation.
“They did things like … picking out people in the community, who would be good candidates for school boards and running them,” said Covin, author of the book Black Politics After the Civil Rights Movement: Activity and Beliefs in Sacramento.
Del Paso Heights community members successfully helped usher in a new Black superintendent of schools into office, and fought for more Black teachers and staff.
“These were areas inhabited primarily by Black people, but who had been governed in various aspects of the community primarily by white people,” Covin said.
The Black-led community organizing created new leaders such as Grantland Johnson, who became a Sacramento City Council member, and eventually moved up to state and federal office.
Overall, Covin says there have been leaders in the area that have tried to meet needs of the community, but they’ve struggled to get things done. Others have used local office as a stepping stone to something higher.
In general, Covin likens North Sacramento leadership to a relay race where people are handing off batons to one another.
“There have been times when they've made progress,” Covin said. Other times, they “reach a dead end.“
Ed Vinson, who ran a little league in Del Paso Heights for four decades and has been a community activist for longer, says many local leaders have failed to truly champion the needs of the community.
“We have a lot of semi-leaders who can hear, but can’t listen,” Vinson said. “They’ll tell you one thing, and get downtown and slide back.”
And there are the local politicians whose very legitimacy is in question. The city of Sacramento recently commissioned an independent investigation into whether Sean Loloee, current District 2 Council member, in fact lives in the district.
Burris, of the North Sacramento Chamber of Commerce, said leaders over the decades haven’t brought a lot of positive change for the area.
“It’s a big deal to get a mayor to campaign in North Sacramento,” Burris said. Voter turnout is historically low, and as a result he says the City Council district is “politically not significant.”
‘We have been asking for a streetlight’
To Rebecca Sandoval, nothing demonstrates the city’s neglect of North Sacramento neighborhoods more than the lack of basic infrastructure and services for the area’s kids.
“We can't get them to do anything to make it safer for our children to travel to school, to walk to school,” she said.
Sandoval, a board member in the school district that serves North Sacramento neighborhoods, has been fighting for traffic stops in the area since her brother was killed by a drunk driver in 1965.
“We have been asking for a streetlight, right there where he was killed, because our buses transport our children from this area,” Sandoval said, referring to the intersection of Northgate Boulevard and Rio Terra Drive. “One of these days they're going to get slammed.”
The death of her brother, Duane, then 15 years old, sparked a wave of teenage activism for basic infrastructure in North Sacramento. Her friends went to City Council meetings, asking for stop signs, gutters and sidewalks. And in many cases, they got them.
But decades later, many neighborhood streets still need safe sidewalks, Sandoval says, and for the most part the city doesn’t build parks or develop vacant plots of land. Instead, schools open up their facilities for kids to play sports.
“We watched beautiful things happening in East Sacramento and all these improvements,” Sandoval said. “The only thing that [the city] offered to do is put a homeless shelter across from our school.”
Councilmember Loloee agrees that building sidewalks should be a priority. To Loloee, it’s not clear the city has done much to update infrastructure in the neighborhoods since the area was annexed in 1964 (Although the council voted, at the end of July, to spend $5 million to revitalize Northgate boulevard)
“There are areas where our sewer lines need to be updated,” said Loloee. “They're just not at the right size for the growth that this district is going through.”
It’s unclear how the region has benefited from millions of dollars in new tax revenue that Sacramento residents approved in 2012, through Measure U. The ballot measure, increased by voters in 2018, now raises upward of $100 million a year to bolster funding for more services, jobs and affordable housing.
But right now, the city doesn’t track Measure U spending by geographic location, and Loloee says his district hasn’t seen any of the funding since he’s been in office.
“I’m not too happy about it,” the Council member said.
City-funded programs for youth are also lacking, according to long-time community little league coach Ed Vinson.
In the 1980s and ’90s, Vinson led activities all year long at Del Paso Heights’ Robertson Center.. The community space was always staffed so kids had somewhere to go after school and on the weekends, according to Vinsonnd, with the help of city funding,local youth would get jobs at there during the summer.
The City says it now leases the Robertson Center to a nonprofit, Mutual Assistance Network, which doesn’t receive general operating funds. And the organization says when there was summer programming, before the pandemic, they always had to fundraise for it themselves.
That worries Vinson about the prospects for the low-income neighborhood’s youngest generation.
“The only thing they have to do is walk around, ride their bikes, skateboard, and get into habits, negative habits,” said Vinson. “They have nobody to lead them”
‘We had to do something for the community’
Business leaders, elected officials, community advocates — they all acknowledge that North Sacramento deserves more attention so that the area can thrive once again.
Weeds grow almost two feet high and trash may pile up from illegal dumping, but people don’t have to put up with it, says Shoun Thao, co-founder of the Hmong Organizing for Progress and Empowerment Center in Noralto.
Thao started HOPE in 2018, after he and his father bought a church that stayed empty in the Noralto neighborhood of North Sacramento for 10 years.
The windows were broken, the walls had holes, the roof needed to be redone and unhoused people were using the building as shelter.
“It was a major undertaking,” said Thao about renovating the space so that it can be used by local youth and elders for programs and services like healing circles and summertime night markets.
The new organization struggled to grow and stay afloat during the pandemic, but Thao, who once worked in city government, said he and his father were determined to make it work. The center now employs 15 people.
“There is a lack of investment in youth,” Thao said. “We had to do something for the community.”
He says he hopes the center can be pivotal in building consciousness among local residents so that they can be a voice in civil life, and know that city services do exist, and their neighborhoods can be improved.
“Change comes with time,” Thao said, but “you really have to fight for it.”
For North Sacramento as a whole, plans are underway to bring in more affordable housing, which business leaders like Daniel Savala of the Del Paso Boulevard Partnership say will help bring more customers to support local shops.
Savala says there hasn’t been a consistent plan to improve the area over the years, and that could contribute to local feelings of neglect.
Many of the area’s residents — identifying as Latino, Asian American or African American — are disconnected by language and culture, so local leaders need to work hard to communicate and hold town halls in culturally appropriate ways, he said.
“It's going to take a long, sustained program to continually engage this group of folks,” Savala said.
Longtime community activist Vinson agrees that local residents need to come together to create a new shared vision for the 68,000 residents that live in District 2.
“Get the real leaders together,” Vinson said. “Make sure the table is round, not square.”
CapRadio journalists have spent nearly a year listening to residents of North Sacramento, in neighborhoods like Del Paso Heights and Hagginwood. As part of our community-engaged journalism mission here at CapRadio, they told us what issues matter to them. This story was informed by those listening sessions.
Edit: Duane Sandoval was previously misidentified as Brian. This has been corrected.
CapRadio provides a trusted source of news because of you. As a nonprofit organization, donations from people like you sustain the journalism that allows us to discover stories that are important to our audience. If you believe in what we do and support our mission, please donate today.