Sacramento's old West End is the subject of a new featured historic photograph collection in the Sacramento Public Library's website. The West End extended from the waterfront to about 7th St. between I and L. This was Sacramento's original business district during the eventful days of the Gold Rush. Names hallowed in California history such as Mills, Brannan, and Sutter were associated with the area and its buildings. In fact, "The Big Four" -- Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker -- planned the Central Pacific Railroad in this very neighborhood. The West End was truly the heart of Sacramento, but by 1950 the area, exacerbated by waves of foreign and domestic immigrants drawn to the city by World War II employment, had become an overcrowded slum, sometimes described as the worst skid row west of Chicago. During the late 1950s and early 1960s most of the West End was razed and redeveloped, although a two-block-wide sliver adjoining the waterfront survives today as Old Sacramento.
A look at the photos presented in this online exhibit provides valuable insight into the problems facing downtown today. They were taken about 1960 when the bulldozing of the West End had barely gotten underway, and show a neighborhood whose architectural integrity was mostly intact. Several historic hotels, among them the Western, the Golden Eagle, and the Dawson House, still existed along with the 1852 D. O. Mills Bank, the "Big Four" building, and others. The structures were certainly rundown but could have been rehabilitated. Indeed, The Bee warned in 1958 that Sacramento had been given an unparalleled opportunity to create a historic district which would rival that of New Orleans.
But it was not to be. Redevelopment was all the rage nationwide, with its associated "out with the old and in with the new" philosophy characteristic of the postwar era. Sacramento's answer to its downtown's ills was to build a shopping mall replacing the old retail districts on J, K, and L streets, which would presumably bring back the old customers who had fled to the suburbs. The anchor tenant of this development, Macy's, insisted that it would not build in downtown Sacramento unless a freeway offramp was located conveniently nearby, meaning that Interstate Highway 5 was built east of the river rather than west. Fortunately, the freeway took a swing east to preserve Old Sacramento rather than barrel straight along the river and cut the city off from its waterfront.
So what do we have today? A rebuilt but half-empty shopping mall located in the middle of a moribund downtown that no one seems to really know what to do with. Sacramento could have possessed a world-class tourist attraction, but chose instead to follow the call of "progress." Old Sacramento does an admirable job of contextualizing its old buildings and sites, but the entire old downtown could have more effectively presented the history and culture of Sacramento and California (as well as that of the varied ethnic communities that resided within the West End).
Take a look at these photos and their accompanying captions at http://cdm15248.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/featured (the upper photo presented here shows the old D. O. Mills Bank building at 226 J Street with a redevelopment project sign attached, while the lower image shows the old Merchant's Exchange Hotel at 114-120 I Street). Then visit Old Sacramento to enjoy what we have left, and imagine what might have been.