I find myself stuck between two seemingly competing sets of interests. On one hand, there are a lot of people in Sacramento these days who are excited about the prospects of making downtown a more livley, active place and overcoming a half-century of urban decay. On the other hand, I am intensely drawn towards preserving the existing culture, institutions and physical structures of downtown Sacramento, as they play an important role in making the city what it is, and, I think, a valid role in what the city can become. A lot of pro-development types seem to have a "knock it down, build it up" mentality that seems unaware (or unwilling to recognize) the value of the city's history, or minimizes it as an unimportant casualty on the way to the future.
History is a resource--an exploitable and non-renewable one. Go to any "great city" and you will find history at the forefront. Even in cities like Los Angeles, known for their rapid expansion and relative lack of historic preservation, elements of history like Art Deco architecture and their role in the history of American filmmaking are preserved proudly. In San Francisco, history is represented in static structures throughout the town, on islands around the bay and historic ships floating in it along Fisherman's Wharf, and even trundling around its streets in the form of cable cars and streetcars. In these cities, the past is not considered an inconvenient obstacle or something to knock down to make way for shiny stuff: it is a draw for tourism, a call for civic pride, and positive physical proof of a city's genealogy, heritage and seniority.
So why does Sacramento fear its old buildings? Why are urban phenomena like demolition by neglect so prominent here? I have theories--in part, based on a citywide shame over the destruction of many of Sacramento's older neighborhoods, to make way for freeways and civic structures. These neighborhoods often featured properties that urban planners hail as the hallmark of future development: mixed use, density, effective transit services, ethnic, cultural and economic diversity, and a distinct sense of place. Sacramento chose, consciously, to try to erase its urbanity during the era when urbanity fell from favor, and now we seem to be choosing to wipe out the remaining traces of our own urban history at a time when we can make the most use of this history to return downtown to its rightful (and previously held) place as the epicenter for culture, entertainment and retail activity for the region.
Extracting the resources of history is easier in places where the history has not been scraped off the face of the earth. In such places, more difficult methods must be used for extraction: this requires the specialized skill of a historian, who can coax the traces of history from scattered notes and interviews and physical landmarks into a coherent whole, a story that gives new and old Sacramentans an idea of where they live and what this place is. It is my hope that this process of resource extraction, and its presentation to the general public, will help introduce Sacramentans new and old to the city in which they live: a city that has, in many ways, sat unnoticed beneath our feet like the buried catacombs under downtown Sacramento's sidewalks.