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On the neighborhood’s latest revitalization effort

Millions of investment dollars, new housing, restaurants, even a brewery will arrive in the troubled neighborhood. Can Oak Park escape its “ghetto” stigma?

Originally published in Sacramento News & Review

By Lovelle Harris

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One evening, on a stroll with her faithful pooch, a prostitute came running at Melody Hernandez with the fury of a mama bear protecting its cub. Scared and confused, she braced for the worst. But the woman charging at her wasn’t looking to get into fisticuffs; she was just trying to scare off a john who had been following her.

This went down when Hernandez first moved to Oak Park. But the drug deals, hookers and even a close encounter with a would-be stalker didn’t deter her from making the ’hood her home.

“Weird how you just get used to it,” she said.

The plucky Latina, a former merchant mariner, also said the dealing and prostitution has “died down a lot” in recent years. “It’s a great community that is close to everything and has great gems—not just houses or shops, but the crazy interesting people that make it lively,” she said.

“Oak Park feels alive.”

Now, it’s also in a state of transformation.

A cadre of entrepreneurial minded locals is working to help Oak Park ascend from the ashes as the neglected and sketchy cousin of Curtis Park and Land Park into a hub of urban life and culture.

On Broadway near 35th Street, a multimillion-dollar housing and retail project, called The Broadway Triangle, and a new brewery and restaurant hope to ignite an economic spark in Oak Park.

Triangle developer Ron Vrilakas said he wants to inspire a vibrant, 24-hour urban neighborhood where people are drawn to live, dine, shop and work—like it once was, he said.

Vrilakas isn’t alone. A new brewery, Oak Park Brewing Company, is nearing completion. A restaurant, Arthur Henry’s Supper Club & Ruby Room, recently opened. And neighborhood anchors like Old Soul Co. and Naked Coffee Roasting have been going strong for years.

But there’s still that “ghetto” stigma. And Hernandez and other neighbors share concerns about this latest effort to revitalize the neighborhood. Will the new development bring more of what Oak Park needs, like access to grocery stores and community services? Or will it be another fits-and-starts stab at gentrification?

Hernandez is excited by the new Triangle, but she’s “worried they are going to make it too fancy-pants and fail,” she said.

“Failing sucks for everybody.”

Not a ghetto

Left to right: Dave Estis, Christopher Davis-Murai and Tom Karvonen relax at the soon-to-be-opened Oak Park Brewing Company. Breweries tend to draw big crowds and families on weekends, which could bring new life to north Oak Park. Photo: Lovelle Harris

Left to right: Dave Estis, Christopher Davis-Murai and Tom Karvonen relax at the soon-to-be-opened Oak Park Brewing Company. Breweries tend to draw big crowds and families on weekends, which could bring new life to north Oak Park.
Photo: Lovelle Harris

The facade of a once-stately Victorian crumbles in decay. Its dentils, columns and cornice sag in remembrance of their former ornate glory. Down the street, in an alleyway teeming with vestiges from living, dining and bedrooms past, a smattering of latex castoffs from sexual liaisons scatter about the pavement.

This was the state of Oak Park for decades—a once heralded enclave of affluence and social activism slowly declined into a forest of foreclosed homes, shuttered businesses and vacant lots after a mass exodus in the 1960s, when many of the well-heeled class sought residence in inexpensive suburban tract homes.

It was more than 150 years ago that Oak Park emerged as the first suburb of Sacramento. The neighborhood, which is broken into two sections, north and south Oak Park, today houses a combined 10,842 people. It was originally developed with an elaborate and distinct architectural style of Victorian, Craftsman and cozy bungalow homes. However, the so-called white flight devastated its economy.

In their place arose a population of displaced souls who were driven out of the downtown area by urban renewal, many of them black. Businesses soon followed the flight, or closed down all together. And when the jobs dried up, poverty and apathy ensued—along with prostitution, drug dealing and theft.

Over the decades, the neighborhood has seen its share of redevelopment starts and stalls: In the ’70s, the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency established the Oak Park Redevelopment Area and began scooping up property to rehab and restore. Much of Oak Park’s business district on 35th Street was torn down and replaced with affordable housing. Neighborhood public services, such as the library and fire station, were relocated.

Many cite Mayor Kevin Johnson’s St. HOPE Academy and the SHRA as catalysts for recent redevelopment efforts, but a lot of those projects stalled and left the neighborhood wanting more.

“I think Kevin Johnson had good intentions, but he spread himself too thin,” said resident Geoff Osterman, an engineer who moved from San Diego and decided to buy a home in Oak Park in 2006, after falling in love with its quaint charm. “He had too many business ventures, too many development projects going on, and he kind of lost his focus in Oak Park.”

But those living in Oak Park remained hopeful for change.

Dave Estis, a longtime resident of Oak Park who bought his home at the height of the market eight years ago, said much of the neighborhood’s lackluster reputation is a carryover from its infamous past.

“My attitude has always been, I’ve lived in a real ghetto before,” Estis said. “Oak Park’s not a ghetto.

“It’s not scary, I’m not afraid of it.”

Future of Oak Park

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Today, Oak Park is still trying to shake off the stigma of poverty and crime. But this time, it’s different: People who actually care about the neighborhood are hell-bent on restoring its sense of community—and convincing the rest of Sacramento that their home isn’t a crime-ridden ghetto and has a solid shot at economic success.

Tom Karvonen and Christopher Davis-Murai, and Estis are working feverishly to rehabilitate a 1925 building on Broadway—which fell into a state of ruin after having lived several lives, first as a grocery store, then a printing company and, most recently, a beauty complex—into a new brewery, the Oak Park Brewing Company.

“We’re going to make it better than it ever was before,” Davis-Murai said. “[Much like] the Six Million Dollar Man.”

Karvonen and Estis, home-brewers turned award-winning brewmasters, have teamed up with Davis-Murai, a respected chef in the local food scene, and are just three of the enterprising stakeholders betting big on the neighborhood’s restoration to its former glory. With their new brewery’s taphouse and gastropub, the trio hopes to create an environment that’s bicycle-, kid- and dog-friendly, and that will lure in beer and food lovers from both on and off the grid.

“There’s a renaissance going on around here, and we can really help rebuild this part of the community,” Karvonen said.

The brewery and restaurant won’t be open until late spring or early summer, but the team is excitedly planning out the interior space and menu, which they said will draw from the neighborhood’s history—even down to the names of the brewery’s sudsy offerings, like its 35th Street Porter, Rope Swing Cream Ale and Joyland Imperial Red—a nod to the former amusement park at McClatchy Park.

Christopher Pendarvis, of Naked Coffee and who recently opened Arthur Henry’s Supper Club & Ruby Room in Oak Park, thinks Karvonen is on to something. “That guy’s ballsy, I think he’s got a vision. He’s sharp, and I think it’s going to be great.”

The main event in Oak Park these days, however, is a construction zone, the product of Vrilakas’ seven-year journey to return the community to its former grandeur, a $12 million development—supported with a nice chunk of redevelopment funds—that aspires to re-establish the three vacant blocks on Broadway and 35th Street as the crown jewel of Oak Park.

“Luckily, [Vrilakas is] doing it, so it’s going to be amazing,” said Pendarvis. “I think he’s a fucking visionary, and I guess he invested a lot of time and energy.”

Pendarvis, who saw the neighborhood’s potential when he set up shop in Oak Park in 2005 and opened the Naked Coffee Roasting plant on Broadway, recently renovated the building that once housed the iconic watering hole Primo’s Swiss Club, also on Broadway. The restaurant and bar, Arthur Henry’s, is swathed in red velvet and is a tribute to the neighborhood’s past. A collection of black-and-white photos of current and former Oak Park residents adorns just about every wall in the joint. He has also converted the upper levels of the building into a four-unit apartment space that was fully rented in a matter of weeks.

“It kind of felt like a dare [to rehab the building], and I had to do it. It was pretty impromptu,” Pendarvis said. “I just had an idea for a long time and recklessly kind of did it.”

Although the things are looking up for the neighborhood, the question remains: Will this latest phase of redevelopment succeed?

Bolstered by the support of local leaders like Councilman Jay Schenirer of District 5 and Michael Boyd of the Oak Park Neighborhood Association, Karvonen and Davis-Murai are confident that the neighborhood is a trend worth betting on.

Pendarvis agrees. “I think more people are going to come into the neighborhood. I think diversity’s good, it’s healthy, and I think the Triangle is going to be amazing. It’s going to expose Oak Park to a lot of people.”

But, as many residents at a recent OPNA meeting alluded to, development money trickling into the community and new, shiny buildings aren’t going to be enough to revitalize this community. There’s upward pressure, economically, because new buildings cost money.

It’s the gentrification question, and there’s no easy answer.

Vrilakas believes that success will be achieved once people from the greater Sacramento area are enticed to forgo the amenities of Midtown to experience what Oak Park has to offer. But that five-block separation from the two areas has proven to be a formidable barrier.

“I’ve had conversations about this, and I think in some cases it’s a simple as, ’Do we do something or do we do nothing?’” Vrilakas said. “And we’re trying to do something that’s exceptional, but still ingrained in what makes Oak Park special.”

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