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October 31, 2005

Project has students probing memories of Oak Park residents

Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood has faced dynamic, conflicting forces throughout its history: prosperity, crime waves, economic decline, the Civil Rights movement, and recently, extensive community collaboration for change and a local cultural revival. Urban geography professor Robin Datel and her students are looking into Oak Park’s past, doing field work to promote the good—and sometimes overlooked—aspects of the area, and to help find solutions to lingering issues.

“The purpose of the project is to record place-based memories of Oak Parkers, or memories attached to the area,” Datel says. “We use those memories to celebrate the past, understand the dynamics of neighborhood change, and build a better Oak Park with today’s residents.”

This ongoing service-learning project for a geography field class has students digging through old city directories and property records at the local archives to study business trends, residential patterns and the ethnic makeup of the region from the 1920s onward.

In the spring, for example, one student made regional maps that highlight land-use issues such as liquor sales and non-taxable property, which the Oak Park Neighborhood Association used in their presentations to the Sacramento City Council. Others conducted in-depth interviews with local residents to record their personal memories of experiences in Oak Park.

Students interviewed former and current businesspeople, residents and volunteers from the neighborhood association—such as Underground Bookstore manager Georgia “Mother Rose” West, mother of former NBA star and Oak Park redevelopment advocate Kevin Johnson; William Lee, founder of The Sacramento Observer, the first African American newspaper in Sacramento; and local residents—during walking tours, in cafes, or in their homes.

“One of our goals is for students to record the history of those who are still alive, what they can remember,” says Datel, who hopes to compile these bits of history for a walking tour pamphlet for neighborhood visitors and residents. “They connect the present to the past and connect the older Oak Park residents with those who have no experience of local history.”

A white, working-class suburb until the 1950s, Oak Park received an influx of African Americans and other minorities after the city of Sacramento tore down many low-income housing units near the Sacramento River, Datel says.

“Racial change coincided with a change in the local economy—people moving in had a lower income than people moving out,” Datel says. “Many businesses left, taking jobs with them. All this led to more poverty and the problems that come with it: crime, drugs, prostitution and absentee landlords.”

Students said they learned more about the historical significance of the area, studying sites such as the first gay church in Sacramento, the meeting point of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, and the local office of the Black Panther Party.

“I wanted to learn how Sacramento has changed and about Oak Park, a place I’d never seen,” says geography major Micah Nisito, who signed up for the class to get hands-on experience studying urban landscapes.

“I saw the different options for helping out the community, and got to learn about the people, not just their environment,” says geography major Lisa Peterson, who wants to work for Sacramento’s city planning division after college.

Jaclyn Schultz



 



 

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