More bougie nights in Tacky Sac: gentrifying the West End

There used to be a neighborhood by that name in Sacramento, located to the–four guesses as to which cardinal direction it was from the Capitol or whatever else might have been square in the middle of town, maybe including Midtown (hint: rhymes with “breast”)–but it was a rough neighborhood, the city fathers got a bit antsy about all the drinking and smack-snorting and brawling and maybe the whoring, they collaborated with the feds to bring in the urban renewal bulldozers during the great postwar downtown demolition derby, and ever since then it’s been gone, Mrs. O’Hara, gone with the wind.

Did I mention that the West End was a spontaneously integrated neighborhood? No federal official had come in and ordered the Whitey local to start admitting tenants from the Community, for God’s sake just let them into your schools, you filthy backwards ignorant bigoted micks. Quite the opposite: Sacramentans of all races, ethnicities, and national origins had decided very much on their own that, why, hello neighbor, why can’t we be friends on this beautiful day for a neighbor here in the ghetto, in the ghetto, on this cold Chicago morning when we realize that gee, Dorothy, I don’t think we’re in Chicago anymore, and maybe I’ll be there to shake your hand, maybe I’ll be there to, uhh, I guess that patch of woods down by the river counts as land, brother. That sentence was a bit of a mess, but do keep in mind that more than a few of the locals were deeper into the crazy dust than Jefferson Airplane, so it was consistent with their community standards. Also realize that wherever they went upon their eviction, they didn’t go on to clean up in time for the eighties and become Jefferson Starship. These weren’t protoyuppies; they were the down and out.

That’s what got them run out of their perfectly good slum, to borrow P. J. O’Rourke’s turn of phrase, in order to construct a bunch of architecturally dead postmodernist office buildings and empty lawns where bougie office workers still aren’t particularly comfortable at night half a century later. They were poors. To be fair, their ‘hood was nowhere near perfectly good, unless Pot-o-Shit Friend is our arbiter of goodness. By some accounts it was the worst skid row west of Chicago, and skid rows are not cuddly places. Still, razing it didn’t magically bring wholesomeness down upon Tacky Sac like the dewfall. Circa 1978, one of my uncles, then in high school, used to come downtown from Del Paso Heights with his buddies to gawk at the streetwalkers, the transvestites (also streetwalkers?), the junkies, the alkies, the nutters, and the grab-bag riffraff, suggesting that the big urban renewal push mainly served to sweep the losers over towards Mansion Flat. (They went to Catholic school, so they especially enjoyed the transvestites.) Much of downtown Sacramento remains rather like this in 2015, pursuant to #TheKay. Yes, do tell Mr. Wonka all about how all of this will be fixed by building a new basketball stadium on the site of that dumbass shopping mall.

That’s why the federal authorities, so eager to achieve racial integration by force of law in other cities, were so willing to destroy this voluntarily integrated neighborhood and scatter its residents. These friends of all races had not integrated in a spirit of Leave It to Beaver bourgeois primness, so much as one of leave it to me to stick it up your beaver now that I’ve paid your fee, but not before I smoke me this bitchin’ wad of reefer. Yes, Virginia, the neighborhood was crawling with whores, even if it also had various businesses other than brothels and pool halls.  It must have been. Sacramento is a fairly whorish city today, so it’s hard to believe that its premier old-timey slum was free of working girls (or that its YMCA was free of the sort of men who sing about the YMCA). Some of the West Enders had reasons for being there that the pearl-clutchers in Land Park and East Sac considered disreputable.

The other explanation, as accused in the first link in the preceding paragraph, is frank public corruption: as in, nice flophouse neighborhood you got here, shame something’s gonna happen to it, and no, that ain’t no threat, it’s a promise. The poors controlled it, but the developers wanted it, so they ginned up a moral panic in the Bee to get bougie voters in the respectable (white) parts of town to support its demolition. Either way, the motives sound ugly. If the neighborhood wasn’t razed as a pretext to misappropriate public funds on behalf of developers (robber barons), it was razed to aggrandize bitches from the ladies’ auxiliaries, undersexed clergymen, Knights of Columbus dorks, and the like (moral busybodies). C. S. Lewis may approve, or he may disapprove, but it really doesn’t matter. The I Heart White Boys streetwalkers believed in racial integration enough to practice it, but theirs was the wrong kind of integration. So was the integration of white, black, red, brown, and yellow under the auspices of a shared culture of heavy drinking and drug use. (Sometimes these arrangements only look like multiculturalism.) The midcentury’s suburban housewives very much enjoyed their prescription amphetamines and their martinis (the chardonnay supply wasn’t much to write home to the twenty-first century about), but they had the social proof, and the real estate, to discreetly get trashed to hell in the privacy of their own homes, if the spirit so moved them. Or to turn tricks with the Fuller Brush man, etc. True story: the number of American hookers per capita bottomed out as the country shambled into the Age of Aquarius.

*****

This episode in Sacramento’s history is disturbingly similar to one of the great cinematic depictions of untreated manic depression. I’m referring, of course, to It’s a Wonderful Life. The metawonderful can get over-the-top, especially at this compulsorily festive time of year, but I’m going to contribute to it anyway, at least briefly.

The racial angle of that needlessly sappy classic is pretty fucking creepy. I don’t care that it was produced in an earlier, less enlightened time; not everyone back then was a slimy racist, even if being a slimy racist was generally the done thing. One of my grandfather’s dental patients returned from the Second World War with a heartwarming story of an integrated field hospital: “And there they all were, lying side by side, whites, niggers, and Eyetalians.” To this day there are veins of weird Anglo bigotry against Italians around Philadelphia, and probably in other Northeastern cities, although not, to my knowledge, on the West Coast. This bigotry is jarring precisely because Italians were aggressively inducted into Whitey nationwide sometime not long after the War.

Italians weren’t so widely accepted stateside when Frank Capra made It’s a Wonderful Life, so he beclowned himself by using the film as a platform to nominate his people for induction into Whitey as second-class citizens, in the crude form of his token barkeeper Mr. Martini. In his alternate history of Pottersville as narrated by that sorry-ass fuddy-duddy Clarence, Mr. Martini has been ruinously washed up in a tide of immorality, while in real life, with Clarence safely away from the bars, Mr. Martini is a revered pillar of the Bedford Falls community. Hear that, kids? The Italian must seek out the civic leadership of some high whitey of good character who will take him under his wings as a colorful but loyal ethnic subaltern.

It’s the opposite for the Community. Capra famously cast Lillian Randolph as the Bailey family’s maid, a trailblazing role for a black actress in an era when black actors were consistently cast as buffoons. This role did not, however, present black and white as civic or socioeconomic equals, for the obvious reason that she was a household maid in a country where it had been fashionable for centuries to divide the black part of the citizenry into house niggers, field niggers, and convicts. In the Clarence-infested alternate history, by contrast, the customers of that brawl-prone dive bar are entertained by a black pianist. Under most people’s prejudices, this is a good deal closer to civic equality than domestic service. There’s certainly likely to be much more flexibility in this arrangement, and a much less stifling glass ceiling. Look at it this way: Louis Armstrong isn’t dismissed as just another Negro.

It’s safe to say that Frank Capra was one guido who knew how to look out for number one, even if that meant throwing some other sub-Italian racial underclass under the bus. What he did in It’s a Wonderful Life eerily mirrors what was done historically to integrate Italians into mainstream white American society precisely by acculturating them with as much racial bigotry towards their black compatriots as they could stomach. A similar campaign was run on the Irish a few generations earlier, and long before that on the more strictly Anglo colonial white working class following the suppression of Bacon’s Rebellion.

I’m not arguing that there’s anything particularly wrong with a black actress playing a sort of bum role for a craven Italian goody-two-shoes producer and director. It was a job, and far from the worst job available in screen acting, especially for actors from widely disliked minority groups. I’m not even particularly against black actors choosing to play jackass characters in minstrel shows, let alone merely trashy characters in eighties blaxploitation sitcoms. Nor can I object to white actors playing the token honky roles in these same awful sitcoms, and doing so with disturbing gusto. I may not respect the actor’s decision, but I respect the actor’s right to make the decision, if you can withstand a stack overflow of meta.

Like Taylor Swift’s boyfriends, if I understand her correctly, I love the players but hate the game. Frank Capra played dirty, but there were obvious mitigating factors. This doesn’t mean that I have to admire his cinematography, much of which is garbage. That tendentious buffalo girls song alone is proof that the arc of musical history does not bend towards suck, or at least not the entire arc. Listening to my spazztastic, probably high-functioning autistic high school classmate play the Dawson’s Creek theme song again and again from Philadelphia to London to Paris, by ground to Nice, then back to London and Philadelphia was an improvement over that, and certainly an improvement over George Bailey’s little brat hammering on the family piano. I dont wanna wait, for this film about life to be over, if I can listen to half-coherent, half-grammatical pop music for its superior aesthetics instead. By the way, #TeshTips: Schitt’s Creek is #CanadianContent, but Dawson’s Creek is not. Don’t ask me to explain, because I can’t. Remember: I report, you decide, unless I decide to stop right here because I’m in grave danger of spending another half hour shoehorning Rush references into this screed, and I want that even less than you do.

We must watch that turd sandwich of a movie every Advent because it’s a sacred tradition, along with all the pagan shit involving spruce trees and whatever. Maybe it’s a turd sandwich made on a fresh-baked sourdough bun and garnished with Colby longhorn, onion straws, some grilled onions for good measure, and a slice of heirloom tomato, or maybe hella avocado and canned whole jalapeños instead, and definitely an obscene schmear of mayonnaise and some other fine-ass condiments, but no one told chef Capra to hold the shit, so the whole thing is a bit hard to swallow.

Five minutes around George Bailey’s clamorous house full of twee brats is evidence enough that the poor fellow isn’t spending enough time in whorehouses. Wifey could be an amazing sexpot once the teeming fruit of her womb has been put to bed for the evening, but this in no way means that a man oughtn’t take some of his social calls with adults. If I may indulge in a brief but white-hot take, just look at his house full of little Boomers. Okay, to be demographically scrupulous, they’re Silents, a virtue that they have the cruel irony not to cherish in their hearts.

Maybe a man living in these circumstances ought to take recourse to his whores in Arden-Arcade, not downtown. The possible urban planning reasons for this are too complicated for discussion right now, since I’m listening in on midnight Christmas mass at the Vatican while I write this. It’s true: you can go to church on the internet, but I’m a bit computer-stupid to do that when NBC is airing a delayed broadcast from Rome right now. Francis said something or other a few minutes ago about narcissism, which probably applies to a number of us, including yours truly through my most grievous, etc., since I was chronicling the Boomer Genesis above while he delivered his homily. Anyway, Arden-Arcade is an option, and even Rancho Cordova, where I live for the purpose of remaining a Californian, has at least one surprisingly classy massage whore who is a steady fixture on Backpage, so Sally don’t you go, don’t you go downtown. There’s hardly any point to going west of the Capitol, given that all the viable hooker nooks have been razed to make way for law offices. Rancho is on the imperial periphery under this model, but you probably knew that already if you’ve been paying attention.

These are First World Problems, except for the unlucky dispossessed, for whom they’re Third World Problems. Complaining about the expulsion of the honorable sex trades from the West End to neighborhoods as nearby as Midtown is like complaining that the Safeway stores on 18th and on Alhambra aren’t as close to the Capitol grounds as all the stupid SWPL wanker restaurants or the Midtown Grocery Outlet, and that walking all those blocks after paying a visit to my public-sector plant collection is le hard, especially if I insist on visiting the olives and the citrus. Complaining about being evicted from one’s neighborhood and scattered all over the city away from one’s neighborhood friends is a different, less frivolous matter.

All that’s left of the West End is Old Sacramento, which routinely gets overrun by shady flatbillers. There aren’t enough prossies in this rump neighborhood, either, because it’s been comandeered for tourist traps. Hookers are just one way to establish a critical mass of upstanding citizens at all hours of the day and night, or at least during some of these hours, and they’re a more sensible, viable proposal than any you’re likely to hear from the current mayor’s office. Sacramento’s proliferating brothels don’t attract wifebeating Elk Grove gangbangers of the sort inclined to Rodney King a Legion of Honor recipient as punishment for his effort to stop a domestic battery in progress. It’s the nightclubs and, in other cases, the banlieue dive bars that are responsible for nurturing that level of unrest.

Frank Capra and his local civic contemporaries in midcentury Sacramento didn’t mind trafficking in category errors having to do with sexually and alcoholically loose morals. Kevin Johnson and the first lady he has inflicted on his city, Michelle Rhee, enjoy their own category errors having to do with white elephant construction projects and other neoliberal rackets to loot the city treasury. Business isn’t as good for politicians who live in truth, or for movie producers, apparently. Blaming all the trouble on hookers and druggies is facile nonsense for resentniks. That is to say, it’s all-American.

As we’ve discussed before, some niggas don’t even have anything to do with their kids. At the other extreme, some niggas have too much to do with their kids and deserve a break, including one about whom NBC aired an entire fucking movie earlier tonight. The germane question, however, isn’t whether George Bailey is in fact a nigga, but whether Americans should or do consider it acceptable for their black compatriots to have front-of-the-house positions other than as Downton Abbey-style basement Cockneys. We’ve already discussed Mr. Capra’s revealed preference on this matter. As civically fucked up as Sacramento can be, at least he’d be dead in the water with a platform like that. You see, that’s a city where the done thing is to discriminate against the maid because she’s a maid, not because she’s nonwhite. In the dumpster fire of US politics, this is actually progress.

Whatever the preceding was, may it be with your spirit, too.

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