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Where did the downtown population go?

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Many who visit downtown Sacramento note that, on evening or weekends, it seems like a ghost town. There is little pedestrian traffic, and most businesses are closed. In some ways, downtown Sacramento became a ghost town when half the central city’s population was forced to leave, and their homes were destroyed. Perhaps the ghosts of 30,000 former residents wander the streets, wondering what happened to their downtown neighborhood?

The drop in Sacramento’s downtown population after 1950 is easy to see using census data. The US Census tracks population down to the “Census Tract” level, neighborhood-sized chunks of about 4,000 people. In 1950, the portion of Sacramento now known as “the grid,“ or “downtown” and “midtown,” the rectangular zone from the Sacramento River to Alhambra Boulevard between the B Street railroad levee and Broadway was often called the “Old City,” the original city limits.

Fourteen census tracts are within this boundary, numbered 4-14 and 19-21. In 2010, three census tracts (9, 10 and 11) combined into Tract 11.01. The information in this article was derived from United States Census reports, and a paper by Prof. Robin Datel and Dennis Dingemans, “Historic Preservation and Social Stability in Sacramento’s Old City,” published in Urban Geography, 1994.

8th and K Street, circa 1935

Downtown in 1950 – 58,000 people

In 1950, the Old City held more than 58,000 people, representing almost half of Sacramento’s population of 138,000, and about a quarter of Sacramento County’s population of 277,000. State government was not Sacramento’s largest employer then. Most worked in the massive Southern Pacific locomotive shops and railyards just north of downtown, the Western Pacific main shops in Curtis Park, or one of the enormous canneries, mills and other factories along the Sacramento waterfront, R Street and the city’s north edge.

About 5,000 migrant workers lived along the waterfront, where hiring halls connected laborers with farms throughout the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys; about 15% of California’s agricultural hiring was done there. Sacramento’s streetcar system ended a 75-year operating history, with the last streetcars taken out of service in 1947. Sleek new General Motors buses replaced the streetcars in the same year, but an upsurge in private automobile ownership was already clogging downtown streets.

The most heavily populated tract was Tract 7, the old “West End” that now includes Old Sacramento and Downtown Plaza, with 5,866 residents. Most were the aforementioned migrant workers and the population of Sacramento’s Chinatown, nearly 80 residents per acre. Southside Park (Tract 21) was a close second with 5,832 residents, followed by Mansion Flat and Boulevard Park (Tract 5) with 5,426 and Tract 12 (around Fremont Park, south of Capitol between 12th and 21st) with 5,376. Each of these four residential tracts averaged about 40 residents per acre. Tract 8 (Capitol to R Street, river to 7th), with 4,467 residents, was the home of Sacramento’s Japanese neighborhood, whose residents had recently returned after internment during World War II. This tract also included much of Sacramento’s African American community, tripled in size during World War II, filling jobs, homes and businesses vacated by the Japanese during the war.

The smallest tract was Tract 10, H and Capitol between 7th and 12th, the neighborhood Downtown Sacramento Partnership calls “The Kay,” with only 1,338 people in 25 blocks, or about 21 residents per acre. Tract 10 was the heart of the business district, filled with department stores, movie theaters and office buildings, so those 1,338 residents were crowded into dense apartment buildings and residential hotels.

Overall, there were 19,318 “housing units” in the old city, including single-family homes and apartments, but often not counting boarding houses or residential hotels. 27.8 percent of these housing units, about 5,000 homes, were owner-occupied. The remaining 72 percent were rentals. By comparison, 63 percent of Sacramento County’s households were owner-occupied in 1950.

Major changes were in store for downtown Sacramento. Massive federal highway projects were underway, and millions of returning World War II veterans were eligible for subsidized home loans. These loans were often not usable in downtown neighborhoods, considered “redlined” and thus unsuitable for FHA or VA loans. Redlining discouraged investment and depressed property values because they were considered a higher risk for home loan default. Redlining was the result of several factors, the most important being the race of a neighborhood’s residents. Between 1949 and 1954, a series of federal laws were created to address the problems of downtown districts, commonly called “redevelopment.” The mid-1950s included a unique method of paying for redevelopment, called “Tax Increment Financing,” a means of paying for construction via bonds to be repaid by the increased future property value of redeveloped land. Sacramento pioneered tax-increment financing on an urban scale as a way to pay for redevelopment projects.

K Street, 1950s

Downtown in 1970 – 27,000 People

Redevelopment was originally intended to replace substandard housing in America’s downtown slums, but the policies of redevelopment changed quickly. Few redevelopment projects were executed until 1954, when the requirement that housing within a redevelopment zone be replaced within the same zone was removed — a neighborhood’s families could be relocated elsewhere and the properties converted to commercial use. Instead of focusing strictly on the worst slums, the term “blight” was used to describe neighborhoods that were not slums, but those likely to become slums. Redevelopment zones often became the site of major public landmarks, high-profile business districts and retail areas, like the St. Louis Arch or San Francisco’s “Japan Center,” but these projects generally displaced most or all of the neighborhood’s original residents.

This was the case in Sacramento, where the densely populated West End and Japantown neighborhoods were emptied to make way for Capitol Mall, state office buildings and private commercial buildings, the K Street pedestrian mall, Downtown Plaza, and Old Sacramento. Construction of Interstate Highways 5 and 50 removed entire rows of city blocks, displacing more people and destroying homes. The Southern Pacific and Western Pacific Shops remained open, but required less manpower as the railroads converted from steam to diesel-electric locomotives, and railroad passenger travel slowed dramatically.

As the canneries and other industries along the waterfront docks relocated to the Port of Sacramento in West Sacramento or other sites outside the city, industrial jobs within the city disappeared, and the homes started to disappear too. Between the 1950 and 1970 census, Sacramento’s central city population dropped to 27,205, a loss of over 30,000 people. Hundreds of small apartment buildings replaced older houses, intended for entry-level employees of the expanding state government or Downtown Plaza.

Downtown was not considered a place where any sensible person would want to purchase a home or raise children, so virtually no new single-family homes were built during this era. The number of housing units dropped to 16,522, despite the new apartment buildings, due to the demolition of thousands of single-family homes and older apartments. Owner-occupied housing dropped to 13.3%. Some neighborhoods were replaced with parking lots, offices or garden apartments. One project, Capitol Towers, was constructed as an example of things to come — a “superblock” of low-rise apartments with a mid-rise tower at its center, leaving no trace of the city neighborhood it replaced, and a total capacity of about 25 percent of its previous population.

The most dramatically altered neighborhood was Census Tract 9, between Capitol and R Street from 7th to 12th, where the population of 2,388 dropped to only 120. Tract 10, “The Kay,” dropped to only 120, losing more than 90 percent of its population. The old West End still had 1,131 residents, in part because of Sacramento’s main jail, whose several hundred residents were counted in the census, but the neighborhood lost almost all of its residents not behind bars. Even the neighborhoods least affected by redevelopment like Newton Booth/Poverty Ridge (Trac t 19) dropped by one-third, from 4,353 in 1950 to 2,823 in 1970, due in part to Highway 50 demolishing blocks between W and X Street. Tract 14, now the heart of Midtown (between H and Capitol, 21st to Alhambra) lost half its population, dropping from 4,216 to 2,176.

By contrast, Sacramento’s city and county population exploded during this period. By 1970, Sacramento County’s population had more than doubled to 631,498 and the city grew to 257,105. Downtown went from nearly half the city’s population to less than 10 percent in less than 20 years. 

Downtown Sacramento aerial shot, 1968

Downtown in 1990 – 31,000 people

Between 1970 and 1990, the tide began to turn. Abundant postwar funding for federal projects like highways and redevelopment dwindled away in the wake of the Vietnam War and economic recession. Efforts to save the Alhambra Theatre from demolition, while unsuccessful, helped ignite interest in restoring and repairing Sacramento’s architecture, including its residential neighborhoods spared the bulldozer and wrecking ball. Young people, including college students, counterculture hippies and a newly empowered gay and lesbian community, moved to the central city seeking inexpensive rent and a more tolerant atmosphere than the suburbs.

A new generation of state workers who wanted to live closer to their workplace began buying up dilapidated homes, sometimes using credit cards as the homes were still redlined, and formed a club to exchange tools and techniques for restoration of older homes, the Sacramento Old City Association. The city’s first preservation regulations slowed the demolition of older homes and promoted incentives to fix them up. Redlining eventually became illegal, and people could once again purchase central city homes using conventional home loans. The newly formed Capitol Area Development Authority (CADA) slowed the demolition of downtown apartments south of the State Capitol and created a limited amount of new housing, and Sacramento’s first clusters of low-rise condominiums popped up on long-vacant parcels along P and Q Streets, in the shadow of downtown office buildings of the previous decades. In 1987, electric railroads returned to Sacramento streets via Sacramento Regional Transit’s first “Light Rail” line.

The gains of this era were modest. Tracts 4 and 5 (Marshall School/New Era, Boulevard Park/Mansion Flat) became the most populous districts with 3,939 and 3,754 people, still well below their 1950 levels, because fewer homes were demolished (except along 29th and 30th Street, where the Capital City Freeway stood.) The central city’s population grew 5 percent during the 1970s and 11 percent during the 1980s. Tract 9 was still the least populated with 275 residents, up from a 1980 low of 69 people. Alkali Flat lost several hundred due to expansion of Crystal Dairy’s industrial facilities and new Sacramento County administration and courts buildings. The rate of ownership housing dropped to 11.1 percent in 1990. Housing units increased to 18,512, an increase of about 2,000, primarily small apartment buildings, public/senior housing, and a few low-rise condominiums like the Stanford Park townhomes at 16th and P Street.
The city of Sacramento’s growth continued at a slower rate, reaching 369,365 by 1990, and Sacramento County’s population rose to over 1 million. Only 3 percent of Sacramento County’s residents called the Old City their home in 1990.

Downtown in 2010 – 30,000 people

Despite the growing interest in Sacramento’s central city and some new infill, the population of the Old City has lost about 2 percent of its population in each of the past two decades, with a population of 30,544 in 2010. Some of this loss may be attributed to gentrification and rising property value, and the loss of hundreds of inexpensive SRO rooms. Sacramento’s central city still has a large quantity of affordable rental housing compared to most other Sacramento neighborhoods, intermixed with more expensive apartments and even more expensive ownership housing. This has created neighborhoods of mixed incomes that preservation economist Donovan Rypkema calls “economic integration.”

Census Tract 7 saw a boost in population when the new Main Jail was completed, holding 2,400 inmates, but adding little residential vitality. In 2010, 2,806 people lived in Tract 7. In addition to the jail, there was new housing constructed in Old Sacramento (the iLofts and Orleans). Despite a few well-publicized efforts to build new residential condominiums (the Saca Towers at 3rd and Capitol) and the Daniel Libeksind designed “Aura” at 6th and Capitol) there was little residential growth in Census Tract 7.

In 2010, census tracts 9, 10 and 11 were combined into a single tract, 11.01, reflecting the permanent loss of residential population. In 1950, 6,530 people lived in these three tracts combined, but in 2010 only 2,047 called Tract 11.01 home. This tract saw an increase of only about 150 residents between 2000 and 2010. Marshall School/New Era Park still led the central city in residents with 3,667 people, but Mansion Flat/Boulevard Park was overtaken by Tract 12 around Fremont Park, from 12th to 21st between Capitol and R Street, with 3,323 residents. New CADA residential projects, and lofts like the 14th & R building, increased the population of this tract. Despite this limited growth, none of the central city census tracts comes close to the population it had in 1950.

The number of owner-occupied units dropped even more, with only 2,015 units (including condominiums) in 2010, of 20,129 residential units — an ownership housing rate of just over 10 percent. Compared to 1950, when ownership housing was 27.8 percent, there were about 5,300 owner-occupied homes — now there are only 2,015 owner-occupied homes. Despite the reputation of neighborhoods like Midtown and Southside Park as districts of single-family historic homes, they are a tiny minority of the housing stock, while 90 percent of the housing is rental.

While the loss of 30,000 downtown residents had a profound effect on downtown, the population of Sacramento always grew decade after decade, primarily due to annexation and new suburban construction. Cities like St. Louis and Detroit lost more than half a million people during the same era, greater than the entire population of Sacramento! Downtown Sacramento has an extremely high jobs/housing balance, with three times as many people working in the central city as it has residents, a figure which is responsible for crowded commutes during the weekdays but a relatively unpopulated downtown at night. Midtown and Downtown are regional destinations for nightlife entertainment.

But while Midtown’s clubs are as well-attended by neighborhood residents as visitors from other parts of the region, Downtown has almost no residential base to support local businesses, and the perception of the central city as a nightlife hub has caused friction between business owners and neighbors. There has also been an increase in crime, including several high-profile homicides.

Downtown in 2030 – ???

Urban planners, civic boosters, business leaders and real estate developers look back at historic photos of K Street at its peak and lament downtown Sacramento’s loss of urban vitality. Some blame the demise of the downtown business district on the 41-year period when K Street was a pedestrian mall, but that was a desperation measure, as downtown Sacramento’s businesses were already suffering by the 1960s. Some claimed that highways would be the savior of downtown, but they made the central city as easy to leave as it was to enter, and easier still to avoid entirely, while the highway’s path destroyed thousands of homes. Some blamed a lack of parking, but the parking demands of 90,000 commuters from other parts of the region already fills tens of thousands of parking spaces, while downtown residents need not own a car at all if they work in the same neighborhood.

The missing factor in the downtown equation is people. Once people were removed from downtown, either willingly or unwillingly, few had any reason to return, and the businesses they supported closed. Until there is sufficient housing for thousands more central city residents, downtown Sacramento has little hope of revival, and even the encouraging signs of recent successes are vulnerable to the next economic downturn or political shift. Residents bring economic stability and political representation to a neighborhood; if Sacramento’s central city still contained 58,000 people, it would have sufficient population to comprise its own City Council district.

Midtown also lost population, but enough remained for restoration by community activists, small businesses and neighborhood residents. Visitors are more comfortable in a neighborhood where people are visible on the street, and are encouraged to join in the neighborhood by friends and coworkers. Today, there are apartments for rent and homes for sale (if limited in number and often high in price) in Midtown, and despite its problems, it is considered a desirable and expensive neighborhood, held up for other cities to emulate. But downtown Sacramento has very little rental housing, and virtually no for-sale housing. Its empty streets are less comfortable for visitors, and there are few downtown residents to encourage their friends to come visit. The sites of boom-era residential condo towers Capitol Towers and Aura sit vacant, while the sites of entitled but still unfunded buildings like the Metropolitan at 10th & J and the Cathedral Lofts at 11th & J prevent use of existing building stock, leaving blocks to sit vacant and unused for untold years. These placeholders for nonexistent buildings present downtown visitors with the impression that these blocks have been simply left to rot.

Could Sacramento’s downtown be back up to 58,000, or even more, by 2030? It is possible, but details of how to do that will require another article. By regaining its lost population, downtown Sacramento could once again become a vibrant, lively central city. There is room downtown for a mixture of entertainment, employment, commercial activity, public transportation, and tens of thousands more downtown residents, who can then join commuters, visitors and friends from the greater Sacramento region in the intricate dance of modern city life. Such a city would be very familiar to the ghosts of those 30,000 missing Sacramentans – a downtown more like the one they called home.

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