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Editor’s note: The author of this piece, William Burg, will participate in a Sac Pres live chat on K Street this Wednesday at noon. Plan to watch? Please RSVP on our Goole+ page. You can also catch Burg live and in person at the California State Archives on Tuesday at 7 p.m. as he presents on his book, "Sacramento’s K Street: Where Our City Was Born". Event detials can be found here

This week’s Sacramento Press scoop about Downtown Sacramento Partnership’s new “The Kay” marketing strategy was met with reactions ranging from grudging acceptance to outright ridicule. The marketing campaign was paid for by DSP, downtown Sacramento’s business association, funded by downtown property owners. This campaign hopes to redefine the blocks of K Street between Seventh and Thirteenth, traditionally the heart of Sacramento’s downtown retail/entertainment district. Recent attempts at downtown rebranding include “The Handle” (Capitol Avenue from 17th to 20th) and the “Sutter District” (along 28th between J and O Street) or Del Paso Boulevard’s “Uptown” campaign. The campaign would include banners, signs and bike racks along K Street, but would not actually change the street name.

Rebranding of neighborhoods is nothing new. What we now know as Downtown Plaza and Old Sacramento were once known as the “West End,” Capitol Mall was once “Japantown,” Southside Park was once “The Arizona District” before its eponymous park was built, and before William Land Park was built, the area south of the Old City Cemetery along the Riverside Road (before it was Riverside Boulevard) was called “Homeland.” Streets like Broadway and Alhambra Boulevard were renamed after beautiful new theaters (the Tower and the Alhambra) demanded names less prosaic than Y Street and 31st Street. The same rule applied to neighborhoods like Boulevard Park, built atop the old state racetrack. Sometimes new rebranding efforts failed to catch on, like the early 20th century move to rename Poverty Ridge (the hill along 21st Street south of R) as “Sutter’s Terrace,” a name that failed to ignite Sacramentans’ imagination. Even “Midtown” is really just a rebranding campaign used to differentiate the business district of downtown Sacramento from its mixed-use ring of residential neighborhoods. That campaign was so successful that many now refer to Sacramento’s central city, including downtown, as part of Midtown. The name has such cachet that areas clearly outside the central city, like the Alexan Midtown apartments east of Broadway (called the Trammell Crow condominiums prior to their construction) to avoid associating its neighborhood, the Alhambra Triangle, too closely with Oak Park, while the neighborhood of North Oak Park between Sacramento High School and Stockton Boulevard has been pushed by realtors as the “Med Center” neighborhood, for basically the same reason. However, the “Midtown” name apparently came from both resident groups and local businesses using it before it became popular and eventually caught on. No paid consultant was involved.

K Street looms large in Sacramentans’ minds, becoming such a potent symbol of Sacramento’s destiny, successes and failures that I wrote a book about it. Rebranding such an iconic part of the city is a risky proposition. The last time it was tried was during the late 1960s. While K Street was the Sacramento region’s primary shopping destination from the Gold Rush through the 1950s, by the mid-1960s it was in rough shape, thanks to competition from suburban malls and the removal of thousands of downtown residents via redevelopment and demolition (which is how “Japantown” became Capitol Mall.) What we now know as Downtown Plaza (until recently, Westifeld Downtown Plaza) was the boundary of the West End, a district containing hundreds of bars, nightclubs, taxi-dance halls, burlesque strip clubs, pool halls, arcades, all-night moviehouses, pawn shops, liquor stores, thrift stores and agricultural hiring halls. The district’s residential hotels, boarding houses, shelters and alleys were populated by thousands of migrant workers, railroad boomers and retirees, along with winos, prostitutes, and gangsters. The waterfront, where hundreds of thousands of tourists visit the Delta King and Railroad Museum today, was still an active railroad freight yard and industrial switching area, owned by Southern Pacific, traditionally more concerned with moving freight than the concerns of civic reformers.

Redevelopment of K Street was intended to completely sweep away this neighborhood and recapture some of the sales tax revenue that had abandoned K Street and shifted to suburban malls. Anchored by a Macy’s at 4th Street (drawn with the promise of an interstate highway just a block away at 3rd Street), the Downtown Plaza shopping center took over the blocks between 4th and 7th Street, and the block between 3rd and 4th became a massive parking lot for the new Macy’s store. The blocks between 7th and 13th were transformed into pedestrian malls in 1969, capped by the new Convention Center and Community Center between 13th and 14th in 1973. The angular, Modernist forms of concrete sculpture filled the middle of the pedestrian mall, intended to function as a symbolic map of California, with placid waterways and jutting mountains. But most adults didn’t get it, and to the kids of Generation X the concrete sculptures were just things to play on—or, later, ideal terrain for urban skateboarding. Over the long term, the K Street Mall was not a financial success, in part due to its location too far away from Sacramento’s exploding suburban populations.

While subsequent generations may not have spent much money at Downtown Plaza and the K Street mall, they understood what a mall was, and their main complaint with K Street (in addition to its distant geographic location) were the inevitable differences between the suburban version of a mall and K Street’s version. Suburban malls had free parking, while downtown parking was limited by tens of thousands of commuting downtown workers who took over any free parking lots. Suburban malls were in private, controlled-access buildings and exclusively retail, visited primarily by middle-class suburbanites, while K Street was still a public street. Many of the West End’s occupants simply moved east into downtown hotels, so its population remained far less suburban, and it also became a favored hangout for hippies and idle teenagers. Suburban malls were also family-oriented places, very G-rated on their public face. While redevelopment had closed down K Street’s burlesque strip clubs, there were still adult bookstores and peep shows along K Street, and movie theaters advertising “Teenage Psycho vs. Bloody Mary” and “Deep Throat” did little to encourage families to linger. The “Old Sacramento” waterfront was dramatically changed, cut off from the city entirely by Interstate 5 and denuded of its population, a transformation so abrupt that most people assume the six blocks of Old Sacramento was the entire city during the Gold Rush, and that it was always known by that moniker. The “West End” was wiped away entirely by rebranding, demolition, and a liberal application of federal redevelopment funding. But, even after more than 40 years, downtown Sacramento and K Street are still associated with poverty, crime and difficult parking (sometimes by people who haven’t visited downtown since “Deep Throat” was still showing at the Esquire Theatre)—but also with nightlife, expensive restaurants and a growing interest in urban living. None of these things are found in suburban malls, but they are a common feature in urban downtowns, and it is becoming harder and harder to escape the fact that K Street is the heart of just such an urban downtown, and not a shopping mall.

So, are efforts like “The Kay” similarly doomed to failure, or are they an effort to move away from the failed methods of the past 40 years to attract a suburban audience to a failed simulation of a suburban shopping experience? From reactions seen in Sacramento Press and social media, the “the” goes over like a lead balloon, but people like the spelled-out “Kay.” As Sacramento News & Review editor Nick Miller mentions in today’s “Midtown & Down” column, a similarly-groomed $50,000 rebranding campaign for Midtown was launched in 2010, with a slogan taken from a Fleetwood Mac song and a squiggly-line logo that looked more like someone trying to find parking near Zocalo than a symbol evocative of Midtown living. While Midtown Business Association still uses the logo, it abandoned the full-force “branding” campaign with the arrival of its new director Elizabeth Studebaker, who has instead shifted funds into more pragmatic efforts like black-and-red MBA trashcans and power-washing along 21st Street. It seems that despite Sacramento’s common use as a product test market, we’re somewhat resistant to marketing shibboleths and slogans—to the point where, according to rumor, the 2010 MBA rebranding motto “Go Your Own Way” only won out narrowly over the more-prosaic “Keep Midtown Janky.” Sacramentans clearly love Midtown, so much that residents are willing to endure high rents and occasional neighborhood weirdness to live there, and visitors are willing to endure heavy traffic and are even willing to pay for parking just to hang out here. But, while we love it, we don’t want to be told what it is or why we love it—least of all by product-marketing types.

Similarly, people clearly want to love K Street, or we wouldn’t have spent 40 years and millions of dollars trying to spruce it up. Others clearly don’t love it, because they have no interest in the urban experience, but perhaps that’s not sufficient reason to ignore those who still hope for a resurgent downtown. However, as some Sacramento Press readers point out, rebranding is not a substitute for public safety, cleanliness or other improvements that improve the pedestrian experience, from lighting and street vending to late-night public transit and more retail stores—or, perhaps, convincing more downtown restaurants and eateries to stay open past office workers’ lunch hours. Rebranding efforts by Downtown Partnership are just part of their approach—their “Fight the Funk” team power-washes streets, their Navigators try to connect indigents with social services, the Guides direct people and keep an eye out for trouble in Downtown and Old Sacramento, and their marketing team coordinates events on K Street and tries to inform the public about them in a timely fashion. A catchy district name, at best, is a wrapper on a package that is less important than the contents of the package—but the wrapper is what we see first. And while a marketing campaign can give a district focus, an urban downtown is not a Disneyland-style theme park; no marketing campaign or redecorating efforts can fully control the granular, evolving and interactive nature of street life. No force can fully control it. At best a group like Downtown Partnership can merely set up the conditions to allow it to happen. Visitors in a city are not just passive receivers of entertainment, like folks at home watching TV or surfing the Web; they become part of the dance of street life. Boys sitting at a sidewalk café watch girls strolling down the street, while the girls strolling down the street watch the boys sitting at the café. Theorists like Jane Jacobs called this “the casual public sidewalk life of cities.” Mall cops call it “loitering.”

Not every piece of marketing advice is golden, no matter how much you spend on it. The marketing firm that spent thousands test-marketing Crystal Pepsi in Sacramento thought they had a winner, as did the makers of Zima, but both are long since consigned to the cultural wastebasket, along with the Midtown “Go Your Own Way” slogan and “Sutter’s Terrace” in what is either Midtown, Poverty Ridge, the Homes District, Alhambra or part of the Newton Booth Neighborhoods Association boundary, depending on who you ask and when. But regardless of how much money gets spent on a rebranding campaign, those responsible for it should not become so attached to it that they have to argue with their potential customers over its validity or its value, especially parts of it that don’t perform as advertised. The “The” met with immediate revulsion and ridicule—but a mere mention of the word “Kay” set off memories of Christmas on K Street, dinners at Tiny’s Waffles and Hart’s Cafeteria, dancing at the Trianon Ballroom and feature films in Technicolor at the Fox Senator and the Crest, and shopping at Weinstock & Lubin and Breuner’s. So perhaps “Kay” is big enough to bridge the gap between the suburban visitor and the urban offerings of K Street—assuming that the present inside that sentimentally-loaded package matches up to the expectations of those who dare to open it.

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” –Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities