“Every weekend night became a spontaneous parade called the K Street cruise”

Throughout its tenure in the heart of the River City, K Street has boasted everything from the Grand Electric Carnival and Days of ’49 celebration to Christmas spectacles and the K Street cruise. As William Burg notes in his introduction, “This book stretches, like K Street, from the birth of Sacramento at the river’s edge to the demise of the theater that gave Alhambra Boulevard its name.” In this interview with History Press West, Burg shares his enthusiasm for Sacramento history and his new book Sacramento’s K Street: Where Our City Was Born.

AK: Many people associate Sacramento history with the Gold Rush and early development. How does this book build on or diverge from that precept?

WB: The general assumption many make is that nothing worth documenting happened in Sacramento occurred after the completion of the Central Pacific Railroad in 1869. This period is important to the history of K Street, but it is at best a prologue, an introduction to Sacramento’s urban history.

AK: What surprised you in the course of researching this book?

WB: The sheer number of music venues, dance clubs and other nightlife along K Street, and the enormous diversity of the performers, musicians and participants.

For many Sacramentans, their opinion of K Street reflects their opinion of Sacramento as a whole, whether in aspiration, nostalgia, appreciation or disgust.

Sacramento’s K Street: Where Our City Was Born William Burg

AK: Do you have a favorite anecdote about K Street, either a memory of your own or one gathered from the interviews you conducted?

WB: The stories of the K Street cruise were probably the most interesting, as they were a memory that nearly every Sacramentan of the Baby Boom generation remembered fondly, but few historians have documented.

AK: How has the city’s relationship with K Street changed over time? What does K Street’s future hold?

WB: The street began as the center of town and the focus of the region. During the great era of American city building, K Street was the focus of civic pride and modernity. In the 20th century, the eyes of business turned outward, away from downtowns like K Street, and the area was ignored until they decided to rebuild K Street in the suburbs’ image, with limited success. Today, interest in American cities is growing, and Sacramento is no exception. The difference today lies in a reconnection to traditional American cities, as places to live and work as well as shop. K Street failed as a shopping mall because there are already shopping malls in the suburbs. The successes of modern K Street are based on its delivery of things suburban malls cannot: a genuinely urban experience, including nightlife, entertainment, walkability, and downtown living.

Each Breuner’s display began as a reference drawing by Marjory Gaffney, while her husband Kenneth provided the mechanical wizardry and electrical know-how. Their son Mark helped even as a child, climbing into tight spaces and serving as a model for casts of child-sized hands used on the animated figures.

Sacramento’s K Street: Where Our City Was Born William Burg

AK: Can you talk about the window display project that you worked on?

WB: A Sacramento County Historical Society presentation featuring Mark Gaffney, whose parents created animated holiday displays for the Breuner’s department store chain, led to a fundraising campaign to create a new display that captured the spirit of K Street. The owner of a former department store with a large, vacant corner window provided the space. The display was built by local artists and filmmakers, who collaborated to build a 400 square foot display representing Sacramento in 1910, including a department store window filled with gifts, a movie theater, and a streetcar. Historic animated figures, the same ones used by Breuner’s, were restored to represent shoppers and revelers on K Street, including a streetcar motorman and even Santa Claus. Interpretive displays explained the role of K Street and the original holiday windows, with historic photos provided by the Center for Sacramento History. The display was unveiled on November 26, 2010, and operated until January 8, 2011, the traditional dates of operation for the Breuner’s displays from the day after Thanksgiving until the first weekend of the New Year.

AK: Are there eras of the city’s history that you think have been significantly overlooked, or any figures that ought to be added to a who’s who of Sacramento history?

WB: Most of Sacramento’s history has been significantly overlooked, from the 1870s onward, especially the important roles of its immigrant and working class populations, and the city’s industrial heritage. The “who’s who” of Sacramento is missing many names; this book details just a few of them.

AK: What is your next project?

WB: I gathered so much information for this book that I had to edit out anything after 1974 and almost anything that took place more than two blocks from K Street, enough to fill another book, so that is my plan. My next book will take up where this left off, detailing stories like the creation of Old Sacramento, the growth of Sacramento’s gay community, the stories of what happened to the communities near K Street that were displaced by redevelopment, life in downtown SRO hotels, and the return of electric trains to K Street.

William Burg is the author of three books and dozens of articles on Sacramento history. He has served as President of Sacramento County Historical Society and the Sacramento Old City Association, and is a volunteer docent at the California State Railroad Museum. He received a Master of Arts degree in Public History from Sacramento State University, and works as a historian for the State of California. He grew up in Sacramento’s suburbs and has lived in Sacramento, within walking distance of K Street, since 1993.

Sacramento’s K Street: Where Our City Was Born by William Burg is available from The History Press and Sacramento bookshops.

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