Oak Park and South Sacramento are rapidly changing. Oak Park has new homes, thriving businesses and new developments, springing up virtually every month.
But OP still has a reputation, possibly unfair, for drugs, crime, gangs and alcohol.
Some residents cite and lament easy access to alcohol, via liquor stores, as the genesis of the past and current state. Coupled with drugs and gangs, you have a recipe for disaster.
In total, there are at least eight liquor stores, with graffiti, loitering and blight adjacent to those stores, alongside people struggling to make a living, from Broadway and Alhambra and the square mile leading to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and 12th Avenue.
Juxtapose this picture with the 34th and Broadway “uprising:” clean streets, people smiling and an absence of graffiti, among other things.
Are these liquor stores to blame for Oak Park’s reputation? A sampling of other Sacramento communities, such as Midtown and Natomas, reveals a similar number of liquor stores, without the reputation for negativity.
It must be noted that liquor stores are not necessarily the issue. Should liquor businesses be punished for having liquor? After all, liquor stores wouldn’t exist but for demand for the product.
America was founded on capitalistic principles, which means the free market dictates the extent to which consumers value goods and services. Simply, the government can’t force legal, tax-paying and licensed business to stop selling liquor. Nor can government stop adults from consuming it. Prohibition is arbitrary and impossible.
The central question becomes: who is responsible for the liquor stores and whether people should exercise restraint and accountability regarding liquor purchase and consumption?
It’s a question of accountability. Lack of accountability runs contrary to the principles set out during America’s founding and its current ideology.
Terrence Johnson, Executive Director of the Oak Park Business Association, doesn’t believe liquor stores are necessarily the problem.
“The main issue is attracting more businesses to OP and also focusing on eliminating the blight problem,” Johnson says. “Blight is defined as, ‘Environmental decay characterized by abandoned buildings, high crime, broken windows, empty lots and chain fences, among other things.’”
Johnson, a 25-year resident of Oak Park, has observed a decline in blight, based primarily on the new housing developments and businesses. Johnson doesn’t fit the classic OP resident description, if you were to poll people in Sacramento.
Johnson is a Caucasian male with a successful career in real estate. He has lived in OP for a quarter-century. His primary motive is to see OP thrive in all respects.
According to Johnson, there is a causal connection between the elimination of blight, drugs, alcohol and other issues hurting Oak Park and seeing the improved OP. Statistics augment Johnson’s position from the standpoint of urban planning and improving areas traditionally known for environmental decay.
Terms such as “gentrification” are used as the new pejorative to classify groups of elites moving into urban areas to “take over.” Johnson doesn’t view the OP resurgence as an invading army.
“OP businesses and home prices have not experienced a dramatic proliferation in total costs or rental space, and therefore OP residents are not being displaced in a sudden and deliberate fashion as is the case in Brooklyn, New York, or Chicago,” he says.
Based on Johnson’s definition, where gentrification is accompanied by skyrocketing rents and property values, OP is not a classic gentrification model.
Tom Karvonen, co-owner of the year-old Oak Park Brewing Company craft brew pub and restaurant, believes new businesses are good for the community.
“New businesses improve the community, leading to an improved community,” he says, pointing to the positive impact. “We have added 40 jobs to the community and we want to hire staff representative of Oak Park.”
One liquor store owner on Broadway indicates he primarily hires OP cashiers and staff, because of their connection to the area. He is adamant that gentrification is not applicable to his business, because he “wants to hire OP residents and has no desire to unfairly displace other business.”
On the other hand, Valerie Ody, a local attorney who spent significant time in OP while attending McGeorge Law School, lauds the substantial improvements seen in the community.
She points to prices at Oak Park Brewing Company, which features a $16 burger.
“I ordered a $16 burger, but it was a fancy burger and the menu had more affordable items,” Ody says.
Karvonen believes his Oak Park Brewing Company caters to the needs of the community and welcomes all patrons. The co-owner resides in OP, participates in community events and wants to improve OP.
Liquor stores are not necessarily the issue. Let’s assume 50 percent of liquor stores were eliminated from Oak Park. Then, residents may well complain about the lack of competition and presumably higher prices associated with the lack of competition.
From this perspective, it’s not the alcohol that’s the issue. It’s the use and misuse of alcohol, particularly among people who abuse the substance in unsafe fashion regardless of demographics.
Abuse creates a no-win situation, which lends itself to a “blaming” mindset. Participation in the public policy process, starting a business (which is a substantial risk for anyone), and interning with business leaders are ways to increase participation among existing and new Oak Park residents.
In the end, the burden is on the OP residents – existing and new – to form alliances that benefit everyone’s interest. Existing residents can’t assume “yuppies are taking over.”
Assuming the worst without sufficient evidence to support those assertions leads to erroneous conclusions and lost relationships. And pointing to liquor as the source of trouble is not productive to creating solutions to address the underlying issues that manifest into alcoholism, drugs and gangs.
Only with concerted collaboration can new and old OP’ers continue this revitalization and benefit everyone.