Demolition of New Helvetia would be a loss for the Black community, says historian

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (KTXL) — A historian with the Nathaniel Colley Civil Rights Coalition is fighting against the demolition of New Helvetia, saying it would be a big loss to the African American community. 

Clarence Caesar said New Helvetia, at the corner of Broadway and Muir, was designed by the four best architects in Sacramento at the time it was constructed around 1941. He said it is Sacramento’s oldest public housing project and it’s even on the National Registry of Historic Places.

But there’s another big reason Caesar said it should not be demolished. 

“It would be a big loss to the African American community because a significant historical even that happened there set the stage for the improvement of the African Americans’ economic and social conditions at the time,” Caesar told FOX40. 

In the 1950s, Nathaniel Colley, Sacramento’s first practicing African American attorney, successfully fought in court for the desegregation of New Helvetia. 

“It essentially helped end the segregation of public housing,” said architect Chris Wasney. 

Wasney is working with the Colley Coalition on a proposal they are hoping the city of Sacramento will consider. 

Their plan is a mixture of new housing side by side with the historic brick buildings and would include a cultural center honoring Colley. 

“Our plan, basically, saves about 72% of the square footage of the historic buildings, about 60% of the buildings, and we tripled the density on the site,” said Wasney. 

The city’s current proposal is called the West Broadway Specific Plan. 

The city says the plan “provides a framework for re-stitching the disconnected circulation patterns and disparate land uses that exist today into cohesive, contemporary neighborhood.” 

It would have a mixture of low-income and market-rate housing but the city admits “significant demolition of the New Helvetia Historic District may occur.”

The Colley Coalition and some current New Helvetia residents told FOX40 they worry about where they would go. 

“So, just imagine somebody getting here and then they’re telling me five years later they’re going to break this down and I might not even get back in?” said one person who wished to remain anonymous. 

“Would they be priced out? Would it just be a gentrification effort? We don’t know,” said Caesar. 

The project will be discussed at a Sacramento Planning and Design Commission hearing Thursday night. Members of the public are invited to submit comments on the city’s website or by phone. 

“This warrants an adaptive reuse. It warrants some intervention. It warrants some change, but it also warrants as much preservation as possible,” said Wasney.

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