Abandoned Sierra School prompted creation of neighborhood association

Forty years ago, Sierra School had been abandoned because of the seismic safety law for schools. The Sacramento City Unified School District contemplated disposing of the property. Rumors in the neighborhood included a low-income housing project or a parking lot for the Department of Motor Vehicles.

A few concerned residents gained access to the school and were appalled at its sad condition – broken windows, water damage, structural deterioration and general disrepair. Undaunted, they recruited other neighbors to assess what could be done. Working with the school district and the city, these neighbors spearheaded a community effort to save the school from the wrecking ball.

Volunteers began cleaning up and repairing the classrooms, offices and corridors in the old building. With architectural and construction input, they transformed the Sierra School auditorium into the 300 seat 24th Street Theatre.

These efforts led to the formation of the Sierra School Neighborhood Association. SSNA became responsible for leasing the property – still owned by the school district – staffing the building and finding suitable tenants to rent the classrooms and other spaces, thus transforming the abandoned school into the Sierra 2 Center for Arts and Community.

SSNA focused on arts-related and community service organizations for Sierra 2. Early tenants included Matrix Women Artists, Capital City Ballet, Braille Transcribers, Italian Cultural Society, First Step Nursery School and At Six restaurant. Curtis Hall and the Green Room (now the Garden Room) were available to rent for individual or group meetings, parties and receptions.

SSNA’s southern boundary originally was Donner Way. When several residents living around Curtis Park asked to join SSNA, its board agreed to extend the boundary to Sutterville Road and the Sierra Curtis Neighborhood Association came into being.

Besides operating the Sierra 2 Center, SCNA has tackled many issues of community concern. Periodic traffic problems required working with the city’s traffic engineers to mitigate adverse impacts on neighborhood thoroughfares. The railyard brought light and noise problems when “Trailers on Flat Cars” began loading operations in the late night and early morning hours. And SCNA played an active role in the decades-long process of cleaning up the toxic wastes in the railyard.

SCNA also sought ways to improve the neighborhood. Promoting the health of trees in the neighborhood and park and planting replacements became a priority. Fundraising efforts twice featured hosting San Francisco’s Pickle Family Circus for a weekend of madcap performances, with thousands of dollars raised for a playground on the Sierra 2 Green.

Pumpkin Fling

In addition to fundraising, SCNA sponsored “fun raising” events like the Pumpkin Toss contest. Amateur “propulsion engineers” showcased machines to fling pumpkins the farthest distance. The record toss ended up going over the Sierra 2 Green fence into the adjoining street.

Today, SCNA continues to build upon the legacy of community service and improvement started four decades ago. SCNA events have expanded to include wine tastings, arts and crafts sales, Music in the Park and home tours.

Traffic problems and tree issues will always need attention. And providing thoughtful input to the city on matters such as the build out of Crocker Village or the siting of a homeless shelter will continue to be the hallmark of SCNA.

Mark Helmar of Rochon Way was on the SCNA board during the 1980s and was president in 1984. He and his wife, Sharon, and sons Jason and Jacob were involved in planning and participating in all of the renovations, events and meetings to develop and maintain Sierra 2.

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