I had lived in California for 20 years before I saw the possibilities in Sacramento. A Los Angeles editor had dispatched me in 2003 to cover the arrival of then-new Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and I realized that, like many, I had visited the Capitol but scarcely seen the capital city itself.
There was a vague recollection of dry heat and a rotunda and the nickname Sackatomato. I had read that when a columnist here solicited ideas for a city slogan, suggestions included “Just a Bladder from Tahoe” and “Very Little Inbreeding.”
“There’s a certain Tulsaness, a Raleigh-Durhamness, an Albuquerqueness,” a Washington Post reporter had written, kindly, noting that when he visited, everyone kept directing him to the railroad museum. Speculation in San Francisco was that the new governor probably wouldn’t spend a night in such a middlebrow destination. On Larry King’s show, Schwarzenegger had called Sacramento “a quaint little town.”
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I was working at the time out of San Francisco, where we had recently relocated. Coming from suburban L.A., we had found the move to the city by the bay challenging. Playgrounds were scant. Public schools were a mess. The dot-com boom had driven home prices so high that our first chat with a real estate agent had left me in the fetal position. Every trip to the grocery store seemed an obstacle course of freezing fog, hostile pedestrians and no parking.
Children were just one constituency among many; scouring the neighborhood once for a sweatshirt for our then-5-year-old, all I could find were stores selling dog clothes. “Why isn’t that man wearing pants?” my children kept asking, even in parts of the city that weren’t the Castro. I arrived in Sacramento that day wondering if I’d be able to park and worrying that I wouldn’t get back before the nuns shut down the after-care at my daughters’ grade school.
Then, looking for the Capitol, I got lost.
I share this tale because Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg and Barry Broome, the region’s chief economic development recruiter, are lately pitching the possibilities of Sacramento as part of “mega-regional” package to tech employers in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area. They are touting the city’s central locale, its proximity to San Francisco and the ports in West Sacramento and Stockton, its universities and educated workforce. All good selling points, and it’s high time someone here has decided to sell them – Sacramento has spent too much time letting itself be inaccurately lumped in just with California’s struggling inland, and suffers for it.
But civic pitches alone, just by being civic, rarely trump a place’s existing image. That takes magic, and it has to be organic, and it has to happen over and over, until it gives a place a new mythology. Mythology is what separates cool San Francisco from wannabe Long Beach, what persuades young people that Portland and Austin are more than second cities to Seattle and Dallas.
It involves music and art, microbreweries and decent restaurants, infill development and smart investment. But it also has to come from a sense of self, and confidence in what your city alone can bring to the table, which in turn can only come from a community’s ability to think of itself in a way that is generous of spirit and just generally bigger.
Civic pitches alone, just by being civic, rarely trump a place’s existing image. That takes magic, and it has to be organic, and it has to happen over and over, until it gives a place a new mythology.
On the day I took my wrong turn, I experienced that kind of magic. I’m still not sure where I ended up. Some neighborhood. I remember a canopy of green and gold leaves, and dappled sunlight, and emerald lawns and homes that made me think of Old California. I remember a park, and a lovely brick manor with a pleasant, professorial woman in the yard who gave me directions.
I remember the air being warm, with the fragrance of roses. And I remember thinking: Why didn’t anyone tell me this was here when we were house hunting in the grim drear of the lesser Silicon Valley? This commute is nothing compared to some of the commutes in Southern California. I’ll bet the nights are nice, too. Isn’t this where Chez Panisse gets its produce? Wasn’t Joan Didion from here?
When I got back downtown, unfortunately, the magic vanished. The spotlight Schwarzenegger brought with him revealed a civic culture awash in self-deprecation and annoyance at the condescension of national media.
Some worried that the Governator would phony up the place with snotty Hollywood hotshots. Some hoped he would give this librarian of a town a sexy makeover. Of course, he did neither. Hence, this new marketing offensive.
It was as if I had imagined that sun-dappled street of enchantment. Still, that memory stayed with me.
It’s why, if I had one request – beyond continuing to play up Sacramento’s legitimate ties to the coast as well as the Central Valley – it would be that people here also own the city’s appealing quirks and charisma. Maybe it’s the crowd outside the new arena this week, mingling in the warm evening around the Jeffrey Koons sculpture we’re so afraid to be proud of. Maybe it’s the morning train, rolling through midtown, and a cup of good, strong Northern California coffee.
Maybe it’s the rivers, and all they’ve seen and washed over. Maybe it’s just the tomatoes, which really are a revelation. But seeing the possibilities in a place can’t just be the job of the politicians and the economic development people. The place itself has to accept its magic.
Sacramento knows where its mojo is; the only question is whether it will keep making outsiders get lost in order to find it. I think people would pay good money for a piece of what I saw, and, no, it didn’t include the railroad museum. Which is great, don’t get me wrong.
But this is the capital of California. It’s time its myth reflected its 21st-century possibilities.