Treasures Of The City
Posted on May 30, 2006
Photography by Rudy Meyers
If you still think the State Capitol (the building) is the only distinction of the state capital (the city), you've got another think coming. In this fond but not entirely reverent essay, we reveal what really makes the River City rock.
In a government town like Sacramento —which is not only the state capital, the county seat and, on its own, an influential municipality with a full-time mayor—it's probably not surprising that every fourth person you meet is an “electedÂ” (The New York Times crossword puzzle word for a politician). On any given day, you can run into a mayor, a councilmember, an assemblyperson, a state senator, a planning commissioner and the governor without leaving downtown (or certain bars). We tend to take politicians for granted here, in much the same way that people who live in Hollywood don't fall apart if they catch sight of Fran Drescher buying a bagel. But we still accord them a certain celebrity status. We even refer to them as “honorableÂ” when we introduce them at our spaghetti feeds or when we send them highly indignant letters in which we complain about or ask for stuff. While our minds tell us these people are no better or more honorable than we are, let's face it: They're different. For whatever reasons—an honest devotion to community service, an egomaniacal desire for power, an overwhelming urge to flip pancakes whenever a photographer is present—these people put themselves on the line for the rest of us. When pressed, usually by the press, they open up their bank accounts, personal histories and family lives for our scrutiny. Sometimes, they even release pictures of themselves that were taken in the 1970s. If this doesn't constitute public sacrifice, what does?
Back in the mid-1970s, when I moved to Sacramento to work at City Hall, I helped spread the word that, among the world's cities, the capital's tree population was second only to that of Paris (more recently known as the home of freedom fries, freedom toast and freedom kissing). I'd like to go on record here and now to state that I had misheard that factoid nearly 30 years ago and somehow missed the words “per capita.Â” What we actually have here is a greater ratio of trees to people than you'll find almost anywhere else: roughly 6 million of the former and 2.5 million of the latter. “NASA actually did a flyover here some time ago and counted the trees,Â” says Fran Clarke, the stewardship coordinator of the Sacramento Tree Foundation, which was founded on Arbor Day 24 years ago. What makes this a pretty remarkable statistic is the fact that Sacramento is anything but a natural greenbelt. Sure, we get an average 17.18 inches of rain each year, but that doesn't exactly make us a tropical forest. We're not quite a natural cactus belt, either; at best, we're a plains belt. Our forebears changed all that. My belief is that one Saturday afternoon in August in the 1830s, they simultaneously went over to crank up the air conditioner and realized it had yet to be invented. (It's OK—there was no Kings game on TV that day). While history and basic intelligence may offer us another version of that story, the net effect was the same: Settlers went on a tree-planting binge, creating what David Freeman, the former general manager of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, once called “the valley's natural air conditioner.Â” This is why the Sacramento Tree Foundation has continued to work for the past several years with elected officials, business leaders and community groups to reinvigorate the region's ardor for arbors by encouraging planting programs. Pretty cool idea.
Is there a greater crossover pleasure in Sacramento than rooting for, crying about and yelling at the Sacramento Kings? Kings fans come in all shapes, ages, sizes and colors. They're voracious-reader architect-writers like Karen Olson. Or Sutter Club membership managers, like her niece, Tami Olson. Karen Olson, who's in her 50s, says she first got hooked on the Boston Bruins in college “and thereafter was merely a sports enjoyer. Then came the Kings and my first experience with full-blown fandom. Why the Kings? Because their Cinderella story is irresistible. Because they are a rambunctious, joyous, multiheaded juggernaut—i.e., a team—with all the unselfishness that implies.Â” She says that being a Kings fan has been a learning experience: “What was first just a lot of extremely tall men running from one end of the floor to the other has morphed into a nuanced dance of strategies, tactics, shifting energies, emotional colorations and psychological imponderables. This is rich, this is complicated, this is fascinating.Â” For Tami Olson, who's in her early 30s, the commitment started in childhood, even though the Kings weren't here at the time. “I have been an athlete and a sports fan as long as I can remember,Â” she says. “Basketball is one sport I never played, but when you grow up during the time of Bird and Magic and Jordan , how can you not become a fan of the game?Â” Right after college, she landed an internship at Arco Arena, “which afforded me the opportunity to attend many Kings games. I have been a fanatic ever since. Over the last few seasons, the Kings have become so fun to watch. I especially love the way they move the ball so well, their unselfish style of play and their great three-point shooting.Â” But she thinks the real reason she's such a fan of the Kings is because of what the Kings have meant for her hometown. “I love seeing businesses all over town display ‘Go Kings!' banners during the playoffs,Â” she says. “It really gives Sacramento a small-town feel.Â” Like we needed that.
The Dry Heat
Even if it's our most popular regional cliché (sure, Sacramento summers are hot, but it's a dry heat), it's still a lot more affectionate than the most popular hot-weather joke in Reno . (“We're so close to Hell, you can see Sparks !Â”) We cart out our dry-heat cliché to defend our blazing Sacramento summers. But we call on it even more during our simmering early falls when, rather than heed the testimony of our senses, many of us mindlessly obey calendars and fashion magazines by pulling on tweed suits and wool sweaters much too soon. But listen: If you've ever lived through summer in New York City , Chicago , Florida or Virginia —or even Los Angeles during an especially dank season—you know that, by comparison, Sacramento weather kicks butt. In those other places, from July through mid-September, you experience something we can only call pre-perspiration: Even before you leave your erratically air-conditioned home in the morning, you already have a little glow going on your forehead, while your shirt or blouse clings to you in a way that makes you wonder if you'd gained seven pounds overnight. Now, to be fair, Sacramento occasionally experiences a muggy day, which gives our peppy weathercasters the chance to use the term “relative humidityÂ” (which does not refer to your sweaty cousin). But by and large, summer days in Sacramento —if you dress appropriately, stay out of the sun and sip a lovely beverage of your choosing—are a little like spring days in Palm Springs , except you don't have to worry about running into Frank Sinatra Jr. at the supermarket. If that doesn't boost tourism, what will?
Your opinion of this annual Sacramento occurrence is dependent on whether you're asked to express it one night while you're driving to Turlock on Interstate 5 or when you're sitting at home sipping cocoa. When the fog rolls into Sacramento in the winter months, sometimes densely, sometimes spottily and sometimes barely at all, most of us give it its due: respect, fear and awe. To me—someone who's been caught more than once in fog so bad that I literally could not see my car's hood ornament (even when I opened my eyes and stopped sobbing)—fog has its fun side, as long as it doesn't overdo it. When it throws a fine, misty veil over Sacramento 's trees and rooftops, it gives Sacramento a sense of magic, as though our official sister city is Brigadoon (the Scottish town that appears every hundred years or so in the Lerner and Loewe musical fantasy of the same name). When the fog's a little thicker, and all you can make out on your street is the faint halo surrounding a nearby streetlight, the feeling you get can plunge you into Victorian England for a while. Best of all, our annual tule fog forces us to deal with an issue many of us have never been certain of since we first took the test to get our driver's license: Do you switch on your high beams or leave on your regular headlights when you drive through it? What if your car came with actual fog lamps? (Answer: Never use your “brightsÂ” while driving in the fog. Use your regular headlights. If you have fog lamps, they should only be used in conjunction with low-beam headlamps. And now, let's review our hand signals . . .)
Perhaps you've observed that no one has been warning of an impending shortage of lobbyists in Sacramento . And with nearly 1,000 of them in town, no one is likely to in the near future. As long as Sacramento continues to be the state capital, legislative advocacy will continue to be one of the highest paying jobs here (depending, of course, on the cause for which one lobbies). To be a successful lobbyist in Sacramento , you need to understand complex issues, complex people, the complex legislative arena and, perhaps most important of all, complex wine. The latter isn't meant to imply that lobbyists are heavier drinkers than, say, taxidermists. But since entertaining can be an important part of their jobs, a working knowledge of viticulture seems to be a job requirement. A couple of local restaurateurs told us that lobbyists are the ones most likely to show up with their own bottles of wine at eateries that already have more-than-adequate cellars. (Is it because corkage fees are deductible? Check with your tax adviser—preferably, over cocktails.) Debra Carlton, a longtime advocate for the California Apartment Association, recently gave us a look at The Directory of Lobbyists, Lobbying Firms & Lobbyist Employers. In the 2003–2004 edition, there are 19 categories of lobbyist employers—but that's a misleading statistic, since one of those categories is “Miscellaneous,Â” and that one alone lists about 350 organizations that employ lobbyists. For comparison's sake, the other top categories are “EducationÂ” and “Health,Â” which list upwards of 200, and “Government,Â” which rings in at around 350. The categories themselves cover every imaginable business: from the very specific California Automatic Vendors Council and California Compost Coalition to the perhaps more ephemeral Committee on Moral Concerns—whose lobbyists, come to think of it, probably don't drink that much wine.
The American River Parkway
It's been called Sacramento 's crown jewel almost as frequently as it's been cited as the cause of many a fiscal headache. We'll stick with the crown-jewel designation. First conceived 44 years ago and completed in 1980, the American River Parkway is a 23-mile-long, 5,000-acre neo-natural wonder. It stretches from Discovery Park to Nimbus Dam, with the Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail (which most of us now refer to as “the bike trailÂ”) extending its reach to Beals Point in Folsom. While the parkway's purpose is often presumed to be exclusively ecological, its foundation seems equally emphatic about encouraging its visitors to appreciate and enjoy it. Without doubt, the area offers a daily opportunity to study and absorb nature, but it's also a great place to walk, jog, bike-ride, bird-watch and stress-reduce. You can fish, picnic, raft, golf or ride a horse here, though we hasten to add, not all at once nor in the exact same area. You can propel your canoe or kayak. (Yes, the parkway offers an either-oar situation.) But if you don't want it to vanish before your or your children's eyes, paddle over to the American River Parkway Foundation's website (arpf.org) and see what you can do to keep this living-history lesson alive.
Maligned by their bosses and mocked by their private-sector counterparts, they remain an amazingly loyal menagerie of leaders, lieutenants, scientists, engineers, strategists, doctors and, sure, some drones—but what large organization could exist without the latter? The eternal stereotype about state employees is that they’re more fixated on job security, benefits and retirement than they are on simply doing good work. But hang on.
In a state filled with anti-tax crusaders—and a budget process that sometimes makes Haiti seem organized—job security is hardly a given for state workers, most of whom take their jobs quite seriously.
Unfortunately, people running for statewide office frequently promise that, if elected, they’ll work tirelessly to reduce the ranks of state employees. (According to the State Controller’s Office, there are more than 222,000 workers on the state payroll.) It’s a strategy that might play well in other cities. But not here. After all, more than 70,000 of those employees work in the Sacramento region. And most of them show up to vote on Election Day. Oops. “What the candidate meant to say was . . . ”
When a 2002 Harvard University study proclaimed Sacramento “the most diverse city in the United States,” you might have thought our multiculturalism was a fairly recent development, like our being an NBA town.
But no. “More than 120 different cultures were identified between 1849 and 1900, many of which came to the Sacramento area to seek their fortunes during the Gold Rush,” says Dr. Evangeline J. Higginbotham, executive director of the Discovery Museum History Center in Old Sacramento as well as the Science & Space Center in the north area of town. “I think a lot of people, whether they live here or visit here, don’t realize how diverse we are,” says Gary Simon, director of Multicultural Affairs for the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau. Simon says that Sacramento’s position as the state capital, county seat and full-service city government creates economic parity—and, as a result, an abiding social harmony. “When you have this many people working for or with government agencies, their positions and salaries haven’t been determined by race, color or culture,” he explains. “It’s all about how qualified they are to do the work.
As a result, you don’t find as many barriers: One family can afford to buy a home next door to another family, regardless of their culture. That’s how America is supposed to work.” California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante seconds that notion. “The diversity of Sacramento has brought our city a great entrepreneurial spirit,” he says. “The cultures of the world are reflected in the faces of Sacramento. Our diversity is cause for celebration.” You heard it here first.
While its cobblestone streets and wooden boardwalks may be hell on high heels, Old Sac attracts more than 5 million visitors every year, making it the Sacramento region’s No. 1 tourist attraction. (And you thought that distinction belonged to Mike Bibby.) Old Sacramento wasn’t always known as Old Sacramento, of course, just as Zorro wouldn’t have referred to his home base as “Early California.” Back in the days of the Gold Rush, it was simply the Sacramento River waterfront; in the early part of the 20th century, it was commonly referred to as the area’s bowery. If you’re a Sacramento native and you’ve become a bit blasé about this 28-acre state historic park—there are probably some residents of Anaheim who never visit Disneyland, either—rest assured that the rest of the world hasn’t. Drop by on any fair-weather weekend and keep your ears open to the cacophony of accents and dialects, some emanating from that devoted band of actors who portray “living history” characters, but most from German, Japanese, British and Brooklyn sightseers. Old Sac’s amiable hodgepodge of old and new, hipness and quaintness, elegance and flip-flops may help to explain its enduring charm. But when it comes right down to it, Old Sacramento is mainly about “old.” With its preserved and restored architecture—not to mention the plethora of museums—this place is catnip for California history buffs. And don’t discount the charm of those historically authentic streets. When one of your stiletto heels impales itself in a knothole, see if you don’t feel transported back in time and find yourself thinking, “I’ll bet this sort of thing happened all the time to Mrs. Sutter, too.”
For years, Sacramento boosters were so determined to not live in the shadows of nearby attractions that they all but pretended San Francisco, Napa and Tahoe didn’t exist. To put it mildly, as a region we have had some self-esteem issues. That started to change when Steve Hammond took over as CEO of the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau a few years back. In convincing Hammond to accept his job, people apparently had made a point of extolling Sacramento’s centralized location. “I started to ask myself why everyone was telling this to me but not to potential visitors,” he says. Today, the bureau’s advertisements and promotions offer target audiences a two-fold message: that there’s plenty to see and do in Sacramento as well as from Sacramento. You know the pitch: In a single day, if you get up early and stay up past 9 p.m., you can breakfast by the San Francisco Bay, lunch in the Napa Valley, sip wine in the foothills and even have dinner in Tahoe, though we really do recommend bringing along a designated driver. The next morning you can snow-ski or water-ski, depending on the season, and be back in Sacramento for lunch. Try cramming all that into a day in southern California, where I lived for 18 years, and it would come out something like this: breakfast in Santa Monica; lunch, thanks to the traffic, on the Santa Monica Freeway; cocktails at a bar just off the Santa Monica Freeway . . .
During the respective reigns of Gray Davis, Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian, whose combined electricity wouldn’t power a penlight, governor spotting wasn’t exactly a spectator sport. But with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the statehouse, it’s practically become a contact sport. I’ve seen normally dignified ladies and gentlemen run blindly across the street as the traffic signal insistently flashed “Don’t Walk” to try to shake Schwarzenegger’s hand as he strode confidently into a restaurant. I watched a female lobbyist crash into a waiter in a desperate bid to catch a glimpse of the governor as he strode confidently out of a restaurant. But it’s all understandable. Put your political leanings aside for a moment. Think about the heat that was generated in a local eatery when Jerry Brown or Ronald Reagan dropped in for a nosh. Now combine those therms and multiply them by 10 to get some idea of the excitement Arnold elicits. And why not? An international movie star who’s capable of projecting warmth and accessibility, Schwarzenegger has the same appeal to us that charming foreign films do: We’re not always sure what’s going on or what’s being said, but for some inexplicable reason we take it all in with an appreciative smile. How long that will last is anyone’s guess, of course. Charming foreign films don’t have to cut budgets, argue with legislators or justify their actions before returning home to their beautiful Kennedy Democrat wives.