Welcome to Sacramento's New Era

Posted on November 10, 2016

Sacramento first cast a spell on this writer 40 years ago.

Center for Sacramento History, McCurry Company Collection, 1973/003/1469
Center for Sacramento History, McCurry Company Collection, 1973/003/1469

My first glimpse of Sacramento was on a hot August night in 1976. I’d flown up here for a job interview early the next morning at Sacramento City Hall and my cab driver had dropped me at the wrong place—the old Mansion Inn at 16th and H streets, which would become the Clarion Hotel and which is no more. My reservation was at the Best Western motel at 11th and H streets. Being a hearty young man at the time, I threw my garment bag over my shoulder, grabbed my suitcase and walked the five blocks to my actual destination. 

By the time I got to the check-in desk, I was eligible for a full-body wring-out. I was sweating from pores I didn’t know I had. Welcome to Sacramento, I thought. Do I even want this job? 

The next morning, I knew I did. I awoke early—the interview would be at 8:30—and cranked the air conditioner knob to “Antarctic.” I showered and dressed in slow motion to avoid perspiring again. Then I walked outside and, on the brief walk to City Hall, listened to a symphony of hummingbirds doing imitations of other birds, automobiles, boom boxes and, a few blocks behind me, a Southern Pacific train asserting its stranglehold on Sacramento history by tooting its own horn at every intersection. 

After my interview—which, if you’ll excuse a spoiler alert, went well enough for me to still be living here 40 years later—I wasn’t sure I’d ever see the city again so I walked through downtown and midtown for a few hours before catching a cab and my plane back to Southern California. 

I remember walking down the K Street Mall and thinking this town is The Land That Time Forgot. There were cement statues of animals lining the closed-to-traffic street. Young women emerging from state offices and businesses downtown still wore mini-skirts, which had been out of fashion in L.A. since 1969 or so.

At the corner of L and Fourth streets was a movie theater, Showcase Theatre, dedicated to showing what we then called “art” films (today’s “indies”). Across the street was (and still is) a Macy’s department store, its mid-century flagstone façade a reminder of my early childhood in New York City. The Sacramento Union newspaper (long gone) was a few hundred yards south on Fourth. There was no Holiday Inn on K Street but there was a design-free albatross called Downtown Plaza with quaint stores you might have encountered in the little town by the lake your parents used to drag you to in the summer.


Once I began to work at City Hall, I found that I could eat at a different Chinese restaurant nearly every day for at least two weeks—there were that many of them, sometimes on the same block. There were very few Japanese restaurants as yet, but there was a semi-Italian restaurant-bar named Macchiavelli’s not far from my office that the county health department eventually closed, apparently because the lunch crowd was disturbing the rats. 

Frank Fat’s was there on L Street, of course, as was the Sutter Club—two institutions that continue to thrive as the world changes around them. And that world definitely is changing.

Walk down K Street at lunchtime today and if you close your eyes, the sounds will convince you you’re in San Francisco or Portland. Light rail trains, buses, cabs and bicycles all share the road. Car radios and a potpourri of streaming devices have finally won out over boom boxes, and in the course of a block—or a very long traffic light—you can hear hip-hop, “oldies” that were mint-new when I first moved here, or Capital Public Radio, which started (under a different name) after I’d been here a year or so and consisted of only a single classical station. Now it takes the station announcer about 20 seconds to list its expanding empire of signals.

Ambling through Sacramento’s midtown on a hot night is also an entirely different experience now than it was in 1976. There are so many clubs, four professional theaters, so many different ethnic restaurants, sidewalk cafes, street musicians and peals of laughter from that brew bike (more are on their way) that if you didn’t know better, you’d swear you were in a major city. And you’d be right.

In writing the stories for this magazine, I was privileged to meet some of the dreamers and doers (some of whom are one and the same) who are transforming downtown and, by extension, the region. I had the chance to tour the new arena—unplugged, you might say, since some of the eye-bulging technology was still being installed. And for all I know, some of it was still being imagined by Vivek Ranadivé, the charming Renaissance man who led the investors who bought the Sacramento Kings and brought the epic new colossus, Golden 1 Center, to town.

And it really is something. You’d literally have to shut your eyes to find a single blind spot in this auditorium of clean lines, multitudes of video screens and what may be the largest, super-high-definition TV monitor in the known galaxy.

Just outside the arena—on the K Street Mall that used to house those concrete animal sculptures—is an emerging public plaza called Downtown Commons, or DOCO, that will feature luxury hotel rooms, condos and offices; innovative restaurants and bistros serving dishes created from locally sourced ingredients; and spaces for traveling musicians and artists to ply their trades and wares. 

Throughout downtown and its contiguously connected neighborhoods, business and tourism are flourishing. At any given dusk, you’ll see millennials and empty-nesters out on the street and at sidewalk cafes, pouring in and out of art galleries, bars and boutiques. A little later, stroll past the entrances to the diverse gathering spots and watering holes. Different strains of music, televised sports and even karaoke waft out of every entrance. You’re witnessing and participating in a civilized revolution, a topsy-turvy re-imagining of the River City. We’re not in Sacratomato anymore, Toto.

In fact, this resembles the town I first saw on a hot August night in 1976 only in that August nights can still be hot. But so, all of a sudden, is Sacramento itself. Onward!

From the Special Collections of the Sacramento Public Library.