Graswich Unleashed: Old Sac, New Ideas

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Peter Roney and I have the freedom to go just about anywhere around Northern California while shooting our nightly TV stories for CBS 13. Peter is the photographer, field producer and editor. I am what TV people call the talent when they are being ironic. The region is ours to explore.

Somehow, we often end up in Old Sacramento.

We rarely do actual stories about Old Sac. Instead, we use Old Sac as a backdrop. The wooden sidewalks and brick storefronts make a perfect outdoor TV studio.

We have shot stories about Sacramento summertime traditions, crime sprees, the river, weather, meddlesome bureaucrats, bridges, sports bars, boats and flags in Old Sacramento. Luckily for me, Peter is a creative genius and can make TV magic from just about any topic with Old Sac as the backdrop.

Which brings me to this reluctant conclusion: Spending so much time in Old Sacramento has made it clear to me that the historic neighborhood has reached a crossroads. The place needs new ideas, and it needs them right now.

It’s been about four decades since civic authorities decided to transform Old Sacramento into a tourist attraction. Front and Second Streets in Sacramento were Skid Row until the mid 1960s, full of cheap hotels, liquor stores, bars, knife fights and derelicts passed out drunk in alleys.

Some people claimed the West End was the largest congregation of bums, tramps, hobos and hopeless alcoholics west of Chicago. I have heard locals make that claim nostalgically and with a certain amount of pride. 

Today, there are at least two leftovers from the West End days in Old Sacramento. Peter and I see them when we arrive in Old Sacramento, typically around 7 a.m. One man looks like a movie tramp, with a long, white beard, ragged hat and layers of faded clothing. The other man is lean and young. He wears filthy jeans and walks around without a shirt. He often stops and watches the river.

The two men don’t bother anyone. And they aren’t why I think Old Sacramento is troubled. The problem is Old Sac itself. For every step forward&emdash;every sumptuous meal prepared at The Firehouse, every pampered guest at the Delta King&emdash;there are setbacks.

There are shops selling tacky merchandise and bar owners who can’t follow liquor licensing laws. Those cheap and tawdry images push tourists and locals away from Old Sacramento.

The new Old Sac is about 40 years old. It should be settling into middle age. Yet it remains transitory and unfinished. The city has problems getting along with Old Sac merchants, who too often are in conflict with each other, and can’t seem to provide attractions to lure Sacramentans and tourists alike.

Smart, dedicated people have invested time and money in Old Sacramento: the Fat family, the Coyne family, the Scurfield family, Lloyd Harvego. But too often, their ideas have been ignored at City Hall, their ambitions beaten down by bureaucracy.

Old Sac should be a neighborhood to define our region&emdash;an energized, creative and original place. The location is perfect, the history astonishing, the attractions potentially world-class.

As things stand now, Old Sacramento makes a fine TV backdrop. It’s time to build beyond the facade.

R.E. Graswich writes a twice-weekly blog at sacmag.com, co-hosts the afternoon news on NewsTalk 1530 KFBK AM radio and reports nightly for CBS 13. E-mail him at reg@graswich.com.