Watching Midtown Come to Life

Posted on September 8, 2011 – 4:35 AM | by Admin
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By Tim Holt

When I was growing up here in the 1960s, the cool place to hang out was 35th Street in Oak Park, where the Guild Theater showed films from Europe and where you could get a cup of espresso and listen to folk music at Sal and Masako Yiniguez’s Belmonte Coffee House just down the street. The rest of the town was, for a teenager, something out of American Grafitti: hanging out at Mel’s Drive-In in the north area, or driving Downtown and cruising L and K streets in endless loops, going nowhere – a perfect metaphor for life in Sacramento in those days.

But when I came back to my hometown in the summer of 1974 after college and started a newspaper, something was starting to happen here. Midtown had its first real coffee house, Giovanni’s, on I Street. There were some funky little crafts shops, and a new community garden at 15th and Q. People were starting to move back Downtown; state workers were fixing up the old Victorians, moving in closer to their jobs.

It wasn’t much, but at least life was starting to come back into the central city, and you had the beginnings of something that could identify itself as a community. All it needed, of course, was a newspaper.

When I moved back here and set up the Suttertown News office at 18th and L streets, what we now call “Midtown” was a dead zone. I liked to take walks in the evenings, and there would be no one out on the streets. There would be little islands of life in the one coffee house and a few bars, but otherwise no real public life, nothing out on the streets – other than cars.

Suttertown News staff. Photo courtesy of the Center for Sacramento History

In those days Sacramento was an overwhelmingly suburban town with a minimal urban core. The dead zone at its center represented a major failure of civic life. It was a temporary victory for an individualized lifestyle centered around the automobile, the television, and that isolated patch of ground in the suburbs.

The reverse is true also: The vibrant public life in Midtown today is a re-affirmation of civic life, the idea that people do in fact enjoy mingling with each other, bumping up against each other in all the random and interesting and stimulating ways that people do in real cities.

One of the Suttertown News’ principal themes, during the 19 years it was published, was the rise of grassroots democracy in Sacramento. An early manifestation of this was the Sacramento Old City Association, which was started in the early 1970s by the state workers who’d moved Downtown to fix up those crumbling old Victorians. The Old City Association soon became a force not just for historic preservation, but for the quality of life for those living Downtown. Inspired by its efforts, neighborhood associations sprouted up all over the central city and beyond.

Another big accomplishment of a grassroots nature is the revitalization of Midtown, a really amazing transformation to those of us who remember what it was like back in the ‘70s. And along with that has come a real renaissance in the arts here. I can remember attending some really dreary plays at the old Sacramento Civic Theater, now Sacramento Theater Company, one of about three theaters we had in those days. And there may have been an art gallery or two back then in Midtown, but I can’t recall any. In all of the arts there’s been an incredible renaissance.

But what does not seem to have emerged out of all the grassroots political and cultural ferment is any real vision for the future of this town. There is a vacuum where there should be some sort of vision, a sense of direction about where you want to go.

What happens when you don’t have an overriding vision is that you end up lurching from one Big Scheme to another, and these are often the schemes of developers whose main motivation is profit and not civic improvement. Back in the 1980s, because Sacramento had no plans for urban revitalization and curbing sprawl, city officials were easily manipulated by Gregg Lukenbill and his partner Joseph Benvenuti into rezoning prime agricultural land in North Natomas for development.

Lukenbill played on this town’s basic inferiority complex, assuring us he was going to make Sacramento a “world-class city” by building an arena in North Natomas and moving a professional basketball team here from Kansas City.

Portland, by contrast, was at that time implementing a plan for revitalizing its urban core, which has been an incredible success. So, they have a real city, and we have a basketball team – at least for the time being.

Of course very few cities are able to achieve what Portland has done: to implement a comprehensive, coordinated plan for the revitalization of a Downtown. I think Midtown represents what you can achieve on a mostly grassroots basis, but Portland demonstrates how you can take it to the next level. Back in the 1970s Portland mayor Neil Goldschmidt was able to bring together developers, environmentalists, and transit advocates to implement that city’s revitalization plan, to build more housing, create more parks, augment public transit, and generally make the downtown more people-friendly.

A very different model is offered by San Francisco, a bottom-up model. There, a grassroots group with 10,000 members, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, is leading efforts to reshape that city in ways similar to Portland.

So far we have not seen strong, visionary leadership emerge in Sacramento, nor has there been the kind of bold, grassroots movement that’s developed in San Francisco.

If there’s any message in all of this, it’s that the future is local and regional, a message that pretty much sums up my career in journalism. We get diverted and entertained by the Sarah Palins and Donald Trumps. We get absorbed in the killing of Osama bin Laden and the sexual escapades of prominent politicians. But in the end what does all that have to do with making our lives better? We need to spend more time monitoring City Council meetings, more time going to the local farmer’s markets, starting community gardens and backyard gardens, building the beginning foundations of a healthy local economy.

The government in Washington has become, at best, a holding action for the gains of the past – civil rights, Social Security, and Medicare – and at its worst, the tool of corporate and other special interests.

To promote our civic life and our collective well-being, we must work together to influence government policies at the local and regional level, and toward the same ends to form new associations unencumbered by corporate powers that have a vested interest in keeping things as they are.

Midtown has established itself as the heart of Sacramento’s public and civic life. It’s a good beginning, but where do we go from here?

Tim Holt has started a new publication, The North State Review, to help promote regional consciousness in Northern California. For a sample copy, send your mailing address (not e-mail) to:

  1. 2 Responses to “Watching Midtown Come to Life”

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    By April on Jun 10, 2015 | Reply

    I remember, I also worked at that coffee house Giovannis on I st which later moved around the corner and became Weatherstone. I remember Suttertown News.

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