Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Invisible Culture?

Reading the Bee online is a comical experience sometimes, especially when people talk about downtown Sacramento. The online Bee's comments section provides some of the best evidence yet that the Internet provides a forum for people who have no idea what they're talking about (of course, blogs provide some pretty strong evidence for that too.)

Anyhow, in the Bee's comments section and elsewhere, I hear a lot about how Sacramento has no culture. Maybe they're just not looking for it--just haven't bothered or don't know where to look--but I see it all over the place. Downtown Sacramento has a very distinct vibe and culture, and always has--it was here in the 1970s when I was a little kid and could already sense it, it was here in the 1980s when I used to skip school to ride the bus (and later light rail) downtown, it was here in mighty quantities in the 1990s when I moved downtown to be a part of it, and it's here now, in some ways bigger than ever before despite the detractors, the people who claim it doesn't exist, and frequent efforts by the city and certain business elements to suppress it because they don't seem to recognize it for what it is.

News flash for all of you who say that there's no nightlife in this town: my main problem on weekends is figuring out which of several interesting activities I'd like to attend. And I'm no ear-to-the-ground full-time club crawler: I'm a late-thirties nerd with a day job who gets most of his info from picking up flyers and checking three or four websites. Sacramento definitely has a gap when it comes to medium-sized venues: we've got the Crest and Empire and not much else, which is why a lot of touring bands end up clear out in Orangevale at the Boardwalk. But we've got plenty of small clubs, and the ones I see tend to be pretty full. We've got a rich mix of great local bands that are worth checking out, a double handful of DJ-driven clubs, and we have *always* had quite a few places to get coffee that weren't Starbuck's.

The other focus of my ire are people who claim downtown is some kind of wasteland, generally people who have never seen any portion of downtown other than the K Street Mall. My advice: GET THE HELL OFF OF THE K STREET MALL. K Street, like much of Downtown's redevelopment zones, has been the victim of a half-century of cockamamie ideas about how urban planners think cities should look, instead of how people actually live and work. K Street used to be a pretty neat place until the term "blight" was invented to describe a neighborhood with relatively low property tax revenues and frequent non-white inhabitants. The assumption was that if you took people's homes and replaced them with more expensive commercial structures, the neighborhood's inhabitants would simply wither and die like an unwatered plant. Instead, a legacy of deliberate homelessness, barren streetscapes, and urban failure was created--and the latest attempts simply continue this cycle. People see a block of vacated stores and assume that they closed because the market was so bad--not that THEY WERE CLOSED BECAUSE THE CITY FORCED THEM OUT, or some skyscraper-crazed developer deliberately ended their leases. In this case the homeless become a useful target of blame: that historic structure that burned down was some homeless guy's fault, not the product of an arsonist with a pocketful of developer's cash, and questions about preservation and adaptive reuse turn, like the buildings themselves, to ash and rubble.

For those who think downtown lacks culture: You probably live in the suburbs, and you probably don't know what an urban culture is. Urban culture is based on neighbors and neighborhoods--on urban inhabitants who know each other because they can't miss each other when we walk down the street. You don't know us because you don't see us, you spend an hour driving home to a neighborhood where your neighbors are invisible and you are equally invisible. You probably don't go to local businesses because you don't recognize them. You walked past No Jive and New Helvetia and Greta's and Cambire and claimed there were no coffee shops because there wasn't a Starbuck's. You walked past Big Mama's and B-Bop and Prevues and claimed there was no place to shop because there wasn't an Urban Outfitters. You walked past Americo's and Luis's and Camellia Cafe' and claimed there was no place to eat because you couldn't find a McDonald's. You walked past the shows at Bojangles and Capitol Garage and Old Ironsides and claimed there was no music because Sacramento doesn't have a House of Blues. Sacramento has it all, you just have to go find it--it's not quite as easy as walking through the mall and recognizing every store because they're the same stores as you find in every other mall in the country.

And, worst and most damning of all, it galls me when the neo-urbanites claim an area as "crime-ridden" or "blighted" when what they mean is that they saw non-whites there. There seems to be a lot of language going on to separate the urban experience from nonwhites: "urbane", "urbanite", anything but the term "urban" which became an euphemism for "black." (I suppose that an "urbanite" is short for "urban white"?) Downtown, it is true, has many inhabitants that are non-white. Their presence seems to be distressing to suburbanites, as is the presence of poor people, young people, old people, people with too many piercings, tattoos, or funny hair color, and, well, anyone who isn't white, of a certain age bracket, and a certain style of clothing. This diversity, this mix, is what gives a city its culture. New urbanism has to embrace diversity of incomes, lifestyles, and ethnicities or it is nothing more than new suburbanism in taller buildings.

Okay, this post has officially degenerated from talking about Sacramento's culture to grouching about people who seem to be physiologically incapable of seeing things that I see all around me. I suppose they shouldn't gall me so much: they're the ones who are apparently bored and have to stay home playing Xbox on Saturday nights while I'm out seeing some great band.

6 comments:

Central City said...

"You walked past No Jive and New Helvetia and Greta's and Cambire and claimed there were no coffee shops because there wasn't a Starbuck's. You walked past Big Mama's and B-Bop and Prevues and claimed there was no place to shop because there wasn't an Urban Outfitters. You walked past Americo's and Luis's and Camellia Cafe' and claimed there was no place to eat because you couldn't find a McDonald's. You walked past the shows at Bojangles and Capitol Garage and Old Ironsides and claimed there was no music because Sacramento doesn't have a House of Blues"

Wburg ,I couldnt have said it better myself

Touche !

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this. I am a Los Angeles native, in my mid-twenties and planning on relocating to Sacramento State Univ. to complete my degree soon...and I was imediately drawn there BECAUSE of the uniqueness of culture. I based my decision on which northern school I would attend moreso on Sacramento, as opposed to the college itself. I was searching the web for info on Sacramento culture as I would like to immerse myself once I do move, and your blog came up. You are a very good writer and thank you for the info...
Take care.

Anonymous said...

Dude I'm sorry, but your arguments are weak and lame. Yes this article is many years old, but its still as valid now as it was then.

I challenge you: cite one example of culture in Sacramento. I'm talking actual culture dude, not waving to your neighbor on the street or seeing some local DJ or having a cup of coffee. CULTURE.

You can find little places to shop, nice little restaurants, and all kinds of friendly people in a small town like Sonora, CA or Angels Camp, CA. You've yet to actually cite an example of something CULTURAL that doesnt involve eating/drinking/partying/or socializing.

Honestly, you know what it is?

People who move to Sacramento from places that actually understand that building museums, architectural wonders, opening medical research centers, having a professional choir or orchestra, and more are saddened to learn that Sacramentans or whatever we're called (who honestly cares? everyone who lives here aspires to be in LA or the Bay anyway) think culture means eating out or going to some show.....

helena said...

I am seventeen. I am moving to sacramento in just a few more weeks. And I chose to live in Sacramento because of its culture. One of the many reasons i am moving is for school of course. My mother asked why i chose Sacramento of all places, like there was something wrong with it. And i told her i want to be somewhere with culture, with people that see the unique things in the world and love them for what they are. So many people judge you for what you look like. The few times i have visited Sacramento, i wasn't shunned by people when i walked by. I just hope that i am making the right choices and Sacramento is as wonderful as i see it.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully put!

wburg said...

3 years late to respond to Anonymous, but...what do you mean by CULTURE? Like, specifically, can you give me a list of what CULTURE means to you? Can you define the term?

You mentioned museums, architecture, medical research, choir and orchestra, all of which we have here, so I assume that you're the sort of person I talked about in this post, seven years ago: someone who doesn't bother to find out what our city has to offer, but simply assumes that we don't have it.

I define culture the way I did because that's a large part of culture to me. I don't have all that much interest in "high culture" like fine-art museums, opera, orchestral music and so on. But I don't consider that the only definition of culture; it also comes from working people, expression of local art, and is a natural product of city life. I find it all over, but some choose to ignore it. Thanks for providing an example of just what I chose to mock in this post.