Downtown is important

But is it not as important as we think?

A few weeks ago, Bites wrote about the 58,000 people who used to live in Sacramento’s central city in 1950. The population of the grid is about half that today.

The main idea of that column was that for all the attention we give to downtown, for all the collective worry we have about revitalizing the core, we mostly haven’t done the one thing that would effectively add life. Which is to literally add life; to get more people living downtown.

The other problem with our downtown policy: We are way too focused on it. A lot more people live in south Sacramento than live in downtown and Midtown. But we don’t have nearly the same urgency (or money available) to build out the vacant lots there, improve transit, promote economic development and keep the streets safe.

Most Sacramentans live in what researchers call “first suburbs” or inner-ring suburbs. Some older first suburbs—like Oak Park—are also called the “streetcar suburbs,” which hints at their history and also some of the possibility for their renewal.

Other neighborhoods are post-war sprawl; beachheads for white flight which, in turn, got a lot more diverse as more affluent (and whiter) families moved on to the outer rings. But these neighborhoods are not just secondhand suburbs. Because of immigration, these communities are important places in the cultural landscape and economic development of a city.

One of the most interesting pieces of Sacramento history that Bites has read in a long time is Sacramento State University geography professor Robin Datel’s “Immigrant Space and Place in Suburban Sacramento.” It’s one chapter in a book put out by the Brookings Institution called Twenty-First-Century Gateways, but you can Google the chapter. Datel and her co-author Dennis Dingemans detail why immigrant groups live where they do in Sacramento’s suburbs. For example, she writes how the Mexicans living in the West End left—for North Sacramento, Broderick and the south-side area around the Campbell Soup Company plant—after their original neighborhood was bulldozed for urban renewal. Also fascinating is the history of Eastern European immigration into the area after the end of the Cold War, and the emergence of the Little Saigon district along Stockton Boulevard.

Researchers at the Brookings Institution and elsewhere note that first-ring suburbs are in something of a “policy blind spot,” not benefiting from the investment on the sprawling fringe, not benefiting from the back-to-downtown trend, either.

So, you end up with a doughnut of mistletoe suburbs. Rings of neighborhood decline, closing schools, empty lots, crime and increasing blight. Which is a shame really, since these neighborhoods are near downtown, close to transit and other infrastructure.

It is very, very expensive to turn around a declining downtown—at least the way Sacramento does it. A convention center here, a shopping mall makeover there, a mermaid bar or two, an NBA arena—pretty soon, you are into serious money.

Aging suburbs and commercial corridors may be renewable on a more reasonable budget. That seemed to be the message from “urban strategist” Michele E. Reeves, who recently gave a guest presentation at the Sacramento Area Council of Governments titled “Suburban Placemaking.”

A couple of tidbits: “Economically underperforming places are almost uniformly beige.” Also, “National tenants are not going to bail you out. They just aren’t.”

Reeves explained that big-name retail follows income and educational attainment. “You keep moving that further and further out. So they are going to follow and leave you with all this underinvested stuff in between.”

Reeves, who has worked on neighborhood-revitalization projects around the country—including Portland, Oregon’s Mississippi Avenue—spent about an hour-and-a-half at SACOG discussing “adaptive reuse” and strategies for retrofitting strip malls and garages and warehouse buildings, “one small ugly box at a time.” But most striking was her emphasis on local small business. “There are people out there doing amazing things in these communities. Those are the people you are going to have to look to.”

Anyway, Reeves presentation is Google-able, as is Datel’s paper and the Brookings Institution’s “One Fifth of America, A Comprehensive Guide to America’s First Suburbs,” an in-depth look at these sort of first suburbs. Downtowns are important. But so are the neighborhoods where most of us live.

So, Bites thought about doing some sort of New Year’s or year-in-review thing this week. You know, looking back, looking ahead, whatever. But it just seemed too lame.

Still, Bites would like to say a heartfelt thanks to the folks who read every week. This has always been a fun, if slightly weird, column to write. But Bites has been blown away by the support this year—in emails, social media and in person. This column doesn’t have the reach of the daily-media bigwigs, but it does have some awfully smart and compassionate, and slightly subversive, readers. You guys are awesome.