History underfoot

Some evening, go for a stroll on the wooden sidewalks and cobbled streets and see what a draw Old Sacramento is to hundreds of tourists. Sometimes I wonder why. Although it’s certainly an interesting place to go, it doesn’t have a purely historical appeal.

When told of the attraction near downtown, comedian Jerry Seinfeld asked, “Why would someone hoping to draw people name it Old Sac?” He first envisioned something unattractive hanging between the legs of a naked man. But despite the nickname, the out-of-towners flow in to see the trains, the taffy shops and the stationary paddle-wheel boat. The buildings lend an air of authenticity, but the area is not overladen with real history, the story of the living and dying done in this boomtown.

Old Sac is what happens when economic necessity collides with history. In some places around the country, such as Colonial Williamsburg, they’ve stuck more to preservation, with historically restored buildings fronted by costumed interpreters, and kept the T-shirt shops to a minimum.

It’s all called heritage tourism, and it’s now as big and wide open for interpretation as the Old West. In the more traditional take on heritage tourism, each building is kept like a frozen piece of history, not like rental space. Though there are museums in Old Sac, they’re far outnumbered by touristy shops and bars, and though I have no opposition to bars (especially when dragged out with visitors), it doesn’t seem like enough is being done to present the real past.

This city could use another slice of tangible cultural heritage, and we know where to find it: right underfoot. (See “The past below.”) Although most of the underground city was ground under the heel of development, there’s still something to see and a real story to tell.