Not a pretty picture

What happens when North Sacramento tries to convert a rough-and-tumble underdog neighborhood like Del Paso Boulevard into an arts district? Not much.

photo by Larry Dalton

On a brilliant summer morning on the first Saturday in July, Rob Kerth nibbles on an omelet at the Uptown Café in North Sacramento. The former city councilman and failed Sacramento mayoral candidate lives less than a half-mile away; he’s on his home turf. Yet he seems oddly out of place, a stranger.

It’s not just that the short bicycle ride from his home in the Woodlake area to the restaurant near Del Paso Boulevard has taken him from an exclusive, secluded enclave to the rusty gateway of a rundown neighborhood and blighted business district. That dichotomy has existed in North Sacramento, where Kerth was born and raised, since the 1960s.

The reason his shoulders are slumped, making him appear as thin and hollow as a scarecrow that’s had the stuffing kicked out of it, is that he tried to do something about it, and failed. He has the body language of a man who does not want to be noticed. An acquaintance passing by the table spots him anyway.

“Hey, Rob, haven’t seen you around for a while.”

Kerth nods, as much in agreement as to say hello. Since losing a close mayoral race to Heather Fargo last year, he’s been lying low, licking his wounds, looking for work. He landed a job as a project planner with the Tree Foundation, which allows him to spend more time with his wife and daughter. He says he doesn’t miss being in the eye of the storm.

“It’s not so bad being a recovering politician,” he says.

It’s not so easy to believe him. Kerth had big plans for Del Paso Boulevard. As a city councilman in 1992, he began working with business leaders and members of the arts community on the concept of recreating North Sacramento as an arts mecca. Fellow Woodlake residents such as North Sacramento realtor Bob Slobe, and gallery owners Michael Himovitz and Chuck Miller, agreed that Del Paso Boulevard had the potential to become Sacramento’s SoHo. The ball was rolling, and the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency (SHRA) targeted the 10-block strip of Del Paso Boulevard running northeast from the Highway 160 exit to El Camino Avenue for “artistic redevelopment.” Thereafter it became known as Uptown.

Except no one ever calls it Uptown. The name has never really stuck, and Del Paso Boulevard has become one of those redevelopment projects that always seem to be just one mysterious step away from making it. Many felt that step had been taken when the Michael Himovitz Gallery moved from downtown to Uptown in 1997. The completion of the $21.5 million Arden-Garden Connector highway in 1999 was also heralded as the final piece of the puzzle. Kerth, had he won last year’s election, certainly would have been in a position to give his home district that last final boost over the top.

But alas, he lost, and after a decade-long effort, the outlook for Del Paso Boulevard, in terms of it becoming an arts mecca, is bleaker than ever. There have been more steps backward than forward. The number of galleries has been halved in recent years, and the area continues to be defined by greasy spoons like Sammy’s and Li’l Joes and porn shops such as Goldie’s. Despite increased police presence in the neighborhood, particularly on Second Saturdays, crime remains a problem, a point made fatally clear in November 1999 when Kyle Billing, 23, a Jesuit High School alum and a recent graduate of the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago, was murdered while moving into his new studio space just down the street from the Uptown Café.

The latest reversal came in April of this year, when Chuck Miller, owner of the Himovitz, announced the gallery was closing. After 20 years as one of the top art houses in Sacramento, Miller said the gallery had been unable to attract enough customers to Del Paso Boulevard to stay in business.

“On a personal level, the closing of the Himovitz hurt a lot,” Kerth says. “We were all really proud of it. In terms of the art-related development in the community, it’s a step backward … but we haven’t tripped and fallen.”

Perhaps not. But lately, there’s only one direction Uptown seems to be going, and it’s not up.

It may not look like it today, but once upon a time, North Sacramento was one of the most desirable neighborhoods in the region.

“It was the Granite Bay of its day,” Kerth explains. “Grant High School was the No. 2 rated high school in the state for academics and athletics. When things went well, you moved to North Sac.”

Allen Denault (left) and Steve Vanoni (right) opened Gallery Horse Cow last month.

photo by Larry Dalton

The area thrived through the Teens and the ’20s, when Del Paso Boulevard doubled as Highway 40, the major route over the Sierras, and businesses prospered from the passing traffic. Kerth’s family owned the Iceland skating rink, where mothers can still be seen ushering future Peggy Flemmings to the rink early on Saturday mornings. But other than that, you won’t see much traffic on Del Paso Boulevard on Saturday morning, or any other morning for that matter.

“In 1949, they put in Highway 160,” Kerth continues. “Or as we called it, the North Sac bypass.” The new freeway effectively isolated North Sacramento, and continues to do so to this day. In order to get to Del Paso Boulevard from downtown Sacramento, motorists have to travel north along 16th street to Highway 160 and hopefully not miss the confusing exit off the left side of the highway that leads to Del Paso Boulevard.

By the 1960s, decreased traffic had hollowed out the business district. Deterioration of the schools and the neighborhoods followed suit, as Sacramentans sought out new housing developments east of the city in Carmichael and, later, Citrus Heights. North Sacramento’s population dwindled and Del Paso Boulevard had become a barren, crime-ridden wasteland of blighted Art Deco buildings fringed by dilapidated Section 8 housing.

It didn’t fit the vision Kerth, Slobe and other residents of upscale Woodlake had for North Sacramento so, in the early 1990s, they went to work. As the Del Paso Boulevard project began to take off, it seemed like the strategy was going to work. Artists and gallery owners, enticed by studio and show spaces that were offered for low rents and in some cases no rent at all, flocked to the area. New, innovative businesses, such as Design Mart, an upscale interior design boutique store, began refurbishing and occupying the boulevard’s abandoned buildings.

At the time, few people questioned the wisdom of splitting up a Sacramento gallery scene that was just beginning to come into its own. Most of the galleries were located in Midtown—anchored by the powerhouse Himovitz Gallery—and many of the owners had agreed to plan their show openings on the second Saturday of each month. This permitted art lovers the chance to view the latest works of local artists while enjoying a pleasant walk along Midtown’s tree-shrouded streets. Del Paso soon joined the Second Saturday fray with Second Shift, an art walk timed to begin after the Midtown galleries had closed. Second Shift became a hit, and because of the time lag, both scenes seemed to prosper.

But the history of Sacramento is littered with the corpses of failed artistic endeavors. The Himovitz is just the latest victim. In the 1990s, the city lost its symphony, and virtually every arts organization in town, from the smallest gallery to the Sacramento Theater Company, continually complains about the lack of financial support it receives. Often, these complaints are peppered with words such as “cow town” and “rednecks.”

“Sacramento is a great town for art and artists,” says Ken Magri, an art history professor at American River College and art critic for the SN&R throughout much of the 1990s. “But as long as Sacramento continues to think that cable TV is high culture, it’s going to be a bad town for art appreciation. People just don’t want to buy art here.”

It can also be argued that the arts, particularly the visual arts such as painting and sculpture, have alienated themselves from popular culture. More often than not, the artists themselves tend to be a brooding, anti-social lot, and some art critics cloak their reviews in esoteric language only experts can understand.

Local artist Steve Vanoni believes he’s found the antidote to this disconnect between art and popular culture. It’s called “outsider art,” paintings and sculptures created by artists who have no formal training, no knowledge of art trends or history.

“They just make stuff,” Vanoni says, motioning toward the back wall of Gallery Horse Cow on Del Paso, where approximately two dozen paintings by outsider artists from the southern United States have been hung salon-style in preparation for next week’s Second Saturday show. Particularly impressive is the work of 93-year-old Jimmy Lee Sudduth, who has been using mud and honey since the age of 3 to create the rich, powdery brown tones he uses in his depictions of farm animals, bicycles and other everyday objects. It’s simple, direct art.

“You don’t have to think about it,” Vanoni says in a voice that sometimes strains. His blue-gray eyes sparkle in a handsome, rugged face that’s just beginning to show the signs of aging. With his athletic body and close-cropped dark hair flecked with strands of gray, he looks like he might be one of the last Beats. “It is what it is,” he says referring to the art.

Such sentiments might not go over so well in the high-brow art world—which, it should be noted, has spent more than a few $10 words praising Vanoni’s complex, richly layered paintings —but they seem to be playing well on Del Paso Boulevard, where Vanoni and partner Allen Denault opened Gallery Horse Cow last month, right next to a door shop, a couple of blocks up the street from the Uptown Café. In fact, as Vanoni explains the history of outsider art, an event occurs that is so rare it must be noted here: A customer walks in, it’s not Second Saturday, and she actually knows what she’s looking at.

Marion Northcutt hails from Atlanta, where she has been collecting outsider art for the past four years. Her parents live in Sacramento, and on this particular visit, she decided to search for local art galleries on the Internet. She made her way to Del Paso Boulevard, where she accidentally stumbled upon Vanoni’s gallery. They quickly become engrossed in conversation about their favorite outsider artists.

“Do you have any of R.A. Miller’s stuff?” Vanoni asks.

“I have a little ‘Blow Oscar’ and a ‘Superman.’ ”

Go to Del Paso Boulevard on any day of the month except Second Saturday, and this is who you’re likely to see: Nobody.

photo by Larry Dalton

“Cool. I have a little ‘Blow Oscar’ there,” Vanoni says, pointing to a painted tin cutout of a man playing a trumpet. The man’s hat has “Blow Oscar” printed on it. Blow Oscar is apparently a figure from Miller’s childhood. “You got any Willie Jenks?”


“Cool. You’ve got to get some Willie Jenks if you’re living in Atlanta.”

One of the advantages of selling outsider art, Vanoni says, is that just about anyone can afford to buy the work of the acknowledged masters of the genre. For instance, Jimmy Lee Sudduth’s mud-and-honey paintings range from $500 to $1,200 in price.

“I can’t even afford to buy one of my stupid-ass paintings,” says Vanoni of his own work, which he used to show frequently at Himovitz. “There’s stuff in this show that you can buy for under $100.”

Northcutt manages to slip out without buying anything, but promises to come back. “This is going to be a good spot,” she says.

Vanoni likes promoting his outside artists, but Horse Cow’s success is secondary to his primary goal: making new art in the Wal-Mart-sized warehouse behind the gallery. He’s eager for Second Saturday to be over, so he can begin work on his annual project for Burning Man.

On a pleasant summer evening on the second Saturday of July, the art-goers begin filtering into the Art Foundry at 10th and R streets in Midtown promptly at 6 p.m. Second Saturday is still a strong draw in Midtown, and tonight’s buzzphrase, uttered by Foundry president Alan Osborne, is “art in action.” Galleries across the country have learned that audiences want more than just to view the latest exhibit. They want live demonstrations, hands-on experiences, which is why the Foundry, in addition to exhibiting the ceramic sculptures of Larry Love and the paintings of Gary Denmark, also offers a bronze pouring demonstration and a chance for adults and children to make their own monoprints.

Osborne admits that he was slightly confused when Chuck Miller, who took over the Himovitz after his longtime partner Michael Himovitz died, decided to move the gallery to Del Paso Boulevard.

“He had a really going concern when he was downtown,” Osborne says, adding that he has always found the sheer width of the boulevard imposing. “With Del Paso … I guess there just wasn’t enough support out there.”

Still, Osborne thinks Uptown can make it. Greg Barton, owner and operator of the Barton Gallery at 17th and I streets, isn’t quite so sure.

“It’s over,” he says of the Del Paso scene.

Barton, who, with his wife and brother, also runs Michelangelo, the restaurant adjacent to his gallery, admits that the eatery has helped his gallery stay alive. Running a gallery is hard work, and the fact that some people are still talking about a Del Paso Boulevard arts rebirth after nearly 10 years of trying to get it off the ground irritates him.

“Portland did it in three years,” he says with disgust.

Why has it failed?

The respected Michael Himovitz Gallery closed in May.

photo by Larry Dalton

“Location, location, location. You can’t get there. Unless you know that 16th Street goes to Del Paso Boulevard, you’re never going to find it. Midtown is still where it’s happening. Midtown is still where it’s at.”

By 9 p.m. on Second Saturday, Del Paso Boulevard is a black ribbon leading into a heart of darkness. The half-dozen or so galleries that remain open—Sol Ceramica, Runningstream Gallery, Gallery Horse Cow, Matrix, the Center for Contemporary Arts and the Dorion Gallery—are spread out across six long city blocks. The lights beaming from their storefronts, separated by the vast stretches of inky blackness in between, appear like campfires of remote jungle outposts. What was just a few short years ago a thriving, if somewhat scraggly scene has dissipated into a few scattered studios visited by handfuls of stragglers. The street, even the dark corners surrounding the light rail stop, don’t feel all that dangerous. Just empty. Lonely. Dead.

A modest crowd is gathered at Gallery Horse Cow. Vanoni has three potential buyers. Outside in the street, Izzy Schwartz sells paintings out of his “MiniVan-Go Gallery,” a white delivery van he converted into a rolling art gallery several years ago with which he’s been plying the Second Saturday trade ever since. This month’s show is called “Six-by-Six By Twelve,” a dozen six-inch square paintings by 12 different local artists. He’s sold three so far tonight.

“I hope not,” he answers when asked if the closing of the Himovitz has doomed the Del Paso Boulevard art scene. “But it’s certainly changed my scenery.” He’s just come from Midtown, and normally about this time, until the Himovitz closed in May, he’d be parked somewhere near it. In the late 1990s, he’d work the galleries up and down the boulevard. “There’s half as many galleries as there were four years ago,” he says. While he and others say the Del Paso Boulevard turnout for June’s Second Saturday event—the first held without Himovitz—was surprisingly strong, tonight’s thin crowd has Schwartz worried.

Moving north up the Boulevard, the upscale Enotria Café and Wine Bar is doing a fairly brisk business, thanks to the Second Saturday crowd and a raucous going away party a group of artists are throwing for a departing colleague. Next to the restaurant, in the Art Deco roundhouse that used to serve as a Swanson’s dry cleaners, one of two Phantom Galleries in operation tonight hosts a group show featuring paintings and ceramic works by a pair of local artists. It is here, at the roundhouse, beneath the Enotria sign with the arrow that playfully encourages Arden Way motorists to turn on to the boulevard, that one of Del Paso’s greatest wonders is encountered.

It’s called the Connectopus, or at least it should be. The intersection of Del Paso Boulevard, Arden Way, Canterbury Road and Grove Avenue, crisscrossed by a pair of light rail tracks, controlled by a confusing array of traffic signals, may be the most unfriendly pedestrian crossing in the city, particularly now that the much vaunted Arden-Garden Connector has been completed. Like the Himovitz, the connector was one of those missing ingredients that would return North Sacramento’s glory days. Rob Kerth says it is well on its way to achieving the goal of relieving traffic congestion in the Natomas/North Sacramento area.

But in actual operation, a different interpretation presents itself. Like Highway 160 before it, the Arden-Garden Connector can be seen as a Del Paso Boulevard bypass. Motorists traveling in both directions on Arden Way, intimidated by the confusing intersection, concerned about the lack of parking in the area, or with no real business on Del Paso Boulevard, pass straight through the intersection in large waves. The arrow on the Enotria sign, put up before the Connector was completed, has become a forlorn beacon.

It can take up to 10 minutes to cross the intersection on foot, and if the hour is getting late, it’s best to step lively. We’re not talking about the city that never sleeps here. The galleries on Del Paso Boulevard, some of which once partied into the wee hours of the morning, now close promptly at 10 p.m.

“It’s not just the Himovitz closing,” says Jeanette Clark, administrative director of the Matrix Gallery, who was kind enough to open her gallery’s doors after the early witching hour had already passed. “The number of galleries has been halved. There are fewer Phantom Galleries. The North Sacramento Chamber of Commerce, which runs Uptown Arts, doesn’t have a person, even half-time, to keep it going.”

Like the Midtown galleries, Matrix has survived by diversifying. More arts in action. In addition to the gallery, the organization has focused on arts education and outreach, offering workshops and classes for fees that help offset the cost of running the gallery. “We’re doing well,” Clark says. “I wouldn’t say the gallery is doing well, but we’re doing well.” In fact, the organization is currently scouting around for a larger space, and the search isn’t being confined to Del Paso Boulevard.

“I don’t have any resentments about being here,” she says, despite the fact that upkeep of the building hasn’t kept pace with the rising rent. “But we have to have more space. We need a member’s gallery, we need shop space, we need a classroom, we need a press center. We’re choking here. We absolutely have to have more space.” If they find the right space on Del Paso Boulevard, they’ll take it, she says. But they’re looking elsewhere, too, and expect to be announcing a decision on the move soon.

If Matrix moves off the boulevard, it will be yet another lethal blow to a fledgling arts district that just can’t seem to get off the ground. There are some reasons to remain optimistic about the area’s future as an arts mecca. Surreal Estates, a unique collaboration between local government agencies, business interests and artists, expects to break ground on a complex that will house a dozen artist live/work spaces in September. The Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission will move its City Hall offices to the boulevard in August—after first addressing safety concerns female employees have raised about parking in the Del Paso Boulevard area. Dan Friedlander, a native Sacramentan who opened a branch of LIMN, his successful San Francisco-based contemporary furniture gallery, in Del Paso in 1999, remains one of the area’s most ardent business and arts boosters. Already, there is talk that another high-end furniture store may soon take up residence in the space once occupied by Himovitz.

But tonight, on the second Saturday in July, just up the street from Matrix, the dark and empty Michael Himovitz Gallery speaks louder than Del Paso Boulevard’s dwindling number of supporters. Its ominous silence is echoed by an empty gallery across the street, next to the Kentucky Fried Chicken, where a blond woman dressed in black sits alone behind a round table. Behind her on the wall hangs an abstract painting of a flower, a cross between Georgia O’Keeffe and a head-on collision. Similar paintings line the walls of the otherwise bare room. They’re the work of Randel McHone, a gangly, goateed redhead who walks in from a back room. McHone, on the spur of the moment, decided to throw an art show on Del Paso Boulevard. So he contacted the building’s owner, offered to do some handiwork in exchange for free use of the space, and in three days time, voilà, instant art gallery.

He’s done Del Paso before. “I had one of the first galleries, eight years ago,” he says. “I sold one painting in a year, but I didn’t care.” He dreams of someday opening a museum of modern art, in Sacramento, maybe right here on Del Paso Boulevard. There’s a gigantic building down the street that’s for sale for just $180,000. Even though he admits that the Del Paso Boulevard art scene isn’t anywhere near what it used to be, he’s got his eye on the building.

Is Sacramento, a city with a long history of ambivalence toward the fine arts, ready for such a museum? For McHone, the question is moot. Are artists out of touch with a culture that’s being raised on cable TV and the Internet? Absolutely, he agrees, and that’s the way it should be. “Artists out of tune?” he muses. “I would say that is highly hopeful.”

It’s the kind of irrational exuberance that used to infuse the Del Paso Boulevard arts scene, and is still exhibited by its longtime supporters. Back on that first Saturday in July, Rob Kerth, still smarting from a painful political defeat that stripped him of the power to influence the neighborhood he has spent his entire life in, managed to adjust the strange calculus of redevelopment by breakfast’s end, creating a scenario that’s slightly more palatable than the idea that Uptown is truly going down.

“It takes as long to fix a community as it took for the community to go down,” he said. He figures North Sacramento peaked in 1950 and reached its low point in 1990. That’s a 40-year plunge. And another 40 years to climb back up. Del Paso Boulevard rebirth should be complete in, oh, say, 2030.

Rob Kerth saw the fall of Del Paso Boulevard, but he may not live long enough to see the rise. That’s all right with him.

“The people who start the rebirth are never around at the end,” he says.