On Joel Kotkin's contentious appearance in Sacramento

Suburbia remains popular, the Bee's editorial board rotates out and the city gives away free advertising

A little while ago in the opinion section of The Sacramento Bee, editorial page editor and smart-growth enthusiast Stuart Leavenworth fumed and fretted about an upcoming Sacramento appearance by writer Joel Kotkin.

A taxpayer-subsidized speech, in fact, called, “Suburbs: Popular and Politically Incorrect.” On November 15, Kotkin will be the guest of Sacramento County Supervisor—and former developer—Susan Peters, as well as the Sacramento Metro Chamber. Sacramento County is even kicking in $15,000 toward the event.

Leavenworth is irritated because Kotkin has made a specialty out of tweaking smart-growth folks and creative-class types, arguing that what enviros condemn as “sprawl” is really just the rational preferences of the vast majority of Americans, and that policies that attempt to steer suburbanites into denser, transit-oriented living are doomed to failure.

There’s a lot in Kotkin’s writing to argue with, and some worth struggling with as well.

Leavenworth worries that Kotkin, this “skewed scholar of suburbs,” will reassure Sacramento’s businesspeople that it’s perfectly all right to pursue the same old balls-to-the-wall dumb growth, like Cordova Hills, that they’ve always done.

Probably, he will, though Kotkin’s writing is actually more interesting than that. Like when he chides communities who suffer civic “penis envy,” and obsession with the idea of being a “world class city.” He’s a critic of light-rail systems, and rail-based mass transit generally, which he sees as a benefit to affluent riders and urban developers, less useful for transit-dependent people who actually need a solid working bus system. He’s sharply skeptical of the downtown arena game, writing that, at best, such mega-projects “create a kind of Potemkin City, a showplace to relieve the embarrassment of elites and suburbanites when downtown but whose economic value doesn’t go much beyond the generally low-wage convention-and-visitors business.”

Not exactly the kind of stuff you’d expect the Sacramento Metro Chamber to pay big money to hear. (Not when they can get it for free from lots of people who live around here.) What are the chances that Kotkin lays any of it on them later this month? That would be worth at least some of the county’s $15,000.

Bites will miss Leavenworth, who is leaving his Bee gig sometime soon. His colleague Ginger Rutland left earlier this month. What will the Bee editorial page be like without them? Will it remain as vigilant against sprawl? Will it be any less nastily anti-union? (Couldn’t possibly be more.) Less or more of a cheerleader for charter schools and corporate education reform? More or less tolerant of cronyism in City Hall? Who knows? The loss of these two strong voices could be a real shake-up for the page, which is still plenty influential in this town.

In any case, Bites has met Leavenworth and Rutland and found them both to be awfully nice people, smart as hell, occasionally ridiculously off-base, and a lot of fun to read over the years. All the best.

Anyone else notice that the city of Sacramento has started offering free advertising to certain businesses on its Facebook and Twitter accounts? It’s called “Business First Fridays,” and this month, the feature was a downtown Italian place, complete with the closeup pasta-and-cheese shot, peppy ad copy, link to the restaurant’s Web page, and an offer of free gelato with purchase.

Whoever runs the city’s Facebook account says it’s not really advertising, because the city gets no revenue from it, and because it’s all part of the Sacramento Business First program run by the Economic Development Department.

Brand it however you like, free advertising is still advertising.

“Oh, Bites,” you say. “What do you have against marketing and branding and all of the things that have made Sacramento the world-class city it is today?” Nothing at all, obviously. Still taxpayer-funded free advertising really ought to be fairly distributed.

Every one of the businesses promoted by the city seems to be located on the grid. Mostly restaurants, a hip coffee shop, a salon, a party concierge (ice carving and stuff like that), the Esquire IMAX Theatre. Oh, and there’s also a drug-testing lab that got free advertising from the city. But the drug-testing lab that got free advertising from the city actually appears to have its offices outside of city limits, on Howe Avenue.

Is this a representative group of Sacramento (and Sacramento-adjacent) businesses? Is it fair to other neighborhoods? Is this a “city that works for everyone,” or are free ads just for merchants that fit a certain profile? Would the city’s Economic Development give free ads to local bail bonds, liquor stores, gun shops, adult bookstores and other workaday taxpaying enterprises? Maybe. It would be interesting to find out.