Sacramento's report card: SN&R writers grade the city

We love the 916. But, midway through 2013, it's obvious that Sacto isn't always the hottest student.

illustrations by mark stivers


First, let's get this out of the way. SN&R isn't going to bribe you with cash for good grades. There won't be a 20 spot for every A, or five bucks for a B. We're not Granite Bay parents. On the flip side, we won't be taking away the car keys for those D's, either. Read SN&R's midyear report card, take it to heart, and improve for all the right reasons.

<p>Soccer and basketball games and local restaurants would benefit from improved bike friendliness and more accessible mass transit.</p>

And while there's nothing but love for the 916 here at SN&R HQ, there's also no dearth of areas for improvement. All that time you spent keeping the Kings from moving to Seattle? Good job—but you're just not studying hard enough when it comes to climate change. And a whole host of other issues. Time to diversify your efforts.

Plus, there are attitude problems. Your self-doubt, penchant for bad nicknames and that fixation with world-classness. C'mon, Sacto.

Anyway, remember, this is just a midyear report card. Effort counts down the final stretch—and we'll be watching.

Best regards,


Take me to your leader

Sacramento lacks not power players. Mayor Kevin Johnson is one of the most influential city leaders in the nation. Earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal tagged state Sen. President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg as one of the 13 most powerful Californians. But powerful leaders does not equal leadership. Despite an influx of new sales-tax dollars, the city will face unprecedented deficits and pension obligations in five years; council has no solutions. Climate change, education at all levels, public health—our leaders fail Sacramento on these issues.


Smarty rants

The area has stellar higher-education institutions in Sacramento State and UC Davis—if you can get into them and register for the courses you need. Both schools boasted record admission offers to out-of-state students, who have to pay more to attend these budget-cut, salary-hiking campuses. Sac State also recently surveyed its large contingent of “super seniors” to learn that students with more than 120 cumulative units aren’t graduating because of poor adviser outreach and class availability. That’s a great way to keep the tuition money coming, but it’s also forcing the next generation of scholars into deeper levels of debt while they waste time taking the history of basket weaving. Meanwhile, the city district closed seven schools this past spring, making the future of education resemble more of a battleground than a classroom.


How does your city grow?

The city of Sacramento faces a rare opportunity to build on past success by embracing smart growth and sustainability with urban-infill efforts such as the Sacramento Railyards redevelopment project. City planners successfully overhauled the zoning code and gave downtown more in-demand compact urban housing. Sacramento County and the surrounding suburbs, however, are still lurching between smartish growth and sprawl policies, with Elk Grove seeking to slurp up 8,000 acres of farmland. County supervisors gave the green light to the Cordova Hills development earlier this year; a slap in the face to the region’s sustainability blueprint.


Won't be inconvenienced

In 2011, the city balked at implementing mandatory energy-conservation requirements for commercial and residential properties. Ditto to plans for a Green Building Program, which would have required new construction to meet specific eco-friendly benchmarks. Council is supposed to look at these standards next year, but so far, lobbying and influence of local developers and realtors has been too much to pull the trigger. Meanwhile, experts say there is no way the city will meet its emission-reduction goals for 2020—just seven years away, FYI. That’s depressing—and it mirrors policy on mass transit and more. So it goes when it comes to fighting climate change in Sacramento.

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Not the fat of the land

When it comes to the obesity epidemic, Sacto fights the good fight. According to data provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 20 percent of adults in Sacramento County are obese or overweight, and about 18 percent don’t exercise. Compared to other California counties, the numbers actually aren’t that bad. It’s not as good as San Francisco, but we aren’t sitting on our haunches inhaling tubs of lard, either. For all our festivals celebrating beer, burgers and bacon, Sacramento also promotes biking and walking. And every time a new restaurant opens, a new fitness center is right behind it to give the fat people hope.


Good gods

Luckily for Sacramentans, California lacks the homogenous religious makeup that plagues so many of our sisters to the southeast. Even here in the Golden State, several stretches of our lush, fertile land betray a Christified, whitewashed way of living. But Sacramento boasts religious diversity and is home to nearly 600 spiritual congregations, with an impressive array of options to suit all of your spiritual cravings. Just to name a few: seven synagogues, nine mosques, four Hindu temples, eight Buddhist temples, nine Bah&#;aacute;’í congregations, one Sikh temple and every (insert string of adjectives) Church of (insert biblical noun phrase) under the sun. If you look hard enough, you can probably find a Meetup group for Pastafarians.

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Eat it?

Sacramento has innovative young chefs—Billy Ngo, Pajo Bruich, Rachel Kelley—and does a good job highlighting the importance of local and small farms, as well as home and community gardening. But several things are holding the food scene back. There are plenty of exciting restaurants dotting the greater Sacramento area, but a large majority simply aims for no higher than mediocrity. Or worse. If a single dish—bone marrrow, pork belly—catches fire, it becomes derivative quickly. And as for diversity, we’ve got everything from Ethiopian to Cambodian food—but not necessarily on the grid. Midtown and downtown need improved heterogeneity and less trendy comfort food. But the biggest peeve? We shouldn’t have to keep driving to South Sac or some other far-off suburb to get quality Asian eats. And late-night chow? Don’t ask.


Here we pay

2013 will go down as the year Sacramento gave it all up for the bouncing ball. A new minor-league soccer squad. The most valuable farm baseball team in America. Some $26 million for Carl Landry (!). Plus, big show: fighting for, and actually keeping, the Kings from moving to Seattle—courtesy of a $300 million-plus public subsidy for a new downtown arena. Say what you want about the merits of fanaticism and doling out millions to keep teams in town. Here in Sac, sports win.

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Smack talk

Remember a young Leonardo DiCaprio’s brutal detox scene in The Basketball Diaries? Sacramento needs one of those. This town loves to get shitfaced more than most. The president’s own Office of National Drug Control Policy says nearly 80 percent of people arrested in Sacramento are high on something other than life, with doubling opiate use, skyrocketing meth rates and record marijuana figures as of 2011. But it’s not just the illicit stuff. Party boys and girls stayed away en masse during the recent Rafting Gone Wild river party after learning booze was banned along the American. And, as of May, state alcohol-enforcement agents handed out 75 citations related to underage drinking on or around local college campuses. The problem is compounded by a lack of treatment programs and an abundance of incarceration for low-level possession charges. Clean yourself up, Sacramento. You’re starting to lose your looks.


Stage, right

Here’s what SN&R’s critics agree on: Capital Stage and B Street Theatre both do ambitious new plays. Sacramento Theatre Company and California Musical Theatre excel at high-quality and well-produced mainstream classics and musicals, but often lack edginess. Meanwhile, New Helvetia Theatre, Big Idea Theatre, KOLT Run Creations, Green Valley Theatre Company and other smaller companies are creating buzz with well-done productions. With regard to venues, B Street Theatre needs to hurry up and open its new space, and the Community Center Theater needs to modernize (like, yesterday; can we please add a few more women’s bathrooms, too?). On the other hand, the Grange Performing Arts Center and Harris Center for the Arts are under-the-radar places to see good productions. Overall, there’s a great theater scene. Keep it up, and keep improving!


Home is where the green is

It’s getting harder to find a home in Sacramento—if your pockets aren’t stuffed with green, anyway. The Sacramento Housing Alliance is battling city and county planners on proposed changes that “would eliminate the mixing of affordable units in new developments,” mortgage rates jumped up a percent since May, and The Sacramento Bee reports home prices are rising “faster even than the pace set during much of the last housing boom.” And we all know how that turned out.


What's in a name? (A lot!)

“Old Sac?” Really? Of all the nicknames, that’s what you want to call our historic centerpiece? Do you have any, any idea the kind of imagery that conjures for the outsider? Even “Sacto” is disturbing in its own way, though we can’t seem to put a finger on why. At this point, the only things we’ve got going for us are that we can fondly refer to our mayor as “K.J.,” and we sometimes exalt ourselves to deity status in referring to our town as the Sacred City. Here’s the deal: You end the campaign to call the K Street corridor “The Kay,” and we’ll bump this half a grade up. Extra credit: Start calling Councilman Steve Hansen “Steve-o the Han-man.”


Something old, something new

Sacramento has lost some landmark gems to this lousy economy. The Beat record store stopped spinning discs in Midtown. The Coca-Cola bottling plant on Stockton Boulevard fizzled out. What’s next? Our “heritage” neighborhoods near and on the grid persevere despite bustling Midtown “hospitality” districts. Yes, there seems to be a level of overall thoughtfulness when it comes to preservation of historic Sacramento—and then someone goes and tears down the 60-year-old neon sign at the TownHouse Lounge.

<p>Sacramento gets good marks for sports—but could spend more time on homelessness and preservation.</p>



You may think that this grade is too high, and maybe you’re right. Yes, homelessness numbers are terribly high, and rising. Yes, our police and park rangers are constantly chasing our homeless campers around, refusing to let them create a safe space for themselves. Bee scribe Marcos Breton, when he’s not writing about sports, can’t wait to send all the campers off to Rancho Seco. We also occasionally give homeless campers fines that we know they can’t pay, and send them to jail when they don’t pay these fines and end up with standing bench warrants. And, of course, we’ve criminalized the act of feeding them from our cars out on American River Parkway. We also don’t provide them access to bathrooms. Or allow them to sleep in their own cars at night. Or—you know what? We’re actually quite bad at this homelessness thing.


Spare a nickel?

Sacramento has more charities and gives less to them than the national average, according to Crocker Art Museum CEO Lial Jones. Why so Scroogey, Sactown? Afraid someone will accuse you of generosity? Don’t worry. We wouldn’t dare.


On two wheels

People discuss bicycles and the debate often becomes about cyclists who ride on sidewalks. Or don’t obey traffic laws. Even during Bike Month, the joys and benefits of biking are shunted to the side as drivers spew their cyclist hate. Instead, how about talk of more bike lanes? Or paving more bike paths? If the city accommodates bikes (not to mention cracking down on Midtown drunk driving), cyclists will not feel so endangered that they ride on the sidewalks. Sacramento Area Bicyle Advocates executive director Jim Brown noted, for instance, that the city needs to implement a plan to make the Carlson Drive corridor between H and J streets near Sacramento State safer for pedestrians and bikes. Meanwhile, frustrated light-rail riders will have to wait another two years before new trains with lower bike-accessible floors roll out. And more bike parking, you say? Yes. And functional spots. Artistic bike racks are great, but the only people who prefer them to normal bike racks probably don’t ride bikes very often. The sculptural racks shaped like penny-farthings in front of Blackbird Kitchen & Bar on Ninth Street look cool, but accommodate just two bikes. And many popular bike destinations have few or no bike racks. Try to find a place to lock up your bike by Ella Dining Room & Bar, we challenge you. Guess its customers can’t ride in their Jimmy Choos.


Eat your veggies

In addition to no less than eight all-vegetarian or vegan restaurants in Sacramento County—with several others in surrounding counties—many independently owned eateries now take care to include animal-product-free options that are more creative than a mere side of steamed vegetables. This, plus an active Sacramento Vegan Society Meetup group with frequent events and an annual Sacramento Vegan Chef Challenge, adds up to a community that is becoming more aware of veganism. It’s a solid start, but there’s room for much growth.

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On edge much?

Don’t punch us for saying this, but you Sacramentans can be a little on the aggro side. You’ve got anger issues. Despite a statewide trend in dipping crime rates, this city still tops California’s chart when it comes to violent crime (second) and automobile fatalities (first). That’s a lot of offensive driving. On the other side of the thin blue line, police shootings doubled last year. Then there’s the weird stuff, like when a July 13 birthday party in the Gardenland neighborhood erupted into a chair-throwing brouhaha after a second group started taunting revelers. The answer seems clear: less cake and protein shakes, more yoga.


We see right through you

Props to Sgt. Jason Ramos at the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, a first responder if ever there was one when it comes to media requests. Not only is the straight-shooting former gang detective quick to return calls and emails, he gives great sound bites and—more importantly—necessary context. Would that all spokespeople were this helpful. Sacramento is actually pretty decent when it comes to government transparency, with most meetings televised, video-streamed or audio-filed for your remote pleasure, and previously guarded institutions like the po-po going all Twitter happy (10,000 followers and counting!). But there are some officials who never return our calls, press flacks who think their job is obstructing—rather than facilitating—information, and state lawmakers who tried to quietly neuter the California Public Records Act earlier this year. Add in Mayor Kevin Johnson’s “shadow government” and the public-spurning closure of city schools, and Sacramento isn’t that transparent, after all. Actually, it’s kind of muddy.

<p>Sacramento: Not for lovers?</p>


You are what you don't eat

Fad diets come and go, but gluten-free seems to be sticking around since it emerged on the scene a few years ago. Part carb diet, part celiac allergy, the anti-gluten movement coincides with the paleo diet—where you eat foods our Neanderthal ancestors (probably) ate. Gluten-free pastas and baked goods are quickly becoming more readily available in Sacramento. Maybe it’s good to get back to our roots? Speaking of gluten allergies, an article titled “A Brief History of Bread” (at suggests humans started baking bread around 30,000 years ago from ground grains and water. So much for paleo.


Where is the love?

This is not a town for dating. I repeat: You will not enjoy single life in Sacramento. To begin, the dating pool is remarkably shallow, and first-date options are limited to improv comedy or uncomfortable conversation at the Shady Lady Saloon. Add that to the fact that Sacramento County has the third highest rate of gonorrhea in the state (particularly for the 18 to 29 demographic), and you’re left with the burning sensation that this town just might not be for the young and free.


I hate myself

You know, a lot of people move here, and they’re impressed with this town. It’s bike-friendly and beer-savvy. It’s civically engaging, the capital of our nation’s most populous state, and the music and arts scenes are truly unique. Yet every day we hear Sacramentans refer to their home as a cow town, a failure, a city that will never make it out from under San Francisco and Lake Tahoe’s shadows. But we’re sensing some changes of late, and it seems this town finally may be dealing with its low self-esteem. Midtown is weird, downtown is itching to develop, and the outlying areas are brimming with cultural diversity and a serious interest in impacting City Hall. On top of that, we’ve finally eradicated the Maloof virus. Sacramento has got to be happy about that.


Sway classy?

At what point did the rubric to measure this city’s greatness become world-classness? Did a globalized world portend a wider lens for self-reflection? Anyway, don’t kill the messenger: Let’s play the world-class game. Unequaled outdoors, remarkable eats, excellent urban neighborhoods—Sacto stands out. But the schools struggle, more Walmarts are coming, and our priorities tend to be rooted in myopic commercialism, not thoughtful, earthly possibility. But we have faith, Sacramento. We believe.

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