Sacramento native Brandon Shimabukuro never thought of his hometown as the “City of Trees” until he first saw the phrase painted about a dozen years ago on the Freeport water tower sitting off Interstate 5.
He’s since passed that silver landmark countless times on his way to Kennedy High School and the radio station Hot 103.5, where he hosts a nightly hip-hop show. He even began using the catchphrase “Tree city, what’s popping?” during the broadcast.
Then, one morning last month, the “City of Trees” was gone. The tower had been repainted to read “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital,” paying homage to Sacramento’s self-proclaimed prominence in the organic “eat local” food world. The 26-year-old disc jockey, as well as many others in the city, were not pleased.
“It was like a slap in the face,” Shimabukuro said. “They didn’t really bring it to anyone. Nobody knew why it was happening.”
Ever since, a debate has erupted in Sacramento about the revamped water tower and what it says about Sacramento’s identity. Some backers of the change, such as Mike Testa, chief operating officer of Visit Sacramento, called the new slogan long-due recognition of one of the most productive farm areas in the world and the culinary scene that has grown up around it.
Others, such as Shimabukuro, say it’s an abrupt erasure of Sacramento’s leafy heritage – not to mention a denial of reference to“trees,” slang for marijuana. Shimabukuro posted a video on Facebook calling the act “vandalism.”
“Many Sacramento natives, including myself, grew up seeing ‘City of Trees’ on that water tower almost every day of our lives coming and leaving from home,” wrote Kelan Johnson, who’s organized an online petition demanding a return of the old motto. “The water tower is not just a billboard advertisement to funnel tourists in to spend their money at our local restaurants.”
More than 3,000 people have signed the petition on Change.org, which Johnson said will be delivered to Vice Mayor Rick Jennings and Ray Tretheway, executive director of the Sacramento Tree Foundation, in the coming weeks.
The paint job was Jennings and Testa’s idea, they said, inspired by the city giving itself that honor in 2012 with the support of local chefs and farmers. Visit Sacramento, the renamed Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau, paid the entire $23,500 cost to repaint the tower, Testa said.
“When you bring about change, some people are going to hate it,” he said. “We expected some people to disagree, but to this extent, no.”
Jennings said Sacramentans should take pride in their city’s growing culinary prowess, which has included dozens of new craft breweries, renowned restaurants and other purveyors of fine foods.
“Positioning Sacramento as ground zero for locally sourced, fresh food that contributes to one’s quality of life is incredibly powerful since it targets every demographic in the world – because everyone eats,” Jennings said.
Local historian William Burg, however, said Sacramento can’t really claim the honor, since most of its “locally grown” food comes from farms outside the city limits. “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital” also ignores the city’s industrial heritage, Burg said.
“The problem is that we are just fork,” Burg said. “Every city is ‘farm-to-fork.’ ”
Some Sacramentans such as Shimabukuro decried what they said was the lack of transparency in how the paint job was approved and executed. The city, which owns the water tower, didn’t hold public meetings or discussions with constituents before repainting the tower, according to Jennings’ office.
For others, the new slogan came down to a question of taste.
“ ‘Farm-to-Fork’ just doesn’t flow well,” said Enjoli Maeweather, 38, a housing technician for the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency who moved to Sacramento last December. “What attracted me to the city was all these trees in the area.”
Sacramento was the first city in California to be designated a “City of Trees” 39 years ago by the Arbor Day Foundation. The foundation gave the title to Arbor Day-observing cities with a public tree care ordinance, a community forestry program with at least a $2 per capita annual budget and tree protection laws. More than 100 other California communities have since received that same honor.
Originally prone to epidemics of cholera, malaria and encephalitis that spread more easily in hot conditions, Sacramento’s founders discovered that large, old trees could cool people down during the summer months and help attack the spread and symptoms of those diseases, Burg said. Gold prospectors chopped down many of those trees, but the arborists that followed eventually won out.
“Many arborists from the Northeast brought tree planting knowledge with them when they came to Sacramento,” Burg said. “They planted to create shade and make a hot city more bearable. This movement made the city more livable.”
More than 150 years later, Sacramento is the fourth-greenest city in the world, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Senseable City Lab based on the amount of green visible to a pedestrian.
“Trees are a part of our DNA,” Tretheway said. “It’s sad to see the economic value of our urban forest being undermined.”
In the next few weeks, the Sacramento Region Business Association will invite community members and leaders to discuss how to adopt “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital” as a regional project, said Joshua Wood, the association’s CEO. That could include new investments in education, local farmers and restaurant owners.
The greater Sacramento region includes about 1.5 million acres of regional farmland, growing crops such as almonds, tomato and wine grapes, as well as 99 percent of California’s rice crop, according to Visit Sacramento. Visit Sacramento counted more than 40 farmers markets in the region selling diverse and high-quality crops year-round.
For now, the city has no plans to revisit the water tower issue, which means farms and forks, and not trees, will greet drivers along Interstate 5.
“This can be a greater project than anything we’ve ever done,” Wood said. “It’s something that has so much more cachet if we have the vision as a region. This is a regional movement recognizing who we are.”