Nine reasons Sacramento is a city on the verge

The City of Sacramento and the Sacramento Kings have an agreement to buy a $8 million sculpture from world-renowned artist Jeff Koons. The sculpture would be showcased within the downtown arena plaza.
The City of Sacramento and the Sacramento Kings have an agreement to buy a $8 million sculpture from world-renowned artist Jeff Koons. The sculpture would be showcased within the downtown arena plaza. Sacramento Kings

Cities, like people, change. They grow up. They get wiser, smarter, more sophisticated. They also can lose their memories – and sense of self – growing frail from ailments like civic senility and economic osteoporosis.

Both have happened to Sacramento, which turned 165 years old on Feb. 27. But despite its age, Sacramento in 2015 seems more vital than ever, and on the verge of some sort of Gladwellian tipping point, transforming into a place that’s far different from what it was even three years ago.

Evidence of change could be found in abundance this week. The city debated the installation of an $8 million work from world-renowned artist Jeff Koons, to go in front of the new downtown arena, which has started its skyward build. The Kings are playing under hard-court general George Karl (who hasn’t had a losing season since 1987-88), and securing a Major League Soccer bid seemed closer than ever after 20,231 people crowded Hughes Stadium for a recent Sacramento Republic match. In news other than sports, Sacramento Beer Week chugged along, offering hundreds of opportunities to taste the best brews around.

Which is to say that Sacramento, once known as ground zero for inferiority complexes in the Golden State, finally seems to be defining itself on its own terms, instead of in comparison to others. World-class city? We’ll leave that designation to others. But here are nine reasons why Sacramento seems to be a city on the verge:

1. Jeff Koons’ art: Simply loving or loathing “Coloring Book,” Koons’ multihued statue chosen for outside the new downtown arena, is in some ways missing the point. Sacramento never has discussed a permanent, public display by an artist of this caliber. So let’s enjoy the conversation. As Crocker Art Museum director Lial Jones pointed out, Koons is the biggest “art star” around, and his retrospective at the Whitney in New York was the largest show ever mounted there. Sure, his work may emblematic of the “self-promoting hype and sensationalism that characterized the worst of the (art world) in the 1980s,” as the New York Times wrote. But perhaps our evolving Sacramento could benefit from a little hype.

2. Downtown arena: With a planned October 2016 opening, the $477 million downtown arena installed its first vertical steel beam Wednesday, signaling a major milestone in a project that dramatically will alter the central city. And the sports complex already is having a ripple effect, inspiring development down K Street and beyond. So will the new arena become Sacramento’s version of L.A.’s Staples Center, and ultimately inspire a full-blown downtown renaissance? Possibly. But let’s not make a habit of comparing ourselves to others.

3. George Karl: Sure, the rest of this season is going to be a time of (re)building for the Kings. But aren’t you curious what Karl – sixth in the NBA when counting career coaching victories – will assemble from the pieces? Here’s to hoping Sacramento will have the kind of team worthy of the new arena. And with Vlade Divac back in the mix, anything seems possible.

4. Sacramento Republic: “Let’s. Go. Sacramento!” Following last year’s Cinderella season, the Sacramento Republic is in a head-to-head battle with Minneapolis for an MLS expansion franchise. But even if the team doesn’t make the cut, Sacramento clearly has established itself as a soccer city. Feb. 28’s friendly against the New York Cosmos at Hughes Stadium was more than a match – it was a happening, uniting disparate demographics in a shared love of the beautiful game. The same vibe can be found at the newly expanded Bonney Field. Worth noting: Counting the turnout against the Cosmos, Republic FC has drawn an average attendance of 19,667 for five Hughes matches. That would have outdrawn 11 MLS teams last season.

5. Mayor Kevin Johnson: Johnson’s strong-mayor plan might have been clobbered at the November polls, but he still maintains a level of national visibility and influence never before seen by a Sacramento civic leader. Johnson was noted for his influence in ousting Donald Sterling as Los Angeles Clippers owner, after Sterling was caught on tape making racist comments. Johnson also became part of the national conversation on racial profiling following his outspoken comments about the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. He currently serves as president of the United States Conference of Mayors, and likely coming to a live TV camera shot near you.

6. TBD Fest: The notion of music festivals in Sacramento generally conjures thoughts of banjos, Old Sacramento and endless refrains of “Hold That Tiger.” But as the Sacramento Music Festival, formerly the Dixieland Jazz Jubilee, struggles to find its audience, the city’s emerging creative class danced to a future beat instead of partying like it was 1909. October’s TBD Fest booked such leading names in electronic music and indie-rock as Justice, Empire of the Sun and Explosions in the Sky, while a combined audience of more than 21,000 drank many craft beers and noshed on local foods. Despite financial woes, its founders continue to throw progressive-minded festivals, which may only get better as organizers become as skilled at turning a profit as throwing a party.

7. UC Davis “third campus”/World Food Center: Class is in session, and the focus is on food. UC Davis already has its Robert Mondavi Institute for food and beverage sciences. Now, plans call for a “third campus” – concentrating on agriculture, food and nutrition – that could be located in the downtown rail yard. This “World Food Center” is still a work in progress, but if all comes to fruition, Sacramento could become not only one of the best places to grab a bite – but, chew on this – a global leader in food research and academia.

8. Rise of Farm-to-Fork: Who knew that local farmland would become so hip? While the Sacramento area’s long been a hotbed of agri-business with a year-round growing season, the notion of “farm-to-fork” has turned into a mantra for the local culinary community and food enthusiasts. Farmers markets are the place to see and be seen, and tickets to the exclusive Tower Bridge gala dinner have replaced the Michael Kors purse as a status symbol for locals. Thousands, meanwhile, pack Capitol Mall for the annual Farm-to-Fork Festival, and edible gardens are becoming the norm at area schools.

9. Garth Brooks: The scope of the concert sounds like a combination of Woodstock and Wrangler jeans. An total audience of more than 90,000 will hoot and holler for Garth Brooks as the country music star plays, count ’em, six shows at Sleep Train Arena. The residency lasts from March 27 through April 1, a concert run the likes of Sacramento has never seen. It also offers a counterpoint about Sacramento’s new-found progress: We’re changing, but we haven’t lost touch with our inner cowtown. Now, how’s that for a world-class city?