Hey Forktown, what’s for dinner, a mystery meal of Sacramento identity?

Sacramento is often accused of having an inferiority complex, but that’s not really true. City and regional histories are marked by a pride in community manifested in more ways than anyone could count.


It’s not that Sacramento feels its identity is wanting. It’s that Sacramento doesn’t have a clearly defined identity at all, and people here fight about that all the time.

We saw that when the city moved toward building Golden 1 Center downtown. A segment of the population – many of them older, longtime residents – fought the new building legally and vociferously.

Sure, part of that resistance was because Sacramento was investing more than $200 million in public funds in the building. But some stemmed from the radical change in downtown, shaking up a long-held image of Sacramento as a sleepy government town. That identity was a warm blanket to some and they fought to preserve it.

That is part of our tradition of multiple non-identities. Progress has remade Sacramento many times over since the birth of the city in 1850. A gold rush town, a railroad town, a government town, a farming town, a town and region dominated by the defense industry. Sacramento has been all of that, just as Sacramento is now a town and region bursting with youthful entrepreneurs in the restaurant, beer, wine, tech and medical industries.

So many narratives form one story, but which one is representative?

Who are we?

When the Kings and the city and some wealthy locals wanted to place Jeff Koons’ Piglet sculpture, a hugely expensive work of art, in front of Golden 1 Center, the battle was rejoined. With so many other issues, such as crime and homelessness, pressing Sacramento, we packed City Council chambers. Sacramento residents fought over public art and defended the idea that Sacramento has a bustling art community, one marked on the second Saturday of every month with a celebrated art walk.

A city and a region with an inferiority complex would never draw packed crowds on a Tuesday night to discuss the role of public art and public funding – unless what? Unless those people truly cared about what Sacramento is and should be.

Who is right? Who is wrong? Everyone? No one?

This battle was joined again last week when a simple makeover of a sign on a water tower off of Interstate 5 near the Pocket/Greenhaven exit erupted into a social media referendum on Sacramento’s identity. Or lack of one. Or new one.

Who knew that the phrase “City of Trees” was actually beloved by some? And who knew that replacing those words with “Farm-to-Fork Capital” would be controversial? But it was.

“That’s vandalism,” said Brandon Shimabukuro, a 26-year-old hip-hop DJ on Hot 103.5. Befitting the cross-current of his Japanese ancestry and his love of hip-hop music, Shimabukuro’s radio’s person is “Soosh*e!”,which sounds exactly like “sushi.”

“The one thing you can say is that diversity is a big part of our city identity,” he said. “That’s stayed consistent. That’s something that we’ve claimed. Farm to fork is being pushed on us.”

Interestingly, Shimabukuro did not initially like “City of Trees” on the I-5 water tower. Visit Sacramento, formerly known as the Sacramento Convention and Visitors bureau, estimates that the “City of Trees” brand was painted on the water tower in 2005 – when Shimabukuro was in his early teens.

“I thought it was dumb at first,” he said. But the sign forced him to look at his city with new eyes and, eventually, it dawned on him. Trees were a huge part of Sacramento.

The original C.K. McClatchy, legendary owner-editor of The Bee for 50 years in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was an early proponent of trees as a source of civic pride.

McClatchy took it upon himself to be both defender and promoter of Sacramento. In print, he would tear into anyone – big-shot legislators, clergy, rich blue bloods – who dared denigrate his new town. Steven Avella, a Sacramento-born priest who wrote McClatchy’s biography, said McClatchy traveled to Paris, saw the trees lining the Champs-Élysées, the famed avenue that defines Parisian identity, and pushed the idea of trees here.

Shimabukuro grew up with that sign and that idea in his head:City of Trees. McClatchy could not have known that a 21st-century ancestor of Japanese immigrants would love his trees and his sense of community. But the sign on the water tower also has a very modern, practical meaning to the hip-hop radio DJ.

“I start all my shows by saying, ‘Tree City! What’s poppin?’ ” He paused and considered Farm-to-Fork Capital and said, “What am I going to say now? ‘Forktown! What’s for dinner?’ 

Avella said the more research he did on Sacramento, the more he learned that Sacramento lacked a clear identity because the city has remade itself so many times.

“It’s a slippery question,” he said. “The city has altered its identity from the start.” Through floods, fires and disease, Sacramento faced dire threats more than once.

“When the defense industry closed the military bases like McClellan, I thought Sacramento was in trouble, he said. “But you can’t kill it.”

You can try to sell it, which is why the farm-to-fork identity is being pushed by those pitching Sacramento as a place prime for investment and growth. Though for generations some in Sacramento rejected a legacy of agriculture – they despised being known as a cow town – food production, science and health are all integral to Sacramento’s growing local economy. Farm-to-fork means locally grown food that’s healthier, tastes better and is the backbone of the flourishing restaurant scene here.

Mike Testa, chief operating officer of Visit Sacramento, remembers traveling to big cities where his Sacramento sales pitch was blown off by people who couldn’t understand what Sacramento was about.

He said “City of Trees” was painted on the I-5 water tower because they couldn’t think of anything else. It was hardly original. Testa said a Google search turned up 25 American cities that used “City of Trees” as a promotional tool, including nearby Woodland.

But no other city close to Sacramento uses “Farm-to-Fork Capital,” he said. “Sacramento will always be the City of Trees to some, or the Camellia City. That won’t change,” he said.

“But when we started down this road (to rebrand Sacramento) we wanted to celebrate our people, our farmers, our farm workers, our produce distributors – all the people that make this community special,” he said.

“Let’s lead where we are strongest and farm-to-fork is where we can lead.”

Shimabukuro and others say they are proud of the farm-to-fork movement, but that it’s too soon to tie it to Sacramento’s identity.

Scott Syphax, a local developer, agrees.

“The real question is whether or not farm-to-fork will stick,” Syphax said.

“Our identity is not at a settled point yet. We’re not there yet,” Syphax said. “Those who are upset about the water tower should take it in stride. We’re trying to find out what fits.”

A native of Detroit, and one of the most successful business leaders in Sacramento, Syphax came to Sacramento as a 10-year-old and used to ride his bike from Meadowview and “illegally” fish near Sacramento’s water tower of controversy.

Like many of us, Syphax didn’t know much about Sacramento when he arrived and yet fell in love with the community. That love doesn’t yet translate well outside of Sacramento, but people like Testa and others are working on it.

Meanwhile, Syphax remains for his own reasons – one of many differing stories that make up one story. Though as a business leader he has spoken often about making Sacramento more than a government town, it’s that government town that has made Sacramento. “People were able to get to government jobs that became entry points to the middle class,” said Syphax. That’s one reason, he said, why Sacramento’s neighborhoods are known as the most diverse in California.

“That created more capacity for connections,” he said. “My kids have friends that look like the United Nations, which is a richer experience that can be had in most cities.

“We’re not perfect, but Sacramento offers the possibility of a better someday.”

Marcos Breton: 916-321-1096, @MarcosBreton

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