These native Sacramentans left home for bigger things, like Greta Gerwig, only to return
February 10, 2018 4:00 AM

The Oscar-nominated movie “Lady Bird,” set in Sacramento, has trained a spotlight on the capital city as the pleasant but unexciting hometown of a young woman eager to escape to a bigger life elsewhere.

There’s more to the Sacramento story. Some of those who leave – some “Lady Birds” – fly home. Call it the real-life sequel.

Meet seven Sacramento women and men who left, several about the time “Lady Bird” director Greta Gerwig did, only to return.

Their city is not quite what they want it to be. They’re working on that.

Maritza Davis

Maritza Davis’ specialty, she says, is “creating something from nothing.” It’s a niche skill, she says, one that Sacramento needs.

She and husband Roshaun Davis founded an event agency called Unseen Heroes a decade ago and have used it to create some of the city’s most energy-inducing moments. They came up with the company name after hearing a Grammy award winner thanking the unseen heroes behind the scenes who make things happen.

Davis helped turn the sleepy midtown Farmers Market into a major event. They’re the creative team behind “Gather,” a popular and ethnically diverse monthly dinner and music party in the street in Oak Park.

Davis also is an organizer for what may be the most visually dramatic annual event in the capital city, the “Diner En Blanc” or White Dinner, an outdoor party attended by 1,000 Sacramentans dressed all in white, down to the shoes, dining at white-clothed tables.

Last week, she helped organize Sierra Health Foundation’s “Equity on the Mall” meeting, attended by several thousand and aimed at bringing a voice to Central Valley workers.

She says her goal is to create moments that allow people to cherish community. “People here want to interact,” she said of her hometown. “They want to break out of the mundane.”

Davis, 34, is a member of Christian Brothers High School’s class of 2002. The south Sacramento native, now living in Oak Park with her husband and three children, initially didn’t believe there was a place for her here.

She worked in Los Angeles as a manager for a restaurant chain because she wanted to be somewhere that had more culture. The company transferred her temporarily to Sacramento, but when they asked her to take a new assignment in another city, she surprised herself by saying no thanks.

She had fallen in love with the man she’d later marry. Together they talked about how to apply their love of culture here. Davis assembled “a vision board,” pasting on it the silhouette of a powerful woman in a black suit. She pasted food there. “I love food,” she said. Art collections. Music. Gatherings of people. A stack of money.

Their company has since gained a reputation for its creative approach. Christine Ault, a consultant who has worked with them, called them clever, passionate and refreshing. She cited the Gather event. “The name says everything.”

Davis hasn’t seen the movie “Lady Bird.” “It’s on my list. Maybe this weekend,” she said. But she said understands a young person thirsty for culture might feel a desire to leave Sacramento. Even now, if Los Angeles is a five on the vibrancy scale, Sacramento is just a two.

“I still think we are pretty conservative. There is still a lot of red tape when people are trying to be creative. We have a long ways to go.”

Amy Aswell

Amy Aswell is a foothills girl from Nevada County who knew she’d end up in the big city. “I didn’t really want to live in Sacramento,” she said. “I didn’t want to live somewhere that isn’t cool.”

Plot spoiler: She’s now a Land Park-based interior designer and quite happy about it.

Twenty years ago, though, Sacramento was just the field trip and shopping town down the hill. “I needed to go somewhere far away. It sounds silly now.”

The Nevada Union High School grad, class of ’97, went to graduate school in Oregon and developed a young crush on Portland, a city that exuded style and energy. She worked for the city’s sustainable development office and later for a design firm. “There were so many creative people around every corner,” she said. “You were always inspired by someone near you.”

But she was homesick. And she didn’t like the weather. She landed a job teaching at the Sacramento branch of the Art Institute of California. But she chose to live in Berkeley because she figured she’d be among more like-minded creative types in the Bay Area.

Then something changed. Driving on J Street, she would notice how hit-and-miss Sacramento was. On one block, the ornate Citizen Hotel and the stylish Grange restaurant suggested a city that was finding itself. On the next block, a blighted area of drab and shuttered low-slung buildings told the opposite story, one of a city that was waiting for someone to bring regenerative energy.

“I thought, ‘Wow, that’s interesting,’ ” she said. “I realized, this is what I was looking for. I wanted to be in a place where I could envision what a city can be. I could be part of creating something. My wheels started turning.

“That’s how I talked myself into moving to Sacramento.”

Her first idea here was really just about having ideas. She and a partner were going to put a chair on the sidewalk on J Street with an idea box next to it, and invite people to sit, look around and write down what these buildings could become.

A real paycheck, however, intervened. The Paragary restaurant group hired her to help design their Hock Farm Craft & Provisions restaurant on L Street, followed by Cafe Bernardo in the Pavilions center.

Aswell, 38, is now owner of Amy Aswell Interior Design. She has done design work for developers involved in Sacramento’s emerging urban renaissance: the Warehouse Artists Lofts on R Street, the Mill at Broadway and the Broadway Triangle town homes in Oak Park. She also designed the elegant Element restaurant in Sutter Creek.

She likes clean lines. Modern minimalism, she calls it. “Not fussy. If your home is clean, orderly and succinct, you feel your best. It frees you up to live your best life. Interiors are about emotion.”

Architect Ron “Hey, I’m a Lady Bird too” Vrilakas hired her to do design work in Oak Park and elsewhere. He said the local interior design community “has seemed a little light on young talent, so it was refreshing to work with Amy. She’s visionary and grounded at the same time.”

Being a woman in the construction world also has meant dealing Sacramento’s still conservative side. Her first day on one project, a male co-worker said, nice to meet you, can you get me some coffee? She replied, sure, but you get us coffee first. They got along after that.

She has had to work on speaking up. “I have had to trust myself,” she said. “I’ve had to talk myself up, try harder to get people to listen to me, to push an idea if I think it is a good idea.

“It hasn’t deterred me. I feel like I have risen to the occasion.”

Garrett Larsson & Brandon Salzberg

Jesuit High School grads Garrett Larsson, class of ’98, and Brandon Salzberg, class of ’00, have been building businesses together for so long they call themselves an old married couple.

They launched, grew and sold two tech companies in Silicon Valley soon after Larsson graduated from Stanford and Salzberg from UC Santa Barbara. It was exciting and lucrative. The Bay Area, they say, was the right place at the right time – the mecca of tech.

They’ve returned home to launch their newest and most ambitious endeavor. It’s called Rhombus Systems, a company that produces cloud-based security cameras for businesses. The cameras are mini-computers with facial recognition technology that can alert company security if someone is walking down a hall who isn’t supposed to be there.

Their offices on J Street downtown, in the shadow of the new Golden 1 Center, are spartan. There are a few desks, a whiteboard scribbled with notes, a pingpong table and a foosball table that’s been with them through every venture for 15 years.

Salzberg, 36, recently moved up from the Bay Area to the Arden Arcade area. Larsson, 38, will follow this summer, also moving to Arden Arcade, not far from the old high school and some old friends.

Both are married now, Salzberg to a woman from Sacramento he connected with in San Francisco, Larsson to a woman from Bakersfield he met at Stanford. Each couple has two young children. Sacramento provides a calmer family environment.

It’s a riskier place to launch their business venture, though. Sacramento is only 90 miles from Silicon Valley’s northern outposts in San Francisco and Oakland, but much farther away in mentality. Most venture capitalists who might finance their company are in the Bay Area, and more than a few might question starting a company in Sacramento.

“There is an established networking ecosystem in the Bay Area,” Larsson said. “Coming here, you are giving up that safety net of an environment you know, being with other tech companies.”

But there are good reasons why now is the moment to give Sacramento a try, Larsson said. Bay Area housing costs are painfully high. That is causing employee salaries there to be inflated. And when a young company knocks on Bay Area doors, Larsson said potential business partners and clients are apt to say: “Sorry, we already talked to 20 tech companies this week.”

Sacramento has the feeling of fertile territory. Leaders like Mayor Darrell Steinberg and Barry Broome of the Greater Sacramento Economic Council have welcomed them. Doors open when the duo knocks.

Larsson and Salzberg had worried that it might be hard to hire young engineers. UC Davis, however, has turned out to be a surprisingly good recruiting ground for talent.

The Rhombus team’s goal is to grow an international business. But Larsson also wants to help spur a tech cluster downtown. Outwardly understated and upbeat, but fiercely driven, Larsson said the seeds of his return were sown 20 years ago in high school.

“At Jesuit, they taught us to be a man for others. That has always stayed with me,” he said. “This is a chance to make a bigger impact on things that I touch. If we can employ 100 people, it makes a bigger impact to do that here.”

For his part, Salzberg said the move home fuels the natural contrarian in him. “I’m driven by going against conventional wisdom,” he said. “No, there is a better way to build that camera. No, you can build a company in Sacramento.”

Nikky Mohanna

Nikky Mohanna came home because she saw “a lot of potential to create.” It didn’t take her long to get started.

Mohanna grew up in Davis and graduated from Davis High School in 2007. She earned a degree in political economy from UC Berkeley in three years before heading off to the London School of Economics. She spent two years in London – earning a Master of Science in political economy – and several months in Tehran, where she worked on creating connections between American universities and those in Iran.

Then, in 2014, her father – longtime central city developer and landowner Mo Mohanna – told his daughter that Sacramento was having a moment. There was a new arena being built downtown and a renewed sense of optimism in the city’s future.

“It’s finally happening,” Mo Mohanna told his daughter.

And so the younger Mohanna, now 28, returned home. London and Tehran are ancient cities with little room left for new projects, but in Sacramento, Mohanna could make her mark.

“I felt like Sacramento was really in the perfect place where we have a chance to create how we want to see our city’s future,” she said.

Mohanna spoke to The Bee while standing on what will eventually be the third floor of an 11-story apartment building she is developing at the corner of 19th and J streets in midtown. The building’s construction has been meteoric since work started last summer and Mohanna said she could be finished by the end of 2018.

Once completed, 19J will be among the tallest residential towers in Sacramento. It will have 175 apartments, some of which will be “micro-units” of around 300 square feet that rent for less than $1,000 a month.

The building is Mohanna’s first as a developer. 19J is designed to attract young professionals who want to live close to where they work: it will have limited automobile parking, plenty of bike storage and an on-site car-sharing service. Those touches – along with the design of the smaller living units – were inspired in part by what Mohanna saw while living overseas.

“All of my friends in London were living in 300 square feet,” she said. “Living in other cities, you realize how people are living sustainably.”

The building also gives Mohanna a chance to tackle what is increasingly becoming a serious issue in Sacramento: the skyrocketing cost of housing. Mohanna said developers must be involved in the solution.

“There’s a lot of growth happening and a lot of exciting things to look forward to, but I think in housing we have to be mindful of ensuring that we’re able to resolve our crisis and make sure that people have the ability to afford living in the city,” she said. “The viability of our city is only as great as the workforce we are able to accommodate.”

Tre Borden

Sacramento is raising a new generation of artists. Chances are, if you’ve been involved in a major art project lately, you’ve come across Tre Borden.

Borden, 33, is a 2002 Jesuit High School grad and a childhood friend of “Lady Bird” director Greta Gerwig. He graduated from Yale University in 2006 and then moved to New York. While there, he studied at Columbia University and helped launch a business that allowed young professionals and students to order high-end business attire directly from Asia without paying the marked-up prices found in New York.

The economy crashed, so Borden moved back to Sacramento to study for the GMAT. He thought he’d be here for a couple months, then head back into the world for business school. His trip was all of 20 miles; in 2011, Borden graduated with an MBA from UC Davis.

He landed a job in former Mayor Kevin Johnson’s office researching green technology. That focus didn’t last long. Instead, Borden turned to the arts world, where he remains one of Sacramento’s most influential figures.

Borden’s job description wouldn’t fit on a business card. He connects developers, civic leaders and business owners with artists so art can be used more directly in public spaces. He helped the muralists Hennessy Christophel and Sofia Lacin raise money and work through layers of red tape to create the “Bright Underbelly” mural under the W/X freeway in downtown.

“Sacramento has been an amazing place to experiment because it’s a place where you can get on the phone and talk to the mayor or a bank and where you know most of the active artists,” Borden said. “If you know how to hustle and you work hard and collaborate with people, it’s a place where you can make cool stuff happen.”

Lately, Borden has been focusing on work with a social justice element. He’s working with Los Angeles-based artist Dorian Lynde on an installation at the California Democratic Convention later this month in San Diego. The work, called “Buying Power,” will set up a temporary shop with “a couple dozen tongue-in-cheek products that highlight issues around gender equity, sexual harassment and the wage gap, among other issues,” Borden said.

For all the progress the cultural scene has made here, there are still “resource constraints” – money issues – in the local art world, Borden said. His advice to artists: branch out a bit, work with partners in other cities, even if you decide to keep Sacramento as your home base.

“Look at Greta (Gerwig),” he said, “she had to leave to make a movie about Sacramento.”

The outside influence and connections are vital, he said, but there’s also a balance. Thousands of priced-out people from the Bay Area are moving here every month. Sacramento is regularly making “it city” lists. But we don’t want to be Portland or Austin, Borden said, places where the culture is often dictated by people moving in from other places.

“People flocking to Sacramento without any context or any relationship and they’re dominating the conversation, that would be the bad version of the future,” he said.

In this moment, Borden said the city must draw more Lady Birds back home. There are still plenty of ex-Sacramentans living in Brooklyn and the Bay Area, but where’s the fun in that?, Borden asked.

“I still feel like a lot of people who are from here feel like it would be like giving up to come back home,” he added. “But you have people who have loyalty to this home if they don’t live here now. What will be fascinating is for the city to articulate an effort to bring people home, a kind of reverse ambassador program.

“San Francisco is for people who want their city to already be figured out for them.”

Brad Cecchi

Brad Cecchi sat in a booth at his Canon restaurant in East Sacramento last week counting on his fingers.

The question was how many places he has worked at in his nearly 20-year chef’s journey from Sacramento to Colorado Springs to New York to Cleveland to Larkspur to Napa to Sacramento.

“Um, 14?” he said. “Oh no. Lark Creek Inn, One Market. So 16. And then there’s seven or eight stages (internships).”

If you’re a chef with talent and ambition, you get around. “The gypsy mentality is common,” Cecchi said. “In order to develop your own style, it’s important to work for a lot of chefs ... like an art student studying different painters.”

That’s been the case with Cecchi, 35, an El Camino High School graduate, class of ’01, who got into cooking early and left town by age 19 for cooking training in Colorado. “I’m ambitious and will chase an opportunity.”

But there comes a point, he says, if you are dedicated, talented and fortunate, when you earn “the juice” to set up your own shop and settle into a city for the long run.

For Cecchi, that moment is now. He and partner Clay Nutting recently opened Canon, a restaurant that is getting great reviews in a city where good cuisine has become a norm.

For the first time, he is a co-owner of a restaurant. He and Nutting plan to expand to new restaurant ventures, starting with a restaurant in an old art moderne city utility building in the middle of Winn Park in midtown.

“This is it,” Cecchi said. “Sacramento is at a point now where hard work has been achieved by the chefs in this town and the farm to fork movement. For restaurateurs, now is the time to be here. All the opportunity is here.”

“I was ready to come home. My wife and I are rooted here. We wanted to start a family. I have a baby girl who was born the day before Canon opened. Her name’s Wallis.

“I gave birth to one baby and my wife gave birth to the other.”

To come home to Sacramento, though, Cecchi had to leave behind a bigger world. He was executive chef at Solbar in Calistoga, where he and his staff held a coveted Michelin guidebook one star rating, bestowed annually on some of the world’s better restaurants.

Sacramento has been getting serious notice as a food town, but Michelin inspectors have not yet found their way here to check out local restaurants. So far, in Northern California, they only drop in on a swath from Healdsburg to Los Gatos, including Napa and San Francisco.

There is a chance that Michelin would at some point expand its territory to include Sacramento, given that the area is now noted for its farm to fork movement, and there is a stronger arts scene here, and people from the Bay Area are migrating here.

But Canon is far more casual than Solbar, Cecchi points out. The new restaurant is stylish, but a place where diners may come in yoga pants as well as suits. So, it’s not exactly a Michelin type of place.

“We want a national spotlight on Sacramento, through the lens of Canon would be nice,” he said. “To help bring the Michelin guide here would be wonderful. If it was a possibility, my ego as a chef says that maybe we would go for it.

“But if what we do here just brings attention to Sacramento, we are happy with that.”

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak; Ryan Lillis: 916-321-1085, @Ryan_Lillis