City Beat

Will art finally bring Sacramento back to the river?

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg says it’s about time to reconnect the city with its riverfront. Can art play a major role?
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg says it’s about time to reconnect the city with its riverfront. Can art play a major role?

There aren’t many decorations yet in Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s office at Sacramento City Hall. But he does have one thing hanging on the wall: a map of Sacramento’s riverfront.

Like his predecessors in that office, Steinberg sees the river as Sacramento’s untapped resource. The Sacramento River gave life to this city. But at some point, the river became an afterthought, cut off from downtown by a freeway. Many people only notice it when they’re driving over a bridge.

“I want to see it as a destination for the people of Sacramento,” Steinberg said. “I want the riverfront to be the place that people need to see, the place where they go when they live here or when they visit.”

Steinberg can’t stand making plans for the sake of making plans, an act that’s been a bit of a pastime at Sacramento City Hall. On the river, he said the city needs to identify two or three “targets of opportunity and then get going.”

He expects to push hard on helping the Powerhouse Science Center finally “get going.” The fundraising effort for the planned science museum on the river north of downtown is still ongoing, as it has been for years. He also thinks there’s room to improve the riverfront in Old Sacramento.

“The history of this issue is that there has been a lot of planning and not a lot of action,” Steinberg said.

Could art play a role in changing the trajectory?

The cities of Sacramento and West Sacramento, in partnership with the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission and the Crocker Art Museum, accepted a grant earlier this month from the National Endowment for the Arts. Pooled together, the organizations are launching a $250,000 program to design an art-focused landscape for both sides of the river.

Shelly Willis, the outgoing head of the Arts Commission, also wants quick action. The first in a series of community meetings to lay out the plan is expected to be held next month and Willis hopes artists will be chosen by summer for works on both sides of the river.

Imagine beginning a walk in a sculpture garden in Crocker Park, currently one of the city’s most underused open spaces. You walk past a pop-up performance space, where the symphony is playing, and take a quick look at artwork lining the median of Capitol Mall.

The Sacramento River is transformed into a moving light display, creating a funky art installation that connects both sides of the river. Massive sculptures line the river walk in West Sacramento, visible from the Tower Bridge. A poem is etched into the sidewalk on E Street in West Sac, leading pedestrians toward the river as they read the lines.

“We can use art to bridge the gaps, to drive people to walk and bike and use public transportation and explore the city beyond driving in your car,” Willis said.

Sacramento isn’t breaking new ground here. Many major cities have embraced their waterfronts, including San Francisco and Portland, Ore. But like many other things in this city, Sacramento’s desire to reconnect with its river has been stuck in the planning stage for years.

Steinberg is hoping that changes, and that the map hanging on his wall at City Hall looks a lot different someday.