City Beat

City Beat: Cesar Chavez Plaza has its ups and downs

Claire Waggoner and Shuka Rastegarpour don’t look like bums.

And yet there they were this week, hanging out in downtown’s Cesar Chavez Plaza. They claimed to be taking a lunch break from their jobs at the Cal EPA building across the street, but that didn’t seem right.

Don’t they know some people from the suburbs call this Wino Park?

“You see a lot of things here,” Waggoner said. “We’ve seen people in really nice suits, and we’ve seen people washing themselves in the fountain.”

Rastegarpour took a break from eating her salad – a salad! – to offer her take.

“It can be a weird mix,” she said.

There’s an argument to be made that this place – the heart of the central city – is perfect just the way it is.

The developers of the new Kings arena have talked a lot about creating a gathering place for the city in a public plaza outside the facility. It’s going to have almond trees, benches and tomato plants.

But for more than 150 years, Sacramentans have been partying, playing and yelling at each other in a one-block park on J Street. What’s now Cesar Chavez Plaza was one of 10 public squares established in 1849 by John Sutter, the city’s founding father, and is one of the oldest parks in the state.

The state was going to build the Capitol on the site in 1856, but neighbors complained and the plan was abandoned after 11 days. In a town with deep connections to the labor movement, there’s been more than one case of civil unrest in a park named for one of the state’s great labor leaders.

More recently, the park across from City Hall has been the site of Friday night concerts and wine festivals. It’s also where 15,000 fans watched Kings legend Chris Webber lift Mayor Kevin Johnson into the air at a rally last year celebrating the team’s future in Sacramento.

The city spent thousands of dollars on new tables, landscaping and a renovated stage in the park. And for the last couple of years, city cops have tried to clean up the place, flooding the park with officers on bikes and horses. The efforts are paying off.

It still has its rough edges. As Waggoner and Rastegarpour dined, a guy was passed out on the grass as another gentleman did slow laps around the fountain at the center of the park, staring at everyone who passed. There were maybe 20 people in the park at noon.

But just 24 hours earlier, hundreds of downtown workers jammed the park for the season’s first farmers market. Fresh cherries and tangerines were for sale. The line for a tamale stand stretched 40 deep. The air was filled with the gentle hum of Renaldo Crooks’ saxophone playing the Rolling Stones’ “Waiting on a Friend.”

“It has its ups and downs,” Rastegarpour said, shrugging her shoulders.

The ups come one day, the downs the next.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee