California Forum

One lesson from ‘Lady Bird’? Don’t make it unaffordable for her to come home

Financial security and Sacramento real estate play pivotal roles in the backdrop of “Lady Bird,” Greta Gerwig’s film about her hometown. Here, Saoirse Ronan and Lucas Hedges meet outside the Fabulous 40s property that plays her dream house, and his grandmother’s home.
Financial security and Sacramento real estate play pivotal roles in the backdrop of “Lady Bird,” Greta Gerwig’s film about her hometown. Here, Saoirse Ronan and Lucas Hedges meet outside the Fabulous 40s property that plays her dream house, and his grandmother’s home. AP

“Lady Bird” is not only the movie of the year; it’s a love letter to Sacramento. And for so many of us born and raised here, Greta Gerwig created a film that feels deeply personal and true.

For me, it isn’t just because I graduated from the same Catholic high school (St. Francis), or grew up in the Pocket area and pined to live in the Fab 40s. It isn’t just because I smoked a few clove cigarettes and went to hear melancholy bands.

Just as it was sounding like her life was less impressive, she declared, ‘But, you know, I bought a house.’ The other girl’s jaw dropped: ‘You bought a house?!’

It’s also because Sacramento has a distinct personality. The River City has always been a middle- and working-class town – full of state workers, immigrants and young people who dream of escaping to more glamorous and exciting places.

Like Lady Bird, I fled east for a liberal arts college in New England. But eventually, despite the romance of distance and excitement of youthful adventure, the gravitational pull of Sacramento won out.

My father, Angelo Tsakopoulos, had come from Greece at age 14 – alone, with no money and speaking no English – to work in the fields of Lodi as a farmworker. He had made his way to Sacramento State and stayed to lay down roots. The opportunity to start and grow our own business was the sacred promise of America. Not something to take for granted – and I was more than willing to pitch in.

For me, coming home to work with my father meant learning how to build master-planned communities. He had become a real-estate developer, and I joined him, working my way up from project manager to president of the company. For 18 years, I experienced the thrill of helping thousands of families in the Sacramento area realize their American dream – of home ownership – before leaving Sacramento a second time, at 43 with a husband and two young boys, to join the Obama administration as the U.S. ambassador to Hungary.

In this former Soviet satellite country, I witnessed the fallout from the 2008 global recession: The rise of the far right, the unraveling of checks and balances, and the weakening of democratic institutions which had been put in place after the fall of the Iron Curtain. As the American ambassador, I engaged as the senior representative of the world’s oldest and strongest democracy.

What I didn’t realize until I came home, however, was that the strength of our own democracy had also been impacted by the Great Recession. For decades, our region has been a place where families could achieve the dream of home ownership. One project I worked on had nearly 1,500 home sites, with the average home price under $250,000. These were quality homes for so many working-class families.

The recession took a serious toll. Many Californians lost one or both household incomes, racking up credit-card debt and student loans to bridge the bad years. And even though jobs came back, they were different.

Gone were the good-paying jobs with benefits like health care and pensions. Meanwhile, everything has become more expensive – especially housing, which in California is now about double the national average.

I remember a conversation I overheard once, standing in the line in a bathroom at Paragary’s. Two girls recognized each other from high school. It was about 10 years since, and one proudly said she was a lawyer, working at a big firm in San Francisco. The other had stayed local, gone to junior college and was working as a secretary. Just as it was sounding as if her life was less impressive, she declared, “But, you know, I bought a house.” The San Franciscan’s jaw dropped: “You bought a house?!”

If we want to see Sacramento’s unique culture continue to thrive, we need to hold on to its affordability. It is the essential formula of our beautiful River City.

In renewing the promise of economic security for the next generation, we can be sure that more girls like Lady Bird will grow up safely and securely in Sacramento – so they can fly the coop to pursue their dreams and, like so many of us, return home to fulfill them.

Eleni Kounalakis is a Sacramento native, former U.S. ambassador and Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. Reach her at Eleni@EleniForCa.com and @EleniForCA.

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