Erika D. Smith

How do you break down Sacramento’s bureaucratic silos?

Passengers on light rail mostly see blank walls while traveling around the city. What would it take to get graffiti artists to tag the walls and create a series of beautiful murals?
Passengers on light rail mostly see blank walls while traveling around the city. What would it take to get graffiti artists to tag the walls and create a series of beautiful murals? ehiller@sacbee.com

They say great ideas come to mind when you least expect them. For me, it was while staring out the window of a Regional Transit train to avoid staring at the homeless woman snoring and slouching drunkenly in a seat across the aisle.

That was the sweltering afternoon in June that I decided to ditch my car and take RT to Sacramento City College to see Hillary Clinton rile up a room full of Democrats. From downtown, it’s an easy ride, if a boring one.

The train weaves in a nonsensical pattern through downtown and midtown, before meandering across Broadway and into Curtis Park. There’s not much to see along the way. Mostly blank walls, save one patch of lines and red squares and “WERD” scrawled in all black by a sloppy tagger.

Sacramento can do better, I thought.

Why not get a dozen or so graffiti artists to tag the walls and create a series of beautiful murals? Why not ask artists from various neighborhoods near the tracks to do it? It’d cost less than $100 and take no more than a day. At the very least, it would be right up RT’s cash-strapped alley.

“How hard could it be?” I wondered aloud. The homeless woman opened one eye and snorted. It’s as if she knew.

The answer to my very naive question is harder than one would imagine.

Harder than it needs to be. Indeed, this is the problem in Sacramento. Many things, not just community-based public art projects, are harder than they need to be.

This is a city where leaders talk a good game about building an environment where young professionals want to live and work and make their mark. But, often what happens is people have ideas – good, creative, out-of-the-box ideas – and they get farmed out to task forces and buried in bureaucracy.

It’s a mentality that pervades everything from finishing the bike lanes downtown to finding solutions to homelessness. One way or another, it must change if residents, particularly younger, poorer residents without connections, are ever going to feel like they have a bigger stake in Sacramento’s evolution.

Tre Borden knows all about this struggle. He was the project manager for “Bright Underbelly,” the gorgeous mural that now graces the underside of the W-X Freeway, where the city’s largest farmers market is held every Sunday.

At the ribbon-cutting in March, it was a veritable who’s who of bureaucrats and business leaders, all eager to take some credit for making the project a reality. But when Borden first came up with the idea in 2011, fresh from a trip overseas where he spotted a cool mural on an otherwise stodgy bridge, he was alone, fighting the good fight.

“I asked: ‘Why can’t we do this?’ ” he said. “And everybody’s response was, ‘I don’t know. Let me know how that works out.’ 

It wasn’t just about doing a mural. It was about figuring out who to ask for permission to paint it. Turns out it was Caltrans, not the farmers market.

Then it was finding the right people within Caltrans to work out the details. That changed a lot. “When you have a bureaucracy as large as Caltrans,” Borden said, “the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.”

Then it was getting proper permits from the city. Then it was finding the funding, the bulk of which came from the California Endowment and Kaiser Permanente.

All in all, “Bright Underbelly” was shelved once and then took two years of steady work with artists Sofia Lacin and Hennessy Christophel to actually finish.

“There were plenty of times we thought we were done and then it would be seven more months,” Borden said. “We were so naive that we thought this would be done by the summer of 2014.”

From asking around, my guess is doing murals along RT routes would be even more complicated.

An upstart artist would have to figure out who owns each building and get their blessing. Then, he or she would have to determine who owns the land around the tracks. Unfortunately, it’s probably not RT, but Union Pacific Railroad, which is its own nightmare of bureaucracy. Then, there would be safety regulations to follow and liability issues to sort out. And then wait weeks or even months to get permits for the painting itself.

You get the idea.

The good thing is, in fits and starts, things are starting to change in Sacramento. That was actually one of Borden’s goals in doing “Bright Underbelly.” He wanted to create a model for navigating bureaucracy for other young artists with good, out-of-the-box ideas to follow.

The next test will be a makeover of the RT stop at 16th and R streets. Borden is working with RT and a number of other public agencies and private businesses to get an art project off the ground there.

It’s one of the busiest transit stops in the city, but it also smells of urine and, on most days, is a hangout for people with nowhere else to go.

“That’s the opposite of what you want people from Folsom to see when it’s the first time they’ve been in midtown in forever,” he said.

It’s not an easy task, but Borden has an idea of what he’s in for. And my guess is the more people who take on such projects, the more receptive Sacramento will be to such creativity. It takes pioneers to break down silos of bureaucracy and bureaucrats to make sure those silos stay down.

Who knows? Maybe we’ll even have murals along RT tracks one day.

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