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Sacramento spotlight

The state capital has long been derided as slow and sleepy, but will a superstar governor launch a tourism Gold Rush?

November 30, 2003|Beverly Beyette | Times Staff Writer

Sacramento — Sacramento

"NotHING exciting ever happens in Sacramento." That's the oft-repeated rap against the state's capital, which has the misfortune of being so near and yet so far from tourist magnet San Francisco, just 90 freeway minutes away.

The put-down was repeated -- and then rebutted -- by former Sacramento TV anchor Stan Atkinson, emcee for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's inauguration. Nonsense, he said, pointing out that Sacramento is home to the NBA's Kings and "now we're command central for Arnold Schwarzenegger."

Locals are weary of having their city dismissed as some slumbering backwater. And they're right -- it deserves more than a cursory peek at the beautifully restored State Capitol, especially if you haven't visited in a while.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday December 03, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction
Sacramento -- A story in Sunday's Travel section on the state capital incorrectly said the Rio City Cafe overlooks the American River. It overlooks the Sacramento River. The Jedediah Smith Bicycle Trail, also listed in the story, is on the American River. Also, the "thrifty 30s" and "fabulous 40s" housing areas are in East Sacramento, not South Sacramento.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 07, 2003 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
Sacramento -- A story in the Nov. 30 Travel section on the state capital incorrectly said the Rio City Cafe overlooks the American River. It overlooks the Sacramento River. The Jedediah Smith Bicycle Trail, also listed in the story, is on the American River. Also, the "thrifty 30s" and "fabulous 40s" housing areas are in East Sacramento, not South Sacramento.

Schwarzenegger sightings were a popular local pastime while I was in the city during inauguration week. While no one expects voyeurism to bring flocks of tourists, his star power can't be dismissed.

"Gov. Schwarzenegger's presence has definitely increased interest in Sacramento, both from domestic and international travelers," said Steve Hammond, president and chief executive of the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau. "With a larger-than-life governor and an improving economy, the optimist in me hopes for a 20% increase in visitors." (Tourism now brings in $2 billion annually.)

The city is frequently seen on screen but, alas, rarely as Sacramento. With its tree-shaded streets and old frame houses, it can pass for Anywhere, USA. "We've been Harrisburg, Pa.; Cleveland; Kansas; and a Mississippi shantytown," said Lucy Steffens, the bureau's film commissioner. The Capitol has masqueraded as the nation's capitol and Alabama's capitol.

Sacramento boasts of being the birthplace of Tower Records and Shakey's Pizza, writer Joan Didion, actress Molly Ringwald and Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

Still, is there any there there? And is a movie-star governor apt to give the city a bit more pizazz?

I began my quest for answers by talking with some locals pressed against the chain link fence at the Capitol on inauguration day. All were hoping for an Arnold sighting.

What of their city's image as a cow town?

"I guess that's wrong now," Mary Phillips said.

Her friend and fellow State Department of Education employee Mia Gardner wasn't so sure that the city is destined for happening status. "Sacramento? Well, there are the Kings," she said.

Michelle Smith, who works for a student loan company, said, "Our biggest thing is the Kings. Other than that, it's going out of town."

Will a little Hollywood be a good thing?

"Oh, definitely," she added.

With a population of 460,000, Sacramento is a manageable size. It's hard to get lost in the central city, where streets are laid out on a grid, numbered streets running north-south and lettered streets east-west. (The missing M is for Capitol Avenue.) The city is dotted with green spaces, including 40-acre Capitol Park.

But not all is what it might be. Much of the pedestrian-friendly K Street Mall downtown is decidedly grungy, with cheap stores, fast-food joints, empty storefronts and, at night, homeless people sleeping in doorways. Old Sacramento State Historic Park, the city's No. 1 tourist attraction, has, sadly, attracted mostly shops of the T-shirt and taffy ilk.

As a good tourist, I started my explorations there, lunching at the pleasant Rio City Cafe overlooking the American River. Readers of Sacramento magazine chose it as one of the city's best restaurants. I then headed for the splendid California State Railroad Museum at 2nd and I streets.

A $4 ticket includes a simulated ride on a 1929 Pullman car that actually rattles and sways. Imagine a time when -- as the Pullman Co. once advertised -- 100,000 guests slept in Pullman berths every night. Then there's a walk through an old Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe diner, its tables set with linens and fine china. A far cry from today's snack cars.

Alan, our guide, had a wealth of railroad trivia under his black derby. We learned that the May 10, 1869, ceremony at Promontory, Utah, to mark completion of the transcontinental railroad was delayed two days while unpaid workers held some railroad cars hostage. And that there was an embarrassing swing and a miss as California Gov. Leland Stanford tried to hammer in the golden spike.

Otherwise, the best part of Old Sacramento is just strolling the plank sidewalks and cobbled streets and soaking up the architecture of the restored or reconstructed Gold Rush-era buildings. Self-guided walking tour maps are available at the Old Sacramento Visitor Information Center, 1104 2nd St. (telephone [916] 442-7644).

If you have a car, you may want to head to South Sacramento and drive past the "thrifty 30s" to the "fabulous 40s," an area of grand homes in a mix of architectural styles. The big white brick house at 1341 45th St. is where the Reagans lived when Ronald was governor.

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