Schwarzenegger's new scene: Sacramento

State capital offers history, art -- and Arnold sightings

Destination: California

January 25, 2004|By Beverly Beyette | Beverly Beyette,Los Angeles Times

Nothing exciting ever happens in Sacramento." That's the oft-repeated rap against California's 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 recent 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.

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

"Governor 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 percent 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, U.S.A.

"We've been Harrisburg, Pa.; Cleveland; Kansas; and a Mississippi shantytown," said Lucy Steffens, the convention 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 likely to give the city a bit more pizazz?

City of governors

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 Sacramento 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 Second 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.

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 Visitor Information Center on Second Street. If you have a car, head to East 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.

And you might peek through the imposing twin gates of La Casa de Los Gobernadores at 2300 California Ave. in nearby Carmichael. It's the governor's mansion that never was -- not finished in time for the Reagans and rejected by bachelor Jerry Brown. The nine-bedroom, 11-bath, 12,000-square-foot estate with ballroom is for sale for $5.9 million. But the owner will sell it to the state for $3.5 million -- if it's for the governor.

Are the Schwarzeneggers interested? Listing agent Geoff Zimmerman said she's "not at liberty" to say, "but there's definitely interest right now from different people in government who've looked with him in mind."

The Arnold buzz is big around Sacramento. At Ettore's -- a diet-dooming bakery, deli and cafe at 2376 Fair Oaks Blvd. in East Sacramento's "gourmet gulch" -- the new pastry chef is Vienna-born Peter Wimmler. The Vienna connection is just a coincidence, said manager Joe Thompson, but a fortuitous one. The bakery made Austrian strudel for two pre-inauguration gatherings, and "I'm assuming our strudel count will begin to come up," Thompson said.

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