False Pride

City doesn’t need Bay Area refugees

By R.E. Graswich
June 2021

Every few years, Sacramento’s insecurities sneak up and deliver a punch to civic pride. A recent example is the storyline that Bay Area residents can’t wait to move to Sacramento.

Here’s the thing about Bay Area residents, gleaned from personal experience: Unless they come from Sacramento, Bay Area people are clueless about the capital city. They believe it’s the boondocks, a place to bypass on the way to Tahoe. Their ignorance is deep, their indifference generational. They don’t care about Sacramento. They never will.

Naturally, this dismissive attitude is painful to civic leaders and business boosters. Indifference hurts. So the city’s marketers search for signs of validation—a Bay Area magazine story about Sacramento’s art scene or coffee shops, a celebrity chef’s endorsement, anything with positive words and pictures that build on the narrative of “emerging city.”

But we know better. Sacramento has been emerging for 50 years. The pandemic only elevated wishful thinking to new heights.

With offices closed, techies were supposedly breaking their $3,500 San Francisco studio leases and dashing up Interstate 80 to California’s coolest river city. They were infusing Sacramento with new dollars and creative energies. Amid the horrors of COVID-19, Sacramento’s moment had arrived.

Except it didn’t happen. Bay Area residents haven’t flocked to Sacramento, despite what the booming real estate market implies. While San Francisco suffered an exodus of taxpayers over the past year, the moving vans followed a distinct path. They stopped in Bay Area suburbs or drove through Sacramento en route to the mountains.

Earlier this year, the University of California Policy Lab tracked residential moves with data from credit histories. The data showed people who left San Francisco didn’t move far.

Large numbers relocated within the Bay Area. Others headed to woodsy retreats around Tahoe. “Many Sierra counties are getting 50 percent-plus more San Francisco in-migrants than in the prior year,” the study says.

The 2020 numbers for Sacramento County exposed a land rush in reverse. The county saw 21,675 newcomers arrive. But 23,978 local residents picked up sticks and left. Departures rose 7 percent above 2019 levels. The pandemic didn’t attract crowds to Sacramento. It drove them elsewhere.

The deeper lesson has nothing to do with demographics. It involves civic pride, which is Sacramento’s weak spot. The city wants to be respected by people from flashier places. It always has.

The pursuit of big-league respect is a weak objective. Despite what boosters say, Sacramento doesn’t need Bay Area transplants to validate its worthiness. The regional treasures, personalities and history that make Sacramento remarkable are sustainable without confirmation from San Francisco refugees trying to save a few bucks on rent.

The city’s insecurity is more than a marketing problem. Policy decisions come into play. Civic leaders love to pump up Sacramento’s position in the pantheon of “world class” cities. Such maneuvers tend to backfire. Any Sacramento mayor who speaks the words “world-class city” should be asked to stop talking, please.

Today the Downtown railyards suffer from overreach. The decision by Ron Burkle to withdraw financial support for a soccer stadium humiliated Mayor Darrell Steinberg and other boosters—yet another setback for a city that can’t close big deals. The Burkle fiasco triggered conversations about potential municipal funding sources for the doomed stadium, a big mistake.

Let’s not waste time on Burkle. He was a bottom-feeder eager to shove financial risk onto City Hall’s shoulders. His exit should not be mourned.

The city’s best strategy for the railyards would be to maintain its commitment to infrastructure and let the marketplace handle the rest. Sizzling real estate prices prove the point. While City Hall fiddles with open zoning to magically create more housing, the railyards stand ready to provide hundreds of new housing opportunities. Delta Shores will add thousands of homes. Market rate prices will light the way.

The false narrative of Bay Area residents rushing to Sacramento inflates local pride. But the story isn’t a basis for prosperity. It’s wishful thinking. Civic pride works best when nobody sees it working.

R.E. Graswich can be reached at regraswich@icloud.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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