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Impressions of Sacramento

As you enter Sacramento, California from the airport, you could be in any midwestern town in the country.  Miles upon miles of farmland, reaching 10th Ave. at Capitol Parkthe horizon in all directions without so much as a bump.  As the smog parts, the faint silhouette of the city skyline fades in and out of view.  After a few miles of open road down Interstate 80, it starts to look like California.  Vast stucco-walled subdivisions stretch out to meet the lettuce fields, and the freeway is now lined with the likes of Home Depot, Wal-Mart, and McDonald's.  From Northgate, it's a short trip south of I-80 to the heart of the latino community.  Carl's JR and Subway suddenly give way to countless tacquerias, and Ross Dress For Less is replaced by dozens of run-down corner grocery stores with their names written in Spanish. 

Turning East now, down Del Paso, leads you on a confusing but charming jaunt through curvy neighborhood roads along the bank of the American River.  This part of town is noticeably older and shabbier the further you drive.  Turning South down Marysville takes you down a typical eight-lane California city street, with countless strip malls, chain stores, and chain restaurants lining the roadways.  A sidetrip to Cal Expo reveals the lovely Exposition Center and Water World water park in the same complex.  As I exit off I-80R to downtown, I'm taken aback by the abundant foliage.  It's like I'm in a flat version of Portland! 

After cruising the strictly one-story southeast downtown area, I reach the Capitol ParkCapitol building.  As with most capital cities, the Capitol area is the highlight of the city.  Lush parks and palm-lined streets surround the Capitol, with poetry readings on the front lawn and tourists taking photographs in front of the rose-lined fountain.  A quick look around tells you one place where all the money goes to in this state.  The government buildings are all magnificent, as is the Convention Center, and the Expo Center.   Perhaps the grandest building, ironically, is the brand-new Department of Social & Health Services building, located at the east end of the downtown mall. 

The mall is yet another misguided American attempt to emulate the thriving European pedestrian mall.  As with most American pedestrian malls, this isn't really a pedestrian mall at all.  It's a transit mall.  The light rail runs right down the middle, which means that instead of thriving night life, high-class shopping, and gouDowntown Mallrmet sidewalk cafes, the mall is filled with transients, pawn shops, and run-down abandoned storefronts.  Instead of tourist-laden hangouts and trendy restaurants, it is filled with Subway, Quiznos, Rite-Aid, several huge bank towers, and numerous convenience stores, tattoo parlors, and run-down tacquerias.  When will this country learn?  A pedestrian mall has to be more than just pedestrian!  It also has to be a destination.  Night clubs and restaurants are a destination.  Rite-Aid and convenience stores are not.  The mall does have a few highlights, though.  There is a Hard Rock Cafe, a shopping mall, an Imax Theater, and an independent films theater.  The east end is markedly better than the west end (coincedentally, the transit turns north out of the mall near that end) with a few trendy cafes, a brewpub, and outdoor patio seating.  In short, every portion that is pedestrian-only is nice; every portion that isn't, is not.

 The rest of downtown is pretty hit-and-miss.  On one side of the street will be lovely foliage and beautiful buildings, while the other side consists of run-down buildings, parking lots, and chainlink fences.  The exception to theOld Sacramento overall blandness is Old Sacramento.  This historic area has been nicely restored and filled with tourist shops.  The Old West theme includes river boat tours, horse carriage rides, and old-time photos for all.  Once again, the problem here is the traffic.  What should be filled with tourists wandering the cobblestone streets is instead filled with vehicles.  On summer weekends, the entire area is jam-packed with cars.  Every time you cross the street, you're almost run over.  Every time you turn a corner in your car, you almost run someone else over.  You can't relax and stroll the area because you have to watch your back.  You can't take any good photos because you can't go into the street, and there are always cars in the way.  You can't really drive through here anyway with all the foot traffic, so why not shut it down?

Overall, Sacramento was pretty unremarkable.  Flat as a pancake, filled to the brim with lackluster chain stores and without much character.  The Capitol area was quite lovely, and with some effort by the City Council, the downtown mall and Old Sacramento could turn Sacramento into a tourist destination.  If only they sunk as much money into the community as they do into their own buildings... 

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