Thursday, August 13th, 2009

Guest Post: Is Sacramento an Indianapolis Wannabe?

[ A few months ago, one of my readers, Michael Scott, a Columbus, Ohio native who has spent time in several cities, including Indianapolis and now Sacramento, pinged me to talk about the parallels he saw between Indy and Sacto. I told him to write them up and maybe I’d post them. Well, he did, so I am. His take was more positive on Indy than I thought. Which made me think. I’ve never been to Sacramento, and only know it from occasional articles in the newspaper. Yet, I just assume it must be far better than a Midwest city to the point that it almost doesn’t seem possible to be otherwise. I guess that just goes to show the inferiority complex even those of us like me who firmly believe the Midwest can compete we sometimes labor under. I hope you enjoy and I’m interested to see your reactions – Aaron ]

Indianapolis has a national reputation for its downtown revitalization and civic rebound from post-war decline. Four years ago, the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce sent a delegation of 95 local leaders to study Indianapolis. The team’s follow-up report praised Indy as the consummate “land of milk and honey”– a noted model for Sacramento to emulate in hopes of elevating itself from being a bathroom stop between San Francisco and Lake Tahoe. Indianapolis, the team said, demonstrated great vision and purpose in its redevelopment efforts, its creation of tourist attractions, development of a modern downtown mall, and the construction of two new sports facilities. The main question these local leaders posed was which of Indianapolis’s practices would best fit Sacramento’s special brand of west coast culture? Unfortunately, many Sacramento city leaders are still pondering this question today.

As a former Indianapolis resident now living in the Sacramento area, I can attest to interesting parallels between the two cities. For instance, both are state capitals with respective populations of around two million; both are consummate Midwestern cities in terms of mindset and landscape; and both have major rivers running through them, creating barriers and portending flood risks.

Demographically, a TIME magazine article reported that Sacramento is one of the most racially integrated cities in the nation, as determined by Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project. Notably, Indianapolis has a significantly larger African-American population–nearly double that of Sacramento–which factors into Indy’s long-standing reputation as one of our nation’s most progressive black communities.

Both cities also sit at the nexus of major highways. Indianapolis has been crowned the Crossroads of America to denote its status as the hub of several major interstate highways that connect it with the rest of the U.S. Sacramento serves as a major connection point for Interstate 80, the primary east-west artery across the nation to the eastern seaboard, ending in Ocean City, Maryland, 3073 miles away.

While there are numerous commonalities between the two cities, the road diverges when the conversation turns to big-picture issues such as vision, branding, and identity—key elements for a city’s vitality and sustainability. Here, Indianapolis arguably edges out Sacramento.

Sacramento’s glass ceiling is a dearth of cohesive identity; the city needs a distinct brand beyond its current calling card– the home of pro basketball’s Sacramento Kings. In a nutshell, the city is still pondering what it wants to be when it grows up. Is it strictly a conservative government town defined by the State of California and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger? Or is it on the cusp of a metamorphosis into a hip, urban sideshow of San Francisco, featuring arts, entertainment and music centered on an emerging Midtown neighborhood? Maybe it truly is seeking to be distinguished by the Kings. Or maybe its claim to fame will continue to be a “fluid-adjustment break” for San Francisco travelers en route to Lake Tahoe.

What irks newly elected Mayor Kevin Johnson is Sacramento’s reputation as nothing more than a stopping point between cities. Voted into office largely on his credibility as a local community leader and former pro basketball star, Johnson minces no words on his desire to see “Sac Town” succeed. But the road ahead is a long haul. With Sacramento being the state capital, California’s legislative process and budget are a constant distraction, and the tepid local economy is due largely to state budget cuts and high rates of housing foreclosures. Unemployment is also at a historic high.

Johnson’s biggest challenge, though, may be keeping the Sacramento Kings in town until plans for a new sports arena can be thrashed out. Voters soundly rejected building an arena as part of a redevelopment project involving an abandoned brownfield railyard adjacent to downtown. The talk now has turned to reconstituting the current California State fairgrounds site into a sports facility—a controversial idea that concerns area residents.

So what perspective can Indianapolis offer relative to Sacramento’s future? For starters, Indy has effectively forged an identity by branding itself as a multi-dimensional sports and events town. The city is a haven for sports junkies attracted to everything from auto racing to college basketball. The downtown corridor is particularly impressive with its array of first-class sporting venues—sites that attract foot traffic and vibrancy to the central-city core. Sacramento would be wise to follow suit with its own unique niche, positioning itself as a destination of choice for both residents and visitors. Putting aside the chatter about the Kings’ plans for a new arena and entertainment district, Sacramento’s identity may be emerging organically via its Midtown neighborhood. Home to a growing number of chic restaurants, coffee houses, and retail shops, as well as a vibrant art scene, this area is rapidly building a reputation for spirited civic and social connection. Many city leaders are banking on this surge continuing, creating much-needed tax revenues and spurring further growth and development.

Sacramento should also take heed of Indianapolis’s government structure, which allows Indy to effectively move forward on progressive civic projects. In many respects the mythological Sisyphus’s unending attempts to push a boulder up a hill symbolizes Sacramento’s myriad failed attempts to gain traction with their development efforts. In stark contrast, Indianapolis hums along with a consolidated city/county system referred to as Uni-Gov—a model that would provide a much more collaborative and simpler political environment for Sacramento. Indianapolis also doesn’t require a two-thirds majority to support a tax for new development, something that seems to be a foreign concept amid California’s anti-tax culture.

Despite its deficiencies, Sacramento is still in the game. The weather is relatively temperate year-round, with clear skies and low humidity–the envy of many central-Indiana residents who loathe unbearable heat and blustery winters; San Francisco and Lake Tahoe are top-notch destinations to the west and east, respectively; and the regions’ cultural and ethnic makeup allows for a broad diversity of creative talent for the 21st century.

Sacramento also received recent praise by noted urbanist and former Indianapolis mayor William Hudnut III. In a speech to the Sacramento chapter of the Urban Land Institute, Hudnut cited the Sacramento Area Council of Government’s 2050 Regional Blueprint for Higher Density Growth as a model for the nation.

So, is Sacramento an Indianapolis wannabe? Maybe. Or maybe not. Perhaps the reverse is true—Indy has a hidden desire to model itself after Sacramento. What is true is that these sorts of collaborative exchanges can prove valuable to cities in their quest for world-class status, definable identities and strong central-city cores.

Michael Scott is a Northern California urban journalist, demographic researcher and technical writer. He can be reached at His web site is

Topics: Public Policy, Strategic Planning
Cities: Indianapolis, Sacramento

6 Responses to “Guest Post: Is Sacramento an Indianapolis Wannabe?”

  1. Babbage says:

    Thanks for this interesting article and comparison. I haven't driven through Sacramento since the early 1990s and would love to visit it again. First of all, however, I don't know if I would consider the White River a major river. Secondly, there are times when the Uni-Gov and efficiency should not be used in the same sentence. I also feel that Indiana has somewhat of an anti-tax sentiment similiar to what you pointed out with Sacramento. Indy might be able to get some things done, but people are becoming weary of the price tag, especially in the last couple of years. It should be an exciting time for the city with the convention center and hotel – I am looking forward to coming back to visit when they open up.

  2. Alon Levy says:

    The problem with Sacramento isn't that it lacks identity; it's that its entire economy is based on taxing Los Angeles and San Francisco. Its metro area is a net tax recipient, unlike Indianapolis's, which is a net tax donor.

  3. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    What resonated with me is a smaller city located in the shadow of a major metropolis that has identity issues and is trying to decide what it wants to be when it grows up.

  4. Ironwood says:

    Very thought-provoking article, for several reasons, not the least of which is shifting the reference point away from other midwestern cities. While I do believe that the regional context is critical, and probably the determining factor for many of the realities of Indy, St. Louis and other midwestern cities, it's important to look through other lenses, and this guest post does a great job of that.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I used to live in Sacramento. The place feels more like Columbus, without OSU.

    Like Columbus the economy there is more diversified than state government, as there is an ag industry component and regional trading center thing going on, with a logsitics and a maunufacturing sector. In a sense the place seems to be the lower cost location if one wants to set up shop in Nortern California but wants to avoid the high-cost Bay Region.

    Sacramento is Joan Didions home town and she's written some good essays on Sacramento and its identity issues. "Notes of a Native Daughter" is one of her best, and her collection "Where I was From" also touches on Sacto.

    Didion describes a small city that happens to have the Capital, but actually sounds more like Lexington or some simalr southern city that has boomed beyond recognition.

    And this boom is it's own employment and eonomic development growth machine. One could say this is unsustainable but the pattern has held for decades now. Maybe back to before WWI when the area moved from ranching and bonanza farming to a higher population density via spltting up the ranchos for citrus colonies.

  6. D Morse says:

    I've visited Indy and Sacramento both. My impression is that Sacramento benefits greatly from being a part of California, a state that really knows where its towel is. They've got a wiser set of priorities and values there. They have more social capital in the public discourse.

    Wasn't it this blog that had a post about Indy's manhole covers sticking out of the sidewalk by a few inches? That shit doesn't happen in California.

    That's just my impression from a few visits. I could be totally wrong.

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