The stretch of I Street between Second and Third Streets in downtown Sacramento doesn’t look like the ideal of what Sacramento could be or should be, but it turns out to be a microcosm for what the city is today. The “bones” are there for something great — on one end is the city’s Amtrak and regional train and bus hub and the terminus of its light rail system. On the other end is the landmark California State Railroad Museum. But those bones are scattered about, thanks largely to a history that has long privileged some over others — a history embodied by a highway running right over the site.
Perhaps it was fitting, then, that the Big Idea Challenge at Next City’s Vanguard Sacramento conference in October 2019 focused on this mini-corridor, dubbed the “I Street Gateway,” with the goal of better connecting the Old Sacramento waterfront with downtown Sacramento. Vanguard gathered 41 fellows from around the world, selected from a pool of more than 300 applicants. The fellows experienced a three-day whirlwind tour of the challenges and opportunities facing the city.
“Everyone who’s here is well aware of the fact that our city is undergoing an immense amount of change, and a lot of that’s exciting and a lot of people have worked really hard to get to this moment,” said Sacramento native Tre Borden, a member of the Vanguard Sacramento Host Committee. “But I also think we’re trying to figure out who is this city going to work for, what’s our identity, and are we really going to acknowledge what it’s going to take to have this city be an emblem of equity that works for everyone, including our most vulnerable.”
The Big Idea Challenge capped off the Vanguard experience. Vanguard Fellows split into six teams, and each had ten minutes to pitch a set of design and policy recommendations to transform the I Street Gateway. Along with Next City Executive Director Lucas Grindley, a group of local stakeholders served as judges for the pitch session, including Sacramento Mayor Richard Steinberg, Assistant City Manager Michael Jasso, Sacramento District 4 Councilmember Steve Hansen (whose district includes the I Street Gateway), and CalTrans Project Manager Jess Avila. In the end, the judges decided the winning idea came from the team “Just City Collaborative.”
“Tying all the different threads together of a complex community like Sacramento is really hard, but that’s why we chose the Just City Collaborative,” said Hansen. “They were able to authentically give voice to those parts of the community that we’ve heard from.”
The winning team took extra steps to find those voices. They were one of a few teams that used their time to canvass downtown Sacramento and interview residents about the I Street Gateway area. Several Just City Collaborative members also spent part of their time in the final hours leading up to the Big Idea Challenge on the phone interviewing additional local stakeholders and activists.
“We wanted to really make sure we had a lay of the land of what different communities were thinking, and how they were feeling about this,” said Trace Allen, a Just City Collaborative member who supports entrepreneurs of color in his day job with the New Orleans nonprofit Propeller. “We used the spaces where we come from to recognize comparable voices who were doing this work.”
For his part, Allen called Sacramento artist and entrepreneur Ifamodupe Kimberley Edington, who also works with the Sacramento Black Chamber of Commerce. On Allen’s invitation, she attended the Big Idea Challenge.
“We talked [earlier that day] about the history of Sacramento, the culture of change, how effective or ineffective advocacy efforts have been to impact policy efforts in Sacramento,” Edington said. “We talked about the difficulties of getting people to step down from the privilege ladder to share leadership, influence and power. You can’t incentivize that.”
Vanguards tour the underutilized space between downtown Sacramento and the Old Sacramento Waterfront to get inspiration for their Big Idea Challenge. (Photo by Sarah Elliott)
One of the common threads across all the pitches was the notion of acknowledging privilege and the history behind it, history that often gets buried or ignored. For example, before the bulldozers cleared the way for the Interstate-5 overpass, this area was Sacramento’s Chinatown. But as all the teams pointed out, acknowledgment is just the first step.
“I’ve heard a lot of acknowledgment of the history of Sacramento, but be aware, ‘I am sorry’ is not enough, not for communities who for centuries have been disenfranchised,” said Edurne Irizarry-Alvarez, from Philadelphia, as part of the “Community Made” team’s pitch. “The alternative or the solution then is to convene an independent organizing body to vet investment decisions across the board.”
Community Made’s policy recommendations extended far beyond the I Street Gateway. They proposed that every city department “convene independent organizing bodies to vet investment decisions across the board” for equity considerations — even the police department.
As another nod to the potential for bringing untold or under-told history and voices from around Sacramento, Team “ACH” proposed a “Cultural Curator” program, which would fund rotating cultural curators to install art or otherwise activate the I Street Gateway and a few other key sites in the Old Sacramento waterfront area. The program would intentionally hire curators and artists from the local arts community in Sacramento — which is on the cusp of becoming a majority-minority city.
Councilmember Hansen found resonance in the repeated emphasis on acknowledging historical injustices and the resulting disparities rooted in that history.
“People want to talk about the gold rush, but not the tragedies of genocide against native people that happened,” Hansen said.
In the end, Hansen said the judges found that the Just City Collaborative’s pitch struck the right combination of design elements, branding and a nod to existing policy initiatives that were relevant, such as the city’s still relatively-new Office of Diversity and Equity.
“I think they gave us something that is truly turnkey as a set of ideas, particularly their framework,” Hansen said.
In terms of design elements, the Just City Collaborative’s proposal included additional sites just beyond the targeted stretch of I Street. Two blocks east, it identified a currently vacant storefront that could be used as a community engagement and activation space. One block west, within the Old Sacramento waterfront area, the proposal identifies another vacant storefront that could be used as a pop-up retail location for emerging entrepreneurs.
In addition, the Just City Collaborative’s winning proposal offers a vision for a “People’s Amphitheater” underneath the I-5 overpass between Second and Third streets. Among other uses, this space could serve as a venue for morning tai-chi exercises — an idea inspired by the team learning that residents of the adjacent housing complex often spend their mornings doing tai-chi on the area’s sidewalks.
But the branding might have been the deciding factor. To close out his team’s pitch, Allen led the crowd in a call-and-response of “I am” followed by “Sacramento.” Councilmember Hansen was so moved, he led the crowd in the chant again after announcing the winning proposal.
To Hansen, it was more than just a brand. In the context of the team’s proposal, it was a key part of a framework that he hopes will spark many more conversations that acknowledge the history that people want to claim and bring in the history that people may not understand or want to talk about — and to do that in a way that brings people together.
“The idea of “I am Sacramento” gives a place for everyone to tell their story, to share their voice and be part of the future of the city,” said Hansen. “The whole premise of ‘I am’ gives power to people who may not always feel they have power, and I thought that was a very important shift.”
Oscar is Next City's senior economics correspondent. He previously served as Next City’s editor from 2018-2019, and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for media outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha, and Fast Company.