To the Bay and back (and back again)

I step off the hot, sticky bus and onto the searing pavement. What is usually an hour and a half bus ride from San Francisco has taken three. Summer is here, and so are the Bay Area transplants.

And now I’m one of them.

I moved from Sacramento to San Francisco to attend graduate school a little over two years ago. The time in between has been filled with transitions from the familiar to the unfamiliar, and back again. I shifted into a city that was nearly unrecognizable to me, diving head-first into the unfamiliar. What did I have to lose? My anchor was only 87 miles to the east.

Initially, San Francisco felt so different from Sacramento, so fast-paced and fresh. My first job in the Bay was at a fashion startup, where I made my first friends. My first living space was a giant warehouse filled with mechanical robots and giant metal sculptures. My first graduate class was on the anthropology of death and dying, which gave me the tools I didn’t even know I needed to cope with the loneliness of living in an unfamiliar city.

As time went on I began to sync with the low, sweet murmur of routine banality of life that follows you no matter where you go. A string of failed OkCupid dates (one of the primary ways to meet new people in the Bay, or so it seems) left me temporarily jaded, but getting to and from those dates guided me through San Francisco’s public transportation system and taught me to get around on my own.

I quickly grew tired of overpriced brunch spots with mediocre food, and the tech bros who seemed to flock to them. I stopped being shocked but never stopped being saddened by the juxtaposition of houseless people, many of whom deal with mental illness, and overly contrived artisanal shops with a glitzy-yet-rugged aesthetic. In a way, San Francisco proves that the lumbersexual isn’t dead. He just went to Burning Man on an electric scooter to find himself, and avoided making eye contact with strangers on the way.

Flash forward to my July trip to Sacramento. I’m stepping off that bus and onto the lightrail into Midtown, my old stomping grounds. I’m from Sacramento, but I can feel its familiarity vanishing.

I’ve heard friends of mine talk about how it’s getting difficult to afford to live in Sacramento, how it feels like their culture is being taken away from them. The new arena has caused prices to go up everywhere, they say. DIY spaces are being shut down and the city is experiencing gentrification via artwashing. The new food co-op looks like a Whole Foods, but it costs more to shop there. It now takes months to find an affordable place to live. People don’t want to move to Oak Park or South Sac because they don’t want to contribute to gentrification, but they aren’t really sure where to go.

I’d heard all of it, but then I saw a hard change with my own eyes this last go-round. Homelessness and river encampments have been criminalized, which meant there were a lot more houseless people visible in the downtown and Midtown areas. Downtown was packed in a way I’d never seen before. Old Tavern looked, dare I say, fresh? I stopped into the new co-op and immediately wanted to leave. As I walked down R Street past Fox and Goose Pub one day, a woman with a can-I-speak-to-your-manager haircut eyed my short shorts, hairy legs and tanned skin up and down and then asked if she would be okay parking for two hours in the two-hour parking zone.

“I don’t come down here often,” she explained as she made me go look at her car to make sure she wouldn’t get a ticket. “I just need someone to see if I’ll be alright.”

During the entire interaction, I felt like she was picking apart my femininity, queerness and blackness, judging if I was safe but also needing a favor from me because she couldn’t be bothered to turn around and read the sign with the parking hours 10 feet from her car. For one of the first times ever, I felt unsafe in Midtown.

In the last few years, Sacramento officials have been pushing to make the city more cosmopolitan, more tourist-friendly, more, well… more like the Bay Area.

The irony is that the more Sacramento pushes to be the Bay, the more it turns its back on its own residents. Yes, you can raise the prices on everything from parking to food to housing, and shut down places like Starlite Lounge and Panama Arts Factory. Yes, you can handle the homelessness crisis miserably to prove to potential Bay Area renters that you have a no-nonsense, no-empathy attitude on poverty. Yes, you can raise the price of rent so that people trying to escape San Francisco’s monstrous tech bubble think they’re getting a steal when they can rent a dank two-bedroom apartment for $1,600 a month.

You can make the ham-fisted decision to change the slogan on the water tower from “City of Trees” to “America’s Farm to Fork Capital” (whatever that means). But take a lesson from San Francisco’s notes on Gentrification 101: don’t kill off the things that make Sacramento, Sacramento. Don’t kill off its appeal while pushing out long-term residents.

Sacramento is not the Bay, and it doesn’t need to be. People in Sacramento wear the “Keep Midtown Janky” T-shirts for a reason. Because they like it that way. I don’t need another San Francisco when I come back to visit. I need my home.


Candice Ward on Email
Candice Ward currently resides in Oakland and studies the intersections of textiles, identity and colonialism from an archaeological perspective. Her interests include crafting, local politics and making people laugh.