Commentary: A Specious linkage

By David Watts Barton, SacramentoPress.com, September 16, 2010

Let’s get a couple of things straight: The shooting at 18th and J this weekend wasn’t caused by Second Saturday. And it isn’t going to take Second Saturday down.

The shooting was an act of violence by someone who ended up in Sacramento’s central city with a grudge and a gun. Sure, they may have been drawn here by the street party atmosphere that has grown around what began as an art walk. But they might have been here on a Tuesday night as well.

Did they come to drink? Possibly. Did having a drink or two cause them to shoot at each other? That’s a leap. Alcohol does not make someone a murderer.

It may, however, cause one to hurl. And the ongoing irritation of some Midtown residents with drunken young adults has led the opportunistic to link what is essentially a nuisance with…murder. This linkage is specious, and it is callous. The chorus of “I told you so’s” from some neighbors of the area has been particularly disturbing.

As a former resident of Midtown, and a current resident of the more-challenged Alkali Flat neighborhood downtown, I sympathize with those who have had to wash vomit off their sidewalks, had their fence posts or potted plants broken, or even had to shovel excrement out of their flower beds. I’ve done it myself. No fun.

But the aggressive exploitation of this tragedy by a handful people with an agenda has been disturbing. Let’s be real: The nuisance of immature, drunken people is not comparable to an innocent young man dying in a crossfire. Those who are linking the two together for their own rhetorical gain should be ashamed of themselves.

If anything, the argument could be made that the shooting this past weekend was simply the exception that proves the rule. People got shot. The first thing I thought of was: Wow, most of the time, thousands and thousands of people come to Second Saturday and no one gets shot. And most of the 15,000-20,000 people who come don’t even get drunk.

Sacramento, like most large American cities, has a gang problem. It has crime. And despite the histrionic claims of some Midtowners – one recently referred to the lovely Marshall Park area as “a war zone” – the central city actually has less crime than many outlying areas.

I’ve lived in the central city off and on since 1981. I have never been robbed, mugged, burgled, assaulted or otherwise accosted. I did have my car broken into once. But one friend who lives in a very nice neighborhood in South Land Park had his car broken into three times – in one year.

The snobbery of some central city residents is revealed in such circumstances: the dismissal of other Sacramentans as “suburbanites” and “douches” is just a more acceptable form of prejudice, and may masked deeper prejudices.

And it feeds a new kind of NIMBYism: Gangland slayings are too bad, but I can ignore them if they’re in South Natomas or North Sacramento; they’re tragic if they’re in my backyard.

A post-shooting blog post on sacbee.com noted the other day that statistics show that there has been no increase in crime on Second Saturdays during the last two summers. So again: the linkage of nuisances with violent crime is rhetorical rather than actual.

More police will probably help, but there were cops all over that one block of J Street Saturday night, and they couldn’t stop the shooting. There was a crowd of witnesses, and they haven’t yet found the shooter.

Even if Second Saturday were shut down entirely, we’d still have occasional shootings, even in gentrified Midtown. People shoot each other. It happens. It’s a crime, and it’s a tragedy, but it’s the way things are in gun-happy America. Putting police on every street corner and closing down every restaurant and bar at 10 p.m. isn’t going to change that.

Midtown does not have a bad gang problem. What it has is a mixed-use problem. Again, like many cities, it has shops next to bars next to apartments next to houses next to hotels next to restaurants. But this is why we like such cities. This is why we like Midtown, isn’t it?

Some neighbors of bars take the brunt of nuisances that are the result of drunken, rowdy behavior. And they are within their rights requesting cooperation from club owners, agitating for better street lighting from the city and working to improve their neighborhoods. Perfectly reasonable.

But you can only control the world around you so much. Things change, cities change and neighborhoods change. Most agree Midtown is changing for the better. Shops, restaurants, theaters and, yes, even bars make Midtown a more interesting, more fun and more valuable place. What it may not make it is quieter. Or cleaner.

For people who prize peace and quiet, there’s always the suburbs.

Sacramento is changing from a mostly-suburban area to a real city, and we need to learn how to live real city lives, with sometimes awkward, or even challenging, encounters with people who don’t share our values. We need to learn to live in a way that is not a dash between our house and our car and the office and the mall.

The young people who come into the central city to party, no matter what night of the week or month, need to learn how to behave themselves. How we can teach that, as a city, is open to debate. People drink. People misbehave. People are “douches.” It’s just a fact of life.

But the older, settled folks need to get a grip. Midtown Sacramento isn’t what it was 10 or 15 years ago. That’s a good thing. When these bars and restaurants that are so reviled by the party-haters close down for lack of business, we’ll see how well people like empty (though yes, quiet) storefronts as their neighbors.

A city is what it is. It’s not about you. It’s about all of us.

And so, we will work this out together. The loudest voices will get attention, but the cooler heads will prevail. There is too much at stake, and there are many ideas being bandied about, and will continue to be, both on The Sacramento Press and at Midtown Monthly’s website. Some of them are very good.

But none of those fixes would have prevented a random, gang-related shooting. Life is unpredictable. Stuff happens. Sometimes, that stuff is people messing with your azaleas; sometimes, that “stuff” is someone getting shot.

And in the heated debates about this that will surely continue into this fall, I would like to encourage my neighbors to recognize the difference between the two.