What Saoirse Ronan and ‘Lady Bird’ have done for Sacramento
California’s ‘boring’ capital is celebrating its starring role in Greta Gerwig’s film
When a group of 35 people suddenly started cheering in an empty parking lot in Sacramento on a recent weekend, onlookers might have been forgiven for wondering what on earth was going on.
There were, though, clues on the pins they were all wearing.
“I love Lady Bird,” their badges said.
The crowd – all attendees of the inaugural Lady Bird walking tour – were an illustration of a new phenomenon for Sacramento, California’s unremarkable state capital.
In the wake of Greta Gerwig’s critically lauded coming-of-age film – vying for best picture at the Oscars next weekend – parking lots, ice-cream parlors, bars and other locations in the city where it is set have suddenly taken on an unlikely cinematic glow.
“That movie finally gives Sacramento the attention it deserves,” a white-haired local resident, Quincy Brown, had told the group, prompting the outbreak of excitement.
California’s state capital, where I was born and raised, has long lived in the shadow of its glitzier and more glamorous California neighbors Los Angeles and San Francisco.
As the late night host Stephen Colbert told Lady Bird star Saoirse Ronan last year: “I’ve been to Sacramento. I am aware of how boring it is.”
When people feel like insulting the city, the nickname of choice is “Cow Town”, presumably because the area around the city is agricultural.
But Lady Bird, written and directed by the Sacramento native Gerwig, has excited the city’s tourism officials and caused outbreaks of civic pride unseen since the Sacramento Kings basketball team came close to a national title in 2002.
“Sacramento is where I grew up, so I felt like it had not been given its proper due in cinema,” Gerwig told Variety.
Local media seems to have interviewed every possible person tied to the movie – including a deli owner who appears briefly in the film. People are taking selfies outside locations featured in the movie – even spots that only appeared for a few seconds in a quick montage of neon signs.
One of those locations, Club Raven, now offers a Lady Bird cocktail (Tahoe Blue vodka, blackberry Torani, house-made sweet and sour and a splash of soda). Dan Gamper, a longtime bartender there, said that each week “a few” people now come in because of the film.
I graduated from high school five years after Lady Bird and like Ronan’s character, my adolescence was very much about escaping Sacramento’s quiet streets for anywhere that could offer a bigger thrill than getting frozen yogurt at 10.30pm and, yes, sometimes hanging out in parking lots. Like Lady Bird (spoiler alert!), I moved to New York City at age 19.
The film hasn’t given me a strong desire to move back, but I felt rare pangs of hometown pride noticing details in the movie only locals could appreciate.
Many text messages were exchanged with my hometown friends about how the cool girl, Jenna Walton (Odeya Rush), drives an oversized SUV and is said to have a tanning bed at her enormous home in the wealthy, and often mocked, Granite Bay suburb. A former student of Sacramento high texted me in delight about Lady Bird’s mom saying: “Miguel saw someone knifed in front of him at Sac High.”
The movie has also clearly resonated with people who don’t have ties to Sacramento – it’s one of the best reviewed films ever on the review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes – although that popularity has not led to a deluge of tourists.
The 35 people, mostly women, on the walking tour were all from Sacramento or its suburbs – which means they were already familiar with the Fabulous Forties, a posh neighborhood known for its beautiful homes, including the famous Blue House that Lady Bird pretends to live in in the film.
When the tour group arrived at the house, a mother and daughter immediately darted across the empty, four-car-wide street to take a picture in front of it. A parade of photos followed, including some by a couple in a Land Rover who pulled over in front of the property, took a few quick pictures, then drove away.
The tour guide, Jenn Kistler-McCoy, said she had spoken with the home’s owner, Amy Wood, who seems delighted by the attention her house is receiving. “It hasn’t gotten annoying or intrusive,” Wood told the local news station KCRA 3.
All this local pride persists despite Gerwig’s film rarely treating Sacramento with reverence. Asked: “Isn’t there a thing – think globally, act locally?”, Lady Bird replies: “I don’t think that person lived in Sacramento.”
There was a time not so long ago when Sacramento was a little more lively. Ten years before the 1849 Gold Rush, the city was incorporated while still a Mexican territory populated by Native Americans whom the city’s Swiss founder, John Sutter, eventually enslaved.
When gold was discovered a few miles north on the American river, Sacramento’s industry and population exploded. Those were wild days, filled with the promise of wealth and opportunity, and in 1879 Sacramento was named the capital city of California.
But with the heady days of the Gold Rush in the past, the city’s status as state capital now weighs down its reputation.
“Sacramento has historically suffered from what a lot of state capitals do: they are seen as boring government towns,” said the Sacramento tourism board CEO, Mike Testa.
But, he said, Austin, Texas, and Nashville, Tennessee, proved that that did not always have to be the case.
And the buzz around Lady Bird gave community leaders a great opportunity. “This is the exact time we want this kind of attention because this market is dramatically different from how it’s been,” said the Sacramento tourism board CEO, Mike Testa.
In the past 10 years, Sacramento has taken on major redevelopment efforts to transform the city from boring government town to hipster haven replete with speakeasies and hip concert halls.
The city has even, controversially, officially designated itself the Farm-to-Fork Capital – an on-trend reflection of the thriving culinary scene. For 39 years, like 100 other communities in California, it had unofficially been known as the City of Trees.
The capstone of the redevelopment came in September 2016, when a new sports and music arena opened in the city centre, bringing sports teams and musicians like Kanye West and Paul McCartney downtown instead of to the former arena, which was situated between fields and tract homes.
Even with these changes, Sacramento still does not bustle like San Francisco, Los Angeles or New York, but Riley Burke – a 17-year-old high school student on the Lady Bird tour – was proud of how the movie showcased her home.
“We’re not as boring as some people think we are, I promise,” Burke said. “You just have to look a little harder.”
Burke said she and all her friends had seen Lady Bird at least twice. And even though she loved how the movie glorified her hometown, particularly through the lens of female main characters, she, like Lady Bird, was also interested in leaving California for college and heading to the north-east.
If she goes, though, she doesn’t expect people to be as confused about where she is from as strangers in New York are in the film. In a scene ripped from the experiences of any Sacramentan who has left home, a young man asks Lady Bird where she’s from.
“Sacramento,” she says.
“San Francisco,” she concedes.
Burke said she envisioned a different response when people say they are from Sacramento now: “We’ll definitely at least have the reputation as being the city where Lady Bird was filmed.”
Six Lady Bird locations to visit in Sacramento
The Blue House
Lady Bird lusts after this home throughout the film and, on Thanksgiving, gets a look inside because it’s owned by her boyfriend’s grandmother. Locals have reported increased traffic around the property, which is located in the Fabulous Forties neighborhood, home to dozens of architecturally rich properties.
Gunther’s Ice Cream
For a brief, glimmering moment, the neon sign of Gunther’s Ice Cream appears during a montage of other local hotspots. Try the Oreo pie on a stick – it’s handmade.
McKinley Rose Garden
Lady Bird and her boyfriend frolic amid the roses one night at this garden. In real life, Gerwig shared some loving moments there with her high school boyfriend, Connor Mickiewicz. “Shooting that scene was one of those crazy, full-circle moments that don’t come along very often,” Gerwig told Sactown magazine. “It couldn’t have happened anywhere else.” A McKinley Rose Garden volunteer, Lyn Pitts, told the Guardian: “We’re in our 15 minutes of fame.”
This gorgeous art deco movie theater appears for a brief moment in the film. It’s a point of local pride to have watched Lady Bird inside the theater, where Gerwig hosted a local premiere.
Perhaps the first major bit of criticism launched at the film was that the characters don’t talk about one of the greatest NBA rivalries of all time – the Sacramento Kings v the Los Angeles Lakers – even though the movie takes place in 2002, when the Kings lost to the Lakers in the Western Conference finals amid huge controversy. But Gerwig was sure to give the team a shoutout by re-creating a mural honoring the team. As Gerwig said: “Yeah, it was the worst thing that ever happened to Sacramento.” The city is covered with murals and each August, a top event is Wide Open Walls, where people can watch artists paint new murals.
A defining feature of the Sacramento skyline, the Tower Bridge was dedicated in 1935. It set the scene for a heart to heart between Lady Bird and her best friend, Beanie. There are very nice restaurants along the river as well.
Fun fact: in 2001, Sacramentans voted to paint this bridge gold.