Sactown vs. Chitown: the good, the bad, the ugly

by Janna Marlies Maron on March 8, 2012


Last week I was in Chicago for the 2012 Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference. With 10,000 attendees, this year was the largest conference in AWP’s history. Visiting other cities always makes me appreciate the things I love about Sacramento…but this trip also made me wish we had a little more to offer.



When it comes to this town, everyone (me included) seems to perpetually talk about how much “potential” Sacramento has. We could be a great city if we just…

…pass the strong mayor initiative.

…get an arena Downtown.

…make the most of new projects, like revitalizing Capitol Mall.

…fill in the blank.

Being away from Sacramento for a week made me appreciate a lot about where I live. Top of the list: easy access to just about everything I need. Seriously. One of the most annoying things about being in Chicago (aside from the freezing cold weather) was that I couldn’t go anywhere without getting on the L or on a bus. And I’m the first to admit, Sacramento has spoiled me.

My husband and I live at 20th & I Streets. Around the corner from the Weatherstone. Mere blocks from all our favorite restaurants like Tres Hermanas, Paesanos, The Press, Mulvaney’s and Aioli. Oh, and, while the walk from home to ThinkHouse is a healthy 1.5 miles, it’s only a 15 minute bike ride. And we’re again, smack dab in the middle of wonderful stuff: Shoki, Fox & Goose, Shady Lady, Mag Pie, Burgers & Brew.

Need I say more?

But as I’m exploring Downtown Chicago — Lake Michigan is right there, Millennium Park, The Bean, The Art Institute of Chicago — I’m wondering about my home town. How does Sacramento compare? Does it stand up to a true metropolis of 5 million people? In some ways I’d say, yes, it can. In other ways, I’m still asking that question.

The good.

First of all, one of my favorite things about Sacramento is that I run into someone I know almost everywhere I go. I think that’s because there’s a shared interest that attracts like-minded folks to the same events and places. But I also think it’s because like-minded folks support each other.

In Chicago, everyone supports each other. Visiting a city where you know someone who lives there is the way to go. I had the privilege of my own personal tour guide with my cousin, Alicia. Did we run into someone she knows everywhere we went? Practically.

I connected with one of Alicia’s colleagues from MacCormac College, who was also attending AWP and a huge proponent of supporting literary arts (i.e. my magazine). The three of us met up for dinner and the conference keynote by Margaret Atwood, and just like that it was me-plus-one leaving Under the Gum Tree postcards all over the place.

The highlight of the week was definitely the panel Memoir Without a Net, all about oral storytelling. One of the panelists was — unbeknownst to us — someone Alicia knows from taking a FemCom class, Kelsie Huff. Another huge proponent of Under the Gum Tree, because we’re all about storytelling.

Also? We had dinner with another mutual friend at Broadway Cellar, got comped to see some comedy at The Laugh Factory and met another friend of Alicia’s who just happened to be working at a shop we wandered into in Lincoln Square.

This stuff happens in Sacramento too, it’s just on a smaller scale.

The bad.

At the AWP book fair. Wandering the rows upon rows of exhibitors. Small presses. Lit mags. MFA programs. I smile and say hello to a woman when we make eye contact.

“Are you from the midwest?” she says.

“No, California,” I say. The banner at her booth says Windy City something-or-other.

“Oh, that’s surprising. You’re so friendly,” she says.

Wow. I guess Midwesterners are the only friendly folks around? Or, Californians are notoriously unfriendly?

I move on to the next booth.

The ugly.

A bustling downtown. Public transit. Hotels with grand ball rooms and large conference centers. Auditorium Theater for keynote addresses. Exhibition halls for book fair.

Chicago has everything a conference like AWP needs. Apparently so does Boston, Seattle, Minneapolis and L.A., since that’s where the conference will be held for the next four years, respectively.

The one thing Chicago (and likely Boston, Seattle and Minneapolis) doesn’t have is nice weather. For some reason the AWP conference is always held some time in…February?? Why, I don’t know. For a conference that changes locations each year, the one thing that really makes me nutty is that they don’t seem to factor weather into the location decision.

I will concede that the weather wasn’t that bad while I was there. But for a California girl, it was damn cold! The only thing I kept thinking about on the walk from the L to the Hilton Chicago was, why on earth can’t we be back home in Sacramento where it’s probably a gorgeous 65 degrees?

Then I’d arrive at the hotel, barely able to navigate my way around on account of the hordes of people milling about. Or I’d arrive at the book fair, only to fight my way through the crowd and realize that my beloved Sactown is out of the game with just one strike:

Where would Sacramento put 10,000 people?

At the Downtown Sheraton and Convention Center?

At the non-existent Downtown arena?

See, the thing is that when 10,000 descend on your city, not only do you have to lodge them, but you have to feed them and entertain them — and you have to make it easy. That means all the conference events have to happen at one locale, especially when panels are only 15 minutes apart. That means that all the evening events have to be walking distance from the conference lodging. That means that there needs to be a venue — within walking distance — large enough to host a keynote address from the likes of Margaret Atwood.

Is this something Sacramento could pull off? Maybe in 5 or 10 years, but we have to work our butts off to get there.

What do you think? Does Sacramento have what it takes to contend with big players like Chicago, Boston, Seattle and L.A.? Could we court a large-scale conference like AWP?

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