Editorial: “Flash Mob CIty”

On New Year’s Eve a few friends and I went to Social nightclub to see the ball drop on 10th and K. The place was packed, the streets were packed (12,000 to 20,000 people) and there was a seriously festive atmosphere.

But the ball was small. And it wasn’t really a ball, more of a diamond inside a round cage.

The ball didn’t drop very far. It dropped maybe ten feet.

The whole thing got plenty of media coverage. There were complaints the day after about all sorts of minor incidents. But really who could have expected a crowd of 20,000 people to show up to 10th and K?

I started thinking, without any tradition or expectations all it took to get 20,000 Sacramentans to go party in the streets was a tiny ball drop.


There is something here. It seems like any time someone gives us a reason to get together lots and lots of people show up.

Other examples:

  • When the Kings came to town. We were not rabid basketball fans but we sold out the arena for a decade while the franchise set a record for missing the playoffs for a decade.
  • The old thursday night markets. They filled up K street. Of course, we were unable to control the violence that came with instant urbanization.
  • Second Saturday. Is it even about art for most people who attend? It seems more like an excuse to be in a crowded urban center.


Sacramento lacks a crowded residential urban core. Perhaps that is what makes us so flexible. If we hear about something exciting or just “big” we all pile on. And it could be anywhere. As time moves on and technology changes, the more predictable and controllable gathering like selling out ARCO Arena becomes the less predictable and overwhelming event like the ball drop.

We create our urban experience by collectively gathering increasingly spontaneously into mobs that are both hard to anticipate and hard to control. The term may not be perfect, but I would call it a flash mob of sorts.

I contend that Sacramento is a “Flash Mob City.” That may be a good or bad thing, but it is really fascinating to experience.

We are a very connected city. If we are to gather in a city so dominated by suburbs and carefully planned residential neighborhoods not to exceed a certain population per acre we need to stay connected. And new technology, particularly the cell phone, allows these connections to be more frequent, faster and easier.

The combination of our geography, needs and new technology combine to make for a volatile mix.

Sacramento has something new that makes it special. It is not the ball drop or our love of art or sports. It is a population spectacularly flexible and fast moving. We can change our minds and our direction in a flash. We can gather instantly and overwhelm to create an urban Sacramento when we want one, where we want one.

Or I might be a little crazy. Just a thought. What do you think?

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January 4, 2009 | 10:48 PM

I really wanted to go to the Ball Drop,had I been alone i probably would have. I really was’nt expecting the Ball Drop to be spectacular,I was curious to see who would show.Sounds like a real turn out.I was in Old Sacramento with my teenage son,who’s only focus was to meet his girlfriend.Either way I guess I would have enjoyed the night.The cool part is because we rode in(bike & skateboard),so we did’nt have to fight the traffic or worry about parking. Happy New Year!

January 4, 2009 | 11:26 PM

That’s the first time I’ve heard this term applied to a whole city…and I like it. Unfortunately, in the past the flash never fired on events that really should have been mobbed (Mookie Blaylock ((Pearl Jam)) at the Cattle Club, Nirvana at Cattle Club, Jane’s Addiction at the Lite Rail Inn). Granted, these three examples are all bands, but all grew to be global mob scenes (Time Magazine cover?–yes.) I just hope we’re done with the days of Sactown being a flash mob that only gathers when other’s say it’s cool.
p.s. Your piece deserves a mention of the River Cats. A great mob out there all summer.

January 5, 2009 | 9:38 AM

Interesting piece. I’ve lived in Sacramento for four or so months now, and to me Sacramento is indeed different from other cities. It is not a city of neighborhoods like Seattle, Portland, San Francisco (this is starting to mesh into Sonny’s article ‘Left Coast Capitol Cities’). And I agree with you, that while there is no real crowded urban core there is still the perpetual crowded-as-hell turn out when any given event takes place.

January 5, 2009 | 10:28 AM

You summed it up very nicely.

January 5, 2009 | 10:55 AM

I like the concept, though I think the people who painstakingly marketed the Kings and River Cats AND Thursday Night Markets would argue that they were anything but “flash.” And certainly, it has taken years to get Second Saturday to where it is. Are there other examples of a “flash” crowd showing up somewhere? I’m still a little unclear on the concept – a crowd appearing quickly can often be the result of months of marketing – but I too was amazed at the size of the crowd that turned out, when it had only briefly been advertised. That one event was, indeed, a “flash.”
The larger picture is, I think, a matter of giving people something to come TO. There are a lot of people in this town, but go to most live music clubs, as Sonny mentioned above, and you’ll see a few dozen people at most – even if the band at hand is the next Pearl Jam. And most nights, the corner of 10th and K is still pretty desolate, save for when the Cosmopolitan or Crest let out.
Bottom line, I think you’re arguing for more events that will inspire a “mob” to “flash” – any ideas about what those might be? This won’t work if it’s just one night a year!

January 5, 2009 | 11:43 AM

I’m not sure mobs are great things. They also produce violence and chaos.

The best I can hope for is that we recognize now unstable Sacramento’s culture has become. Then agencies like police and fire can retool knowing that there is more uncertainty here than other cities.

Meanwhile I will appreciate the crazy experiences and note that while they could happen anywhere, they seem to happen more often in Sacramento.

I actually think SS is a perfect example of something that was marketed for years with little traction until the flash mob hijacked the very brand of SS. When it was about wine and art galleries it was not a mob scene. When the crowd decided it was a gathering it boomed into the current form. That may be another discussion, but when you allow a group of people to redefine the event it is much more open to flash mobs.

Article Author
January 5, 2009 | 11:20 AM

Old Towne on NYE was awesome AGAIN – for the 9th year in a row! San Franicisco’s best cover band “Zoo Station” rocked U2 covers, Justin Farren (Sac’s Best Musician 2 years running) kicked it off with a great set, Radio Disney’s Rockin’ Road Crew stoked the family crowds, plus 2 other bands on the streets, fire dancers, Natomas HS’s drum corps… and if that’s not all – 2 fireworks shows – ALL FOR FREE!

Thanks to the City of Sacramento and The Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau for an awesome, fun, and SAFE celebration… in Old Sacramento. Happy New Year!

January 5, 2009 | 12:54 PM

I hate to sound like a broken record (well, okay, no, I love to sound like a broken record) but things weren’t always this way. Sacramento was a city of neighborhoods until its heart was torn out and its population scattered to the hinterlands, a process considered desirable at the time by people who didn’t realize its final social cost.

The way to get back an urban feel without the mob approach is to encourage more regular events and fewer one-shot festivals intended to draw large crowds. Instead of Second Saturdays, why not have galleries and stores open late every Saturday? Instead of entertainers and vendors on K Street only for New Year’s Eve, how about every evening? It would provide opportunity for lots of small businesses, starting entrepeneurs and local musicians, and provide something to see and do for downtown visitors that could be seen WHENEVER. People should be able to go downtown and see something neat without having to check their calendar.

January 5, 2009 | 2:06 PM

I am totally in the “every Saturday” camp.

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January 5, 2009 | 5:26 PM

Huh? People CAN already go out on any weekend they want to. Or do you mean, why can’t people go out on any weekend and get catered to by business owners like they do on Second Saturday? It might have something to do with that it’s a considerable amount of effort and cost on the owner’s end to participate in SS.

Think about it. What makes SS well attended is that not only are there a lot of people out at once, the galleries have new exhibits, which is not the main reason for everyone to go out, but is the main driver of movement during the night. There’s no way Sacramento galleries could refresh exhibits even twice a month. So, if in a given month, the art is going to pretty much be the same week to week, people don’t need to have a must-go on their monthly calendar, which means foot traffic is going to be spread out more among the Saturdays…which will make going out on Saturday even less of a must-do because seeing the mass of people is a large part of the appeal.

So with this reduced traffic…how do you expect business owners to afford to put up a great SS experience for vastly diminished returns? Every Saturday (not counting weather variations) are like the ones before and after it. The reason why those businesses are able to provide extra staffing and expenses on SS is because the critical mass of foot traffic makes it worth it. Make every Saturday a “Second Saturday” and it’s not economically feasible any more. You might as well ask why can’t Sacramento have a lively cultural and nightlife scene like London or NY.

January 5, 2009 | 5:46 PM

I don’t agree and it has not been tried.

When Ink was the only place to get late night food in a fun atmosphere it was packed. When others opened more late night restaurants that catered to the same crowd it did spread traffic, but it also spurred more overall traffic. It was not a zero sum game. Now late night restaurants are flourishing all over Sacramento.

We simply have not even tried coordinated efforts of marketing and delivering consistent experiences in our urban areas every weekend.

Article Author
January 5, 2009 | 2:39 PM

It is sad when I walk down K St on a Saturday and all the shops are closed.

I agree that downtown needs more mixed residential development. Too bad project like the Towers went kaput, but moving the Greyhound station to Richards Blvd will be a good first step to making downtown someplace livable & not just a state employee zone.

January 5, 2009 | 3:34 PM

Why is moving the Greyhound building a good first step?

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January 5, 2009 | 5:00 PM

A “Flash mob” refers to events that are spontaneously planned and attended. Something like Second Saturday, by definition, cannot be a flash mob event. I went to SS almost every month I was in Sacramento, and that’s because it was the only remotely cultural event in town, and it was fun to see people. That doesn’t mean Sac has some unique combination of qualities that makes people attend these events.

January 5, 2009 | 5:51 PM

That is all true, but SS is not the same from month to month. Nor has the meaning or reality of the event remained static.

I contend that the meaning and brand of the event was hijacked this summer by people looking for an urban experience who showed up mostly for each other.

Their plans and actions were often spontaneous.

Article Author
January 5, 2009 | 9:12 PM

Most people who go to Second Saturday don’t give a damn about the art. It’s actually a big complaint of gallery owners. My suggestion is to market to the people who aren’t there for the art. No need for galleries to set up a new show every week–focus on things the rest of the crowd wants to do, like eat, drink, shop, stroll, be seen.

It’s a chicken-and-egg problem: you need the foot traffic to justify businesses staying open, but you need open businesses to attract foot traffic. Somehow that cycle has to be broken. Perhaps the answer is with the street entertainment: right now, the city has a recently-crafted way to regulate street music on Second Saturday, but what if we expanded street music to every weekend? There are plenty of bands and musicians and other entertainers that would be interested. The same goes for expanded street vending: limit street vending to the non-retail addresses on a business street (in front of law offices, clinics or other places closed in the evening) and you provide some visual appeal for strollers on the sidewalk. A simple, minimal-cost permit program would cover overhead, and create a lot of new city business permits (which generates some city revenue.)

There are plenty of other “remotely cultural” events in town, you just have to go find ‘em, because people buy into the “we’re a cow town, nothing happens here” nonsense. The main problem isn’t talent, it’s marketing.

January 5, 2009 | 9:27 PM

I agree. Every time I go to SecSat, I think, this should be happening EVERY Saturday. And it is, to the degree that businesses offer something unique. That is, the bars are open EVERY Saturday, and they draw a lot of people, and the more bars there are, the more people come downtown. Ditto restaurants. The same hasn’t worked for live music, but there’s really no reason why it shouldn’t. It just hasn’t been marketed well. Look at how many people show up for the Concerts in the Park – and guess how many of those people go eat in a restaurant afterwards, and then end up at Old I or somewhere for more music?
What if all the clubs in town chose a night and marketed live music with value added, such as buy one pass for $10 and get into every club in the Grid? What about sports? Or fashion? Or more foodie events on the street, especially in the summer, when people LOVE to eat outside?
And while we’re on this, when is Sacramento’s Farmers Market going to wise up, look at farmers markets in San Francisco, Davis and Chico, and get a market in a beautiful spot, rather than under the freeway?
And look at the success of the antique market? Why can’t there be something built on that? Sacramento ought to be able to fill the downtown Thursday through Saturday nights, and Sunday afternoon, too. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be able to. Is there?

January 6, 2009 | 11:28 AM

David, you’re right about live music. We need more live music venues–and maybe fewer bars. The problem is that getting an entertainment permit requires a significant cash expense, one that pretty much mandates that only a bar can afford to do live music. Which means no all-ages music venues, or venues for music that aren’t bars (other than those operating without entertainment permits, or only on Second Saturday.)

And yeah, there needs to be more in the mix than just bars. More retail, more cafes, more little stores that sell things you can’t get anywhere else…but those need foot traffic, and street entertainment is a pretty good draw for that sort of thing, as Second Saturday proves.

The farmer’s market is under the freeway because they can operate year-round: at least they’re out of the rain in the cold months, and in the shade in the hot months. It’s not the most aesthetically pleasing spot, but it is next door to Southside Park. Plus there are several farmer’s markets throughout the central city that don’t operate in the cold months, primarily because it’s a bit tough to run an open-air farmer’s market in the rain.

Of course, the Farmer’s Market used to be in a warehouse on Alhambra and S Street, across from where the Co-Op is, and we had another big farmer’s market building downtown where the Sheraton is now. If only we had some big, open-air space downtown for such things…like, say, a Greyhound station parking lot that people wanted to relocate somewhere else…or a large pedestrian mall that is often fairly vacant…

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