Art Hotel's success shows that we don't have to spend millions of dollars to revitalize downtown Sacramento

The din of Kings arena construction usually overwhelms downtown’s abandoned and blighted Seventh Street. But the sounds of this city’s future took backseat to pulses of distorted guitars and cymbal crashes this past Thursday. And, in many ways the soundtrack was of a bygone Sacramento making its last stand before Downtown 3.0's much-touted arrival.

For one night only, the soon-to-be-gutted Marshall Hotel—you know, that shuttered single-resident occupancy dive on the corner of Seventh and L—welcomed head-nodders for an evening of rock ‘n’ roll. Inside, the lobby-turned-venue buzzed so hard that I forgot I was huffing urine fumes.

Local band Gymboys—it’s an homage to everyone’s favorite local Parmesan-dusted taco—took the stage before 9 p.m. I like to call the group the house band of Empress Tavern and Mother, since a majority of members pay the bills by working at those restaurants, including chef/owner Michael Thiemann on drums. Thursday was Gymboyz’s sixth gig ever; the groups remains a little rough around the edges, but endearingly so. 

Gymboys bid farewell to the old Marshall Hotel this past Thursday.
(Photo by Ryan Donahue)

Singer Whittney Kebsehull embraced the moment. She unpacked her lungs into the microphone, letting out ferocious yawps and cries while spinning and throwing her body about on the stage. Backed by two guitars and an unrelenting bass-and-drum attack, I’d describe the band’s sound as equal parts sonic noodling and grimy guitar rock against a high-speed-chase backbeat. It’s grungy fun, and Gymboys continues to fulfill its promise as an exciting local post-rock act.

Packed house for the Gymboys gig inside the Marshall Hotel lobby.

Thursday’s show might qualify as the gnarliest lineup in the history of the Marshall. The hotel opened in 1911, and the city-landmark building’s basement was converted in 1940 to a live-music venue (then called The Clayton Club). Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong once graced its stage. Oddly, we can now add locals Gymboys and Gentlemen Surfer, who headlined Thursday’s gig, to that company.

After the show, Gymboys’ frontwoman Kebsehull said that, even though she’s relatively new to Sacramento, she always thought of the old ramshackle Seventh Street strip as “a magical place.” She called the gig exciting. “Everything we do, it’s a cycle, so it’s kind of ironic, I guess, to be playing in something that’s going to go down, and something else is going to go up,” she said.

Ironies abounded this past week.

Consider: the city of Sacramento has thrown hundreds of millions of dollars in investment at downtown and K Street. They’ve written checks to help pay for America Live dance clubs, towering Hard Rock guitar sculptures and restaurants, Z Gallery takeovers, light-rail-station switcheroos and dead-on-arrival Mexican restaurants. But no dice: downtown decayed.

And now, as we all know, the city has doubled-down on its vision of downtown as suburban playground. They let $350 million ride on the new arena. It remains to be seen whether the forthcoming Kings home will give the city a grand-slam return on that epic public investment. I hope it pencils out, honestly.

But it’s clear this week that we didn’t need to throw hundreds of millions of dollars at downtown to create excitement. That we don’t need to emulate every other quotidian, corporate American downtown.

Lines, lines, lines until midnight at Art Hotel during its run.

Tens of thousands of people toured the Art Hotel, the pop-up gallery inside the shuttered Jade Hotel, during its two week run this month. This past Saturday morning, on its final day before 11 a.m., thousands queued up in hopes of entering the Art Hotel, and the line stretched for nearly eight city blocks! Art Hotel sold out its tours every day for it’s entire run. Art Hotel was also contagious, prompting music and events and the Marshall—and record crowds at the nearby Ruhstaller Brewery taproom.

How much did the Art Hotel artists spend to create the hottest ticket in town? About $10,000.

Art Hotel is over now. It’s impermanence is part of its magic. A wrecking ball will smash the Jade into pieces sometime later this year. And the Marshall will be gutted to make way for a boutique Hyatt. I won’t pretend to miss those shitholes. But I also won’t forget the artists and musicians who rocked Seventh Street with an inspiring death rattle this past week. 

Take note, city leaders: We’re going to need a lot more of what those artists and musicians do to keep the approaching Sacramento 3.0 on point.

One of the rooms inside Art Hotel.

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