Sacramento Finds and Celebrates Itself in New 'Lady Bird' Walking Tour

The "Lady Bird" walking tour group poses in front of the stately blue home from the film. (Allen Young/KQED)

In the coming-of-age film "Lady Bird," the teenage protagonist, who can’t wait to leave Sacramento, begrudgingly refers to her hometown as the “Midwest of California.”

But director Greta Gerwig calls her movie a love letter to California’s capital, where Gerwig herself grew up. The film is up for five Oscars and has been universally adored by critics. Yet nowhere is "Lady Bird" more celebrated than in Sacramento. In fact, a brand-new walking tour visits film locations for fans eager to relive the mood evoked by the sleeper hit.

The tour begins in the "Fabulous Forties," an upper-class neighborhood envied by the title character for its rows of Craftsman mansions, sycamore trees and manicured lawns. Tour guide Jenn Kistler-McCoy informs the group that we won’t only be visiting some of the landmarks of "Lady Bird." The route also includes the actual sidewalk where director Greta Gerwig used to walk as a child with her mother.

Tour guide Jenn Kistler-McCoy, founder of Sac Running Tours, showcases the iconic blue house to her walking tour.
Tour guide Jenn Kistler-McCoy, founder of Sac Running Tours, showcases the iconic blue house from the film "Lady Bird" in her walking tour. (Allen Young/KQED)

“How you learn a city is by walking through it," says Kistler-McCoy. "And so I just feel like it's fitting that we're walking through East Sacramento, up to H Street where (Gerwig) and her mom probably walked to McKinley Park."

Our first stop is Club Raven, a neighborhood bar with an iconic neon sign that flickers briefly in the film. Kistler-McCoy tells us they’ve created a special Lady Bird cocktail with vodka, blackberry and a hint of lime. Our tour consists of about 30 people, mostly women, who each paid $20 to be here. It’s nothing like those Hollywood bus tours that draw people from all over the world. Every “tourist” in our group lives in Sacramento or a neighboring city.

Seventeen-year-old Riley Burke (Left) is an aspiring writer and filmmaker and draws inspiration from director Greta Gerwig.
Seventeen-year-old Riley Burke (left) is an aspiring writer and filmmaker and draws inspiration from director Greta Gerwig. (Allen Young/KQED)

I meet Riley Burke, a 17-year-old high school junior who has grown up in Sacramento. She’s wearing a vintage pink jacket that Lady Bird might have worn. She proudly calls the film "a story for women, by women."

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“Seeing this happen, seeing a woman who is from my city succeed, was insanely powerful and inspirational,” says Burke.

Like the filmmaker, Lady Bird, the character, has a complicated relationship with her hometown. In one scene, Sister Sarah Joan, the high school principal, tells the protagonist that her college essay shows how much she actually loves Sacramento. Lady Bird replies, “I guess I pay attention.” The nun counters, “Don’t you think they are the same thing — love and attention?”

At our next stop, the McKinley Park Rose Garden, I meet Carrie Blythe. She’s 30, and she grew up in the neighboring town of Carmichael. Blythe tells me she signed up for this tour as part of a New Year’s resolution to pay more attention to the beautiful landmarks around her, like this one.

“I think it’s going to help Sacramento and maybe people who live here and (are) growing up here appreciate it more,” she says. “It’s bringing attention to things that people took for granted.”

Another trekker on the tour, Karlee Cemo-McIntosh, is wearing a purple T-shirt with the words "Home is Sacramento" printed on the front. Growing up here, Cemo-McIntosh says she also took Sacramento for granted. But she moved back home after graduating from San Diego State University. That was eight years ago, and Cemo-McIntosh says she never questioned the decision. The story of "Lady Bird" transcends Sacramento, she says. It’s a familiar voice reminding us of the time we dauntlessly declared we’d outgrown our hometown, then left only to realize we could never fully separate from that protective place.

“It’s not just people from Sacramento who are appreciating it. It’s people from all over that had a place they grew up and left, or stayed, and came back,” says Cemo-McIntosh. “There’s a reason for that, like why they came back or why they love their hometown.”

The Pasty Shack sign flashes briefly onscreen in Lady Bird. An employee said the cameo boosted business this winter.
The Pasty Shack sign flashes briefly on screen in "Lady Bird." An employee said the cameo boosted business this winter. (Allen Young/KQED)

Next we head to the Pasty Shack, a small pastry shop with a sign featured in the movie. A friendly stranger strolls up.

“This has to be a 'Lady Bird' tour,” he says. The crowd cheers. “And good on you. I’ve been hanging out here for too many years."

It turns out the stranger’s name is Quincy Brown, a 67-year-old Sacramento native. Quincy tells me that some residents have a chip on their shoulder after years of being overlooked as a “cow town.”

“I don’t mind a cow town,” he says. “I think we’re a good cow town. I’m OK with that. But I think this is a great town, and I think even a great city, that hasn’t gotten the credit it deserves. This movie gave us the hug that we needed."

In one scene in the film, Lady Bird and her father Larry enter the El Dorado Savings Bank to figure out how they will pay for college. Filmmaker Greta Gerwig has a personal connection to the bank: she used to babysit one of the bank tellers.
In one scene in the film, Lady Bird and her father Larry enter the El Dorado Savings Bank to figure out how they will pay for college. Filmmaker Greta Gerwig has a personal connection to the bank: she used to babysit one of the bank tellers. (Allen Young/KQED)

Next to the Pasty Shack is El Dorado Savings Bank. In the film, Lady Bird’s father Larry brings her here to figure out how they can pay for college. Bank supervisor Keith Lyles introduces himself to the tour, and shares a personal anecdote that makes it seem as though everyone in Sacramento shares a personal connection to Greta Gerwig and her family.

“Even our teller we have here, Greta used to baby-sit him,” says Lyles. “When they did film the movie, Greta came in and said, ‘I used to change his diaper.’ Funny stuff.”

The "Lady Bird" walking tour ends at a lavish blue house where, in the movie, Lady Bird pretends to live, even though the house actually belongs to her boyfriend's grandmother. In one scene, that boyfriend, Danny, turns to Lady Bird and says, "Your mom is hard on you." To which Lady Bird replies, "She loves me."

Sacramento can be its own harshest critic, but the locals widely agree the fragile pride associated with living here was captured in this authentic portrait. It's a beautiful picture.

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