It’s a Tuesday night and it’s sprinkling outside, much to my dismay, as I head over to City Hall to witness what is expected to be a long and onerous council meeting. As I near the chambers it becomes obvious that a large swath of people have already begun to pour out onto the patio outside of the meeting hall, surely a sign of things to come. The issue being debated tonight is whether or not to accept a proposal by the city’s Parks and Recreation department to create an additional multi-use trail in the Pogonip, a large and scenic area on the north side of the city.
Santa Cruz is one of those cities where even the most mundane of issues can become a hot, and very much heated, topic of debate. Tonight was no exception. It would pit the old school progressives, who largely oppose anything that they feel at all resembles growth, versus the new school, the much younger and pragmatic, yet still extremely conscience progressives. I know, what would seem to any outsiders as virtually the same type of people, fiercely opposing one another and mobilizing their respective constituencies for what eventually concluded a 4 hour long city council meeting.
What can be seen as even more strange is the fact that both groups claim to fighting for the same thing, the preservation of public land for public use and sustainability. They just differ on what they believe to be appropriate public use and their diagnosis of what was preventing that use.
On one side you have the Friends of Pogonip, the old guard, who claim that the land should be preserved by utilizing existing trails, rather than building another. They claim to already be having problems with mountain bikers using the existing trails illegally, which they claim makes it difficult to hike in the traditional sense because of the constant worry of encountering “vehicles,” (mountain bikes). Those in support of the trail, many of who are openly avid mountain bikers, claim to need another trail to avoid having to share the highway with cars and to fight against the crime that has persisted in the area for some time. They also claim to not have enough trails to practice as it is, a somewhat weaker claim because of Santa Cruz’s notoriety as a wonderful place to go mountain biking.
Regardless of their respective positions, both of which resonate with me to some degree, the real issue at hand is how this community wants to collectively resolve its differences. As it stood on this particular night, both sides presented their side of the story, complete with petitions from supporters and mobilized volunteers. However, the one thing that was noticeably absent, from what I would otherwise call an extremely active and robust civic process, was any notion of compromise. In fact, it appeared to me as if neither side had even considered, let alone tried, to reach out to the other. The mayor even began the meeting with a general call for civility because apparently both sides had been sending nasty and defamatory e-mails to him, and each other, for days leading up to this meeting.
Now as much as I appreciate the general level of participation, I do not appreciate this polarization, which only manifests itself to an even higher degree on the state and national levels.
Is it even possible to claim the middle ground anymore? If we can’t even agree on the placement and use of a 4-foot wide patch of dirt than how can we expect to solve some of the most pressing and perilous problems of our day? And to be honest, I really don’t have an answer.
I am just tired of the way things work, and would love hear suggestions on how to deal with this entrenched mentality of “my way or the highway”, because in a world of policy winners and losers, the real victim becomes our democracy.