Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Berkeley: The Greatest town in America

I grew up in the unincorporated community of Rancho San Diego. For those of you not familiar with the phrase “unincorporated community” this means that it’s an area large enough to be a town, with enough people to be a town, but without an actual government. Why? Because sadly, the frontier spirit of democracy and participatory government are nigh dead. Growing up, my most immediate US government representative was one of five San Diego County board of supervisors. Check it out. That’s me in section 2.

It never even occurred to me that this was weird. Politics after all, seemed like something that was only important in large cities or on the state and federal level. When a mini-mall opened up on top of what used to be my favorite section of the local creek, it never even occurred to me that I or my neighbors might have had a say in the placement of said mall. So alien was the idea of people actually being able to affect what the government does.

Coming to Berkeley then, was like a refreshing blast of cold No-Cal air. Here was a town where everyone seemed to have an opinion on every topic. Even ones they couldn't affect. Sure, the wave of hyper-participation also washed the crazies along with it; With their protest signs and kooky ideas. But in the end, that’s what democracy is all about: Everyone agitating, complaining, working and striving to improve the damn place.

I had read Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, but I didn’t understand it till I came to Berkeley. His described ruckus, fully attended, town meetings with citizens forming ad hoc committees and associations for every common cause. He described every hick and yokel being familiar with the minutia of local politics and government. He saw a citizenry empowered by knowing that they could trust their government because they kept a close eye on it. Citizen's not afraid to raise the taxes needed to do what they wanted to do. He saw that Democracy is not about efficient government. It’s about inefficient government with an amazing resource: The minds and will of all its citizens.

Heart and Oxford is a dangerous intersection. As it already has a full stop light and crosswalk, you’d think that there isn’t much more the city could do. Last time I went however, I found that there were little buckets set by each crosswalk, filled with little orange flags. That way, when you walked across you could wave the flag and not be hit by a car. It’s the dumbest idea I ever heard. But it’s remarkable in that the government is trying. It’s responsive. It’s how American cities used to be. And it’s how they all should be again.


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