Dear Mr. Charlie Hales upon your mayoral win
An open letter to Charlie Hales:
written by Sarah Gilbert, who has not run these opinions by the other mamas who run the site yet but hopes they agree.
I don't know if we trust you. Let's be upfront here: we were not particularly thrilled with the choices we had for mayor. That's probably already clear to you by the 8% of us who chose to write-in our vote. After much agonizing and largely because of your rather wishy-washy stance on transportation, as well as the quite clear disingenuity of your income tax history, I voted for Jefferson Smith. I didn't like his personal history much, but I thought his policies would better reflect the non-powerful. I loved that he was from outer east Portland, a historically vastly under-represented part of the city.
I -- and I think I am safe in saying, "we," -- didn't love the way Sam Adams did things. He was clearly invested with too much of a sense of personal and political mandate. He made his own way. He did not seek consensus. He gave off the scent of backroom dealings. Don't do that. Don't let your personal life get in the way of your mayoral business. Please please don't let us find out you've lied to us. (Or, if you have, come clean now, let's get it out of the way before you take office.)
This is very much a city divided. Sure, we look good from the outside and lot of people worldwide hold us up as an example. Everyone I know outside Portland is jealous of where I live. We have a very vibrant arts scene -- the writers! the musicians! -- we celebrate counter-culturism, we love to Do It Ourselves, we have backyard chickens and front yard kale gardens. We are the U.S. leader in family biking! (I made that up, but it's probably true.) We affirm natural medicine and rights for people no matter their disabilities or incomes or races or whatever, we have more doulas and birth centers here than just about anywhere else, we have so many farmer's markets it's almost silly (but silly-good!).
But there is a divide. There is the east/west divide, which we sometimes joke about but is a very real divide, with (by and large) very different beliefs and values on each side of the river. There is a divide between people who choose biking and walking and bus-taking for their chief modes of transportation, and those who believe that their gas dollars and driver's license fees are "subsidizing" bikes and pedestrians. There are those who make a lot of money and those who make quite a lot less. There are those with good healthcare options and those with nothing at all. There are those who are very religious and conservative and those who are firmly atheist. There are those who hire people to blow their leaves off their property, and those who believe the leaves are good compost and the sound is noise pollution. There are those who are hippies, and those who are derisive toward hippies. There are people who are annoyed by the curbside compost changes and those who almost cry when they see overflowing garbage cans full of plastic packaging and compostables.
I read an article about how changes do not happen from the top down -- from the president and congress making policies and laws that change the course of our nation -- but from the small system grown wider. Change, in other words, starts here. In our streets, in our coffee shops, in our living rooms, in our front-yard gardens, in our kitchens. In our mayoral office and City Hall. Change is coming from Portland and not even you really have the power to set the course for our future as a city. Change is coming and I know that because what seems normal here, what seems wonderful and is embraced by people I meet in the streets and farmer's markets and coffee shops and living rooms -- that is seen by others as bizarre and amazing and impossible.
You do have the power to either be that change and improve the climate of community and sharing and difference-embracing, or to continue to operate as status-quo, dealing behind closed doors and saying things which serve to emphasize the differences and divides, not find the commonalities between us. Specifically I think you need to address the very real fact that our society cannot, over the long term, afford to continue policies which prioritize the speed and ease of vehicle traffic over the ease and comfortableness of bicycle and pedestrian options. There will come a time in the future when we will have to drive much, much less than we do now. There should already have come a time in which we realize that speed is not the highest value. Traffic deaths are the leading cause of accidental death for young people and this is because of speed. Is that really so important? Getting places quickly? Even in our neighborhood streets, even parents in minivans, even people who own bicycles, are so habituated to speeds 10 or 15 miles over the speed limit that it is socially acceptable to do so.
Why am I telling you this? Because I think small things you do, like emphasizing words ("livability," maybe, instead of "safety") and communicating facts (like that every mile driven in a car costs our city in pollution and health costs, whereas every mile walked or ridden on a bike saves us money; like that livable streets have a very quantifiable economic benefit) are a big deal. Because I believe that relatively inexpensive infrastructure changes could make families feel more secure biking and walking in the city, and save us long-term in health costs and, heck, make it easier for me to keep my living room clean (I live on a busy street! And oh my goodness the dust!). Because I believe that simple things, like enforcing crosswalks and speed limits, could do huge things to make us all feel like we were more "in this together."
And you could do more, you know, to lessen the invented conflict between the "creative class" and "job creators." Today I am working hard to create jobs that are creative, and I am blown over every day by the entrepreneurial spirit of our city's creative class. People are coming here, with their Apple laptops and their zine spirit and their sewing machines and they are creating the hotbed of a center of creative culture that values arts-centered careers. Let us be the nexus of this! Encourage the xoxo fest! More love for all! If someone, in an editorial or op-ed, says that creative people are bad for economics, fight back! There is lots of evidence that it's not true. Say so.
And the last thing. Young families are going to be everything to the growth of Portland over the next several decades. Young people come here single and get together and have children and stay here to raise grade schoolers and high schoolers and future mayors. Everything you do should focus on supporting those families, creating community support for mothers and fathers of babies and toddlers, creating a no-parent-blame mindset in our public schools (if I had a nickel for every time a teacher said or intimated that my parenting was the reason something was not going well for my child! I could pay for the chocolate I eat while I blame myself in an endless spiral of useless anxiety!), providing systems and services that believe in children, instead of blame them. I know this is kind of woozy, but trust me, this matters. From hiring generous and understanding family court judges to training Portland police to think about where people come from -- to understand first and judge later -- to supporting programs that get people talking about how hard it is for them, all this stuff. And family leave too!
I want you to do a lot. But most of all I want you to create a culture of working together for our future. I want you to explain to the people who drive that it benefits them to have more people on bikes. I want you to explain to the people who have big businesses that it benefits them to have mothers and fathers who are not feeling like failures, who are not stressed and distressed because they have had to make choices between what is best for their family and what is best for their employer. I want you to make all decisions based on what will cost less and give us the most resources in 50, 100 years -- not what will cost less and give us more resources in February or June 2013.
Look to the long term. Do crazy and jealousy-inducing things. Make more livable streets, support more farmer's markets, slow us all down, wear a shirt out of a free box. Don't do it because it's trendy or because you might get a bit part on Portlandia. Do it because we are the change and you are the change and we together can make Portland 2052 a haven, an economic leader, the center of arts and culture, a place our children and grandchildren can live with pride and lead with gusto.