In 2007, I became a Community Organizer. It started with a photocopy stuck in the handle of the front storm door, telling us that the City planned to construct a 10-story building two blocks from our house, a building taller than any other in town besides the University’s new football stadium. This out of place structure was to be accompanied by a parking structure, several smaller buildings, and twelve condos ringing the only green space available to our fairly urban children. In a market in which existing retail space and condos sit vacant, this plan was the equivalent of an iron fist aimed squarely at the solar plexus of my neighborhood
I had spent the past few years deeply involved in town-gown issues, serving as the poster child for permanent residents in the community, winning myself an etched crystal bowl and a moment on the podium based on my work with the transient undergraduate population. I liked that role – favored child of the City, doer of good, deliverer of brownies, and recipient of awards. Once I read that wrinkled piece of paper I stepped beyond that safe, warm, place into a life of gritty, adversarial activism.
I was no longer Mother Theresa; I had turned into Angela Davis, Bernadette Devlin, or Patty Hearst with her SLA insignia. I wrote editorials in the local paper condemning the project, and I researched. I found a neighbor with a similar level of time and lividity and together we organized forums, spoke at City Council meetings, met with the Mayor, the City Manager, the City planning staff, and countless groups of concerned citizens. We uncovered the past wrongdoings of the developer involved in the colossal public-private development partnership and publicized them on a web site. We made T-shirts, leaflets and yard signs. We dealt with neighbors who disagreed and stopped speaking to us, neighbors who thought we weren’t doing enough, neighbors who were apathetic, and City staff who clearly wished we might someday be buried beneath the cornerstone of the ten-story building. We were consumed.
For months from the early 2007 until the summer of 2008 I fought The Man using everything from conciliatory charm to scathing attacks in the media, and my private life was buried beneath a mountain of meetings, phone calls, and research. By the time we lost the battle I was exhausted and disillusioned. I had lost friends, strained relationships and seemed to have spent nearly two years of my life on a worthless pursuit.
The giant building was still going to be built, our park was going to be edged with privately owned condos, and houses in an historic district were going to be demolished to make way for a parking structure to support the vehicles associated with the offices, restaurant, hotel and whatever else was going to appear at the end of our street. The calls from the newspaper still trickled in, and I still walked past neighbors who gave me the gimlet, but I was done with it all. It was time to focus on things that did not create hypertension, insomnia and impotent rage. I had fought the good fight and lost, made my peace with the impending change, and moved on. After years of intense civic engagement, I retired. I quit all committees and groups, handed the ball and scepter of Neighborhood Association President to a fresh horse, and slipped into private life with a clear conscience.
Last week I got a call from the president of another neighborhood asking me if I could help him with their conditional re-zoning issue. He had heard that I might know something about that, and that I had been involved in “trying to get the City to follow its own rules” a few years back. I listened, I politely demurred, and I pointed him to folks who knew more than I did. He called a second time – wouldn’t I please speak at their forum? They needed all the help they could get. I explained that my issue had been different, that I knew nothing about conditional rezoning, and that I had been so battered by my last foray into Fighting City Hall that I had retired. He cajoled, and I felt twinges of guilt. What kind of person was I to fight only for my own causes, my own backyard, and refuse to pitch in to help someone else? So what if I had no idea what his issues were, and had nothing useful to say at his meeting? So what if I hate all meetings so much that it is a condition of my current job that I do not ever have to attend one? I said “probably not,” and hoped he would go away.
Yesterday he called again. I felt my gut tighten, and my pulse quicken. I hit the “Ignore” button on my cell. I have a funeral to do today, and I am guiding my son through the first week of high school. I do not want this in my life anymore. It is my nature to speak up, to question authority and to challenge the status quo; it just isn’t my whole life anymore, particularly when the cost is so high and the benefits are not apparent. I do not want to speak publicly about the bad behavior of the City I live in, particularly when I speak not from any real passion or knowledge, but merely as Experienced Rabble Rouser, Abby Hoffman dragged to a forum to speak about conditional rezoning issues.
More than four years later, the project still hasn’t broken ground, although many buildings are vacant as the result of the City’s early, exuberant rush to drive out long-time tenants and make way for the Big Show. At the moment, driving into town from the West, it appears that one side of the street is a thriving college campus and the other is a ghost town of empty buildings with sad, red and white banners promising “future” development. Maybe, through no fault of our own, we actually won the battle. Maybe the monstrous tower will never be built, another plan will be made, and the ghost town will turn into something appealing, appropriate and useful.
Maybe, just maybe there will come a time when I am renewed and ready to fight again, and I will throw myself heart and soul into some new fight. I will become, once again, a disposable woman whose energy is willingly offered up to fuel the flame of civic outrage. Today I will use my influence and my vitality to create a comforting funeral reception, help my kid get his homework done, and welcome my husband home from a business trip. I will focus inward, struggling to ignore the jagged noise of guilt that comes with refusing to save the world this time. I will organize only my own, small and beloved community.