My heart sank. A neighbor showed up who lives a few blocks away. He only turns up when trouble’s brewing. Usually it’s a developer seeking to rezone nearby land, typically for apartments. But it’s always some damn thing that threatens what little character our neighborhood has left. This continues after 20 years of relentless development – all in the name of progress. Well, progress comes at a price, but so long as the price is not too steep, we can call it progress.
Oh, we knew the drill alright: have a meeting with whatever neighbors we could get to show up, and then plan strategy. Foremost is the delegation of duties: somebody to check with the planning commission on assorted details; who’s going door-to-door with the petitions to get the word out; whose going to speak.
One of my big gripes is when they go to rezone an area, they put up a sign the size of a postage stamp to let you know. And with traffic flying by and a million things on your mind, you never see it. Which is exactly what they want to happen.
In my neighborhood, we go through this routine every couple years. Personally, I’m getting sick of it. But I figure I’d better suck it up (we’ve only got four days til the commissioners vote on it), and we’ve got to get cracking. The guy spearheading the operation, Tom, is a grizzled veteran of such affairs, and immediately cuts to the chase. He knows the commissioners have heard it all and are weary… more traffic, more crime, more overcrowding, more this, more that. It gets old. The trick is finding something new to say.
But Tom soldiers on, and I fall in line behind him. I try, not easily, to pivot my mind from one of resentment over having to lose a weekend yet again because this issue has surfaced before, to being grateful that I live in a democratic society. My voice will be heard, if not agreed with. I also have good neighbors. And when people give a damn and care enough, and rally together, we can speak up and effect change.
There’s always the last minute stuff to sort through. Good homework and preparation gives us choices. We’re coming from a position of strength, not scrambling around like idiots. Clearly, the Board of Commissioners knows the difference between a well considered perspective and disorganized ramblings.
Getting petitions signed is a gigantic pain in the ass. And who wants to go door-to-door anyway? You don’t know what’s on the other side of the door. The person on the other side doesn’t know why you’re there either. It’s a little uneasy. No, it’s a lot uneasy, but you’ve got to knock anyway.
Tom, to his endearing credit, is fearless. Out of about 130 homes, he got 80 signatures, between himself and others he motivated. One person in particular, also named Tom, spent several hours canvassing the neighborhood. He also gave an excellent speech himself. Me? I got eight, seven if I don’t count myself. My job was writing the speeches, hopefully given eloquently and passionately, in the ten minutes allowed for our rebuttal. This had been my role previously. You have to hook them with emotion, better if it’s universal in scope. Stay away from sentimentality – it quickly becomes maudlin, leaves a bad taste, and sets a bad tone.
Meeting time arrived. We’d done our due diligence. It was time to make the pitch. Then the hard part would come – turning over the results. We were sitting at a table talking amongst ourselves. I was still struggling between my resentment over having to do this and my gratitude for the democratic process.
I looked up to see an elderly woman in a wheel chair coming toward me, pushed along by her granddaughter. I immediately recognized her as the oldest of the “old guard.” Our street is named after her family. That’s old guard. Someone whispered that she was struggling some since her husband’s death at Christmastime. My heart sank. Mr. Haney had died. I didn’t know. I was somewhat overcome with emotion. I had visited with him often over the years. Boy, could this man spin stories. He had ‘em. He lived ‘em. He told ‘em. I listened.
Along the way, I bought a grammar school desk he claimed was the one he used in third grade. All I could think about was that desk, and him not being around any more to tell more stories. The old guard is dying and they want to put up apartments.
Once inside the auditorium, we took our seats in the second row so we can scope out the mood and take the temperature of the commissioners. I just wanted to cry, frankly, having heard the news of Mr. Haney’s passing and what that meant. The master link was gone.
Before the meeting started, a large number of eagle scouts shared their achievements and received awards for their outstanding service to the community. In their fresh young faces, I saw the person I once was. But now I’m in the 50 to dead demographic. I had to squint a little bit. They were exhorted to keep up the good work.
One of the board members then said a prayer, asking God to help us with the decisions we were about to make tonight. Next was the Pledge of Allegiance. It is impossible for me to say those words without tearing up. I think about what has been sacrificed in human life and more, just so I can stand and take that pledge. I mumbled a few of the words, I fought back the tears, and I thought, “This is not a good space to be in when trying to give an impassioned message to a group of people about to greatly influence my future.”
I sat and looked amongst the row of people that I did not know very well at all. And yet, in this moment, my life was inextricably woven with theirs.
When it was our turn, the developer’s side went first to plead their case. A fresh, young, newly minted lawyer was charged with the task. Talking fast, waving the pointer around frantically, she declared all sorts of positive reasons, in their estimation, as to why these apartments should be built. And how the project would have minimal impact and somehow improve our neighborhood.
At once I started to consider what she was saying, and more importantly, the outcome if the board agreed with her. It was like somebody popped me upside the head. The adrenalin was rushing now. Sentimentality over the loss of Mr. Haney and the old guard was instantly replaced by gearing up for a fight. We were going to preserve all he stood for, right here, right now. Fortunately, the lawyer didn’t say anything of substance we didn’t already know.
Next up was that cryptic little moment when the weight of clashing idealism is set ever so delicately on the head of a pin. That’s what I felt when Tom said to me, “Will, you have to hit them heavy. Hit them hard.” Well, alrighty then.
First I inquired how much time was remaining. I had timed my speech. I could deliver it in three minutes. I had five. I took a deep breath and thought to myself, “Let’s get ready to rumble.” I smiled at the board members and thought of Mr. Haney. After a paragraph or two, it was evident the Board was hearing a different perspective. I told them there’s a point at which we cross a line and a neighborhood loses its essential nature. And that’s where my neighborhood stood that night.
I also said every neighborhood has a responsibility to provide for more than simply its immediate needs. Then I pointed out the litany of events my neighborhood had to deal with over the last decade or so: building the Mall of Georgia, a sewage treatment plant, an Environmental Center, and some day, another major road. Near as I could tell, we had contributed our fair share.
I was followed by my roommate, freshly transplanted from Florida, who said he moved into my neighborhood because it had a small town feel. Just like his town, St. Petersburg, once had a long time ago. He was followed by another fellow who just bought a house next to the proposed apartments. He said had he known apartments were going in next to him, he would have bought elsewhere.
Their lawyer had three minutes left to rebut. I hung on every word she said, because we had 25 seconds left, and I damn sure was getting in the last word. She talked in generalities and said nothing substantial. I started to get up but the head of the Commission asked me to sit back down. They had heard enough. Very well.
The decision was rendered in favor of our neighborhood petition. There was no applause, or back slapping, or anything. Just silence and great relief echoing in the mostly empty room. Once again, the democratic process had come full circle.
One of the Board members and I chatted briefly about some trails in the Environmental Center that she liked to walk on. We compared notes. She was no longer a board member. She was a person.
I turned around and looking back, saw an old woman in a wheel chair, sitting quietly by herself. Whatever amount of effort it took for me to get into that room, I’m sure it took her, in her current condition, much more. When the meeting was over, I took her hand and our eyes met. She said, “Thank you.” I said, “No, thank you.”