Friday, September 6, 2013
When I began my career after college, I worked for a small, aging, industrial city that had just lost its biggest employer. Poverty and crime levels were rising, the city’s infrastructure was decaying, and I was part of a young and eager team wanting to change the world. It was a great experience where I got to knock on doors and sit around kitchen tables and listen to folks’ problems and what they wanted and needed to build a better life. We worked very hard on economic development and neighborhood improvements and community building. Being a very poor tenant myself I knew that people wanted pride and dignity in their homes and lives and I was blessed for several years to work for a Mayor who believed that when you provide people with quality, they respect it. It was tremendously satisfying knowing that my work directly helped people who were struggling and that their homes became safer, their neighborhoods more stable and their employment opportunities grew.
After the assault I no longer felt safe in that city. I was still the main caretaker of my dear friend and mentor who, less than a year later, died of cancer. A soon as she passed, I began to look for a new job. At that point I didn't care what or where - I just needed to get out of that city with all it’s triggers and horrific memories.
A friend’s daughter sent me a help wanted clipping from the newspaper where she lived - a town looking for a planner. I called, interviewed, and was offered the job as I walked back to my car after the interview. I said yes in the parking lot, knowing nothing about the Town or the area or what was expected of me. I really didn’t care. I just wanted to move away from the nightmares and people who knew what had happened to me - treating me with either pity or disdain. I desperately needed a new start.
Culture shock set in quickly. I had always lived in metropolitan settings. Now I was in a town with about 40% suburban development and the rest was rural and farmland. I quickly had to shift from tenant rights and code enforcement and to golf courses and septic fields. The school district was rated one of the highest in the area which attracted wealthy people who could afford the half million dollar homes that were being constructed as fast as approvals could be received.
As much as it was interesting to learn new things, I quickly realized that I was not going to get much personal satisfaction from working for a bunch of rich people who did a lot of complaining about the traffic and the smell of the 300 year old farm they had just built their mini-mansion next to. (Which is not to say that this town does not have its share of poverty. It certainly does. But it tends to be isolated and therefore, unfortunately, not paid much attention)
Anyway, early on I aligned myself with the farming community. I loved these people - hard workers, honest, didn’t tell everyone else how to live, great stewards of the land, and rarely complained. (Unless, of course, government tried to mess with their land.) And through them I developed a new sense of calling - to protect open space from development and preserve farmland and the environment.
It was difficult at first in this development obsessed area. When I first came here there were no open space set asides except for the existing town parks. Developers were allowed to enclose beautiful streams in pipes, fill in the ravines and build over top of them. Developers would name their subdivisions things like “Deer Run” and all I could think of was yes, run, deer, run. Run as fast as you can away from here.
Once I decided that environmental protection would be my new focus, I set a goal of 2000 acres to preserve as permanent open space. Some things were easy - writing new right- to- farm laws that gave greater protection to existing farmland. Some were politically delicate and took years of lobbying like an automatic 10% set aside of green space or fees in lieu of to purchase more open space. Some were just an educational thing like convincing developers that clustering their developments would save them tons on infrastructure costs. I am proud to say that every piece of legislation I wrote eventually got passed into law. Except one - I have been working for years to get a 1/2 cent tax on gasoline to fund an open space purchase program. I came close to getting that one but then the economy tanked and I think I will have to let it go.
I have now worked here 25 years. My open space inventory started out very slow and came together in dribs and drabs. Mostly in subdivisions where a homeowner’s association would privately own the share the open space, and environmentally sensitive areas like wetlands and ravines. Then, a few years ago, in cooperation with our farmers, we developed a farmland protection plan that allowed protected open space to be farmed. This has been a huge boon that has generated small developments with large tracts of land forever open and used for agricultural purposes. It has also gone a long way in preserving the rural look and character of the western half of our town. Anyway, I am pleased to say that when I returned from vacation, a new project had been filed that will put the protective open space inventory over 2500 acres. I more than reached my goal.
I am now on the cusp of retirement. I am blessed to have worked in a career of public service where I can see improvements in the natural and built environment that I am responsible for. ( I can also see my mistakes that will be around for a long, long while. *sigh* ) Yet I am still feeling that tug of regret. I have long struggled with the difference in my two jobs - one where I served mostly poor people, often personally and at a neighborhood level, to now serving a community of middle to upper class people who don’t need much except clear roadways to drive their Mercedes through. Once I stabilized my life, I probably should have moved onto a more disadvantaged area. Often times I feel that I sold out, that I could have, should have done so much more with social justice issues through urban planning. It was always my passion.
The other side of the coin is that the older I get, the more people irritate me. Not all people - just the whiners and complainers and the bigots and the hypocrites. Perhaps I am better off working for all the other critters that share our planet. Because in the end, I really I think we humans will pollute ourselves into extinction long before we solve the problems of poverty, racism, classism,or any other inequality.
Regrets? I've had a few.