Friendly, Thoughtful Non-Consensus

We moved onto our little two-block street 20 years ago last April. One of the things that we liked about it right off–aside from the presence of a house we could afford–was that it was a real community, a place where people knew most of their neighbors and even socialized a little. It turned out the community was durable, too. Though people have come and gone, there's still a pretty good feeling among the people who live up and down our block.

On occasion, we've gotten together to do things–sometimes for neighborhood parties like our luminaria get-together on Christmas Eve every year, sometimes for more serious stuff: we have a "pizza and politics" meeting before every general election, and at one point we had a neighborhood watch going.

One subject that has been raised often on the street, without much action by me or anyone else, is disaster preparedness. "Disaster" is a euphemism for earthquake. We're just a mile from a fairly dangerous fault, one capable of generating a 7-magnitude shake. The consensus is that when (not if) that happens, our side of the Bay will be a mess. So, I find myself dropping off to sleep some evenings wondering whether I'll awaken to a wildly shaking house (we've had many wake-up calls, none damaging, in our years here).

It's one thing to recognize the danger and the need and another to act on it. So a couple weeks ago, I finally did something I had thought about for years and sent around a flyer to all the neighbors on the block to talk about forming an earthquake preparedness committee. A group like that — the other half of the street has one — would allow you to organize supplies and training and basic information that could help if we have a disaster (for instance, knowing where the natural gas shutoff valves are at all the homes on the street).

Since I was calling a meeting, I put several other items on a list for discussion. Should we try to get residential permit parking as a way of clearing boorish commuters and their boorish European-made (and Japanese- and Korean- and even American-made) cars off the street (that's my reason, anyway)/ Should we try to re-organize a neighborhood watch? And while we're talking about that, how about considering whether we ought to get street-sweeping reinstated here? And let's discuss what we can do to get people to slow down on the street, which is often used as a shortcut between two busier routes that have stoplights on them.

Well, we found out that everyone was interested in earthquake preparations. A lot of people must have that just-before-sleep moment that I do. And beyond that — well, there was no consensus about anything, although for the most part it was a friendly and thoughtful non-consensus. A neighbor who works as an aide to a member of the City Council confessed later that listening to some of the discussion was a lot like being at work–parking and traffic are big sources of public and private ranklement in Berkeley.

We sort of came up with a plan on one item, though: the street sweeping. The issue with sweeping isn't trash, of which there's very little on our street. Mostly, in theory anyway, it's to clean up toxic residues on the pavement before they can get washed down the storm drains and into the bay. As I said, that's the theory. In practice, there's little consensus about whether Berkeley or anyplace else sweeps its streets in a way that would realize that goal.

The thing that no one likes about the sweeping here is the enforcement that goes with it. On their once-a=month sweeping days, streets turn into no-parking zones; and one of the few things you can rely on in Berkeley is that if you forget to move your car on sweeping day, you'll get a ticket. The city allowed neighborhoods to opt out of the sweeping program, and we did. One condition of opting out is that the people involved assume responsibility for keeping their own streets clean. That's fine if you're talking about leaves and KFC buckets–you can just pick that stuff up. But what about the mostly invisible toxic crud that the street sweepers are supposed to take care of?

Well, no one knows, really. There is some suggestion in the little bit of literature I easily find on this question that suggests that a middle-aged blogger (or other human) with a push broom might be as effective as a street-sweeping machine in cleaning up the "fines" — the toxin-laden dust our motorized way of life generates — from the pavement. Of course, what you do with that stuff after you've picked it up, that's another thing I don't know. I've been going out and sweeping every once in a while anyway. Right now I have a recycling bin half full of the gravel-like material I swept from the gutter. It'll probably wind up dumped behind our shed.

But I said we had a street-sweeping plan. Here it is: The day before street sweeping next month, we're going to put notes on all the commuter cars parked on the street. Then the day of the sweeping, we're going to make some official-looking street-sweeping signs to see if we can fake out the commuters and get them to park somewhere else. Then the sweeping machine will have a clear path on the street.

It's worth a try, anyway, and it's something to do with the neighbors.

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2 Responses to Friendly, Thoughtful Non-Consensus

  1. After the last big tornado here, a lot of people invested in generators for their homes and businesses. I didn’t. But, I do try to keep a supply of candles and batteries around for the radio and flashlights. I wonder if anyone in your neighborhood has a generator. It would be good for recharging cell phones while you’re waiting for the electricity to be restored.
    Also, for those storm drains, what about keeping a few ready made sandbags on hand.
    Anyway, I’m glad you’ve got this going with your neighbors. You’re a good community organizer.

  2. “Community organizer.” That’s a little like being the mayor of a small town in Alaska, without the actual responsibilities.

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