East Sacramento Preservation Essay

Strange Bedfellows

A neighborhood acquaintance possesses political views, which are the polar opposite of my own. What we have in common is that we still read books on paper and walk to the polls to vote. When I see her on election days I wait till she has voted, then go into the booth to cancel her error. Is this useful, mature or in any way valuable behavior? No, but during some elections it’s been my single pleasure.

Quite a while ago she told me that development was planned for the Centrage area, one that would break our levee and invade our shady streets with thousands more cars. She said with a smirk that Phil Angelides was the developer. “You’re kidding,” I said. I’d voted for Angelides for Governor. I’d brought friends who were for Steve Westly to hear Angelides speak and they too switched to his side. I’d shaken hands with him at Burr’s and said, good luck. He was one of the good guys, white hat and all. It was hard to believe he would plunk a dense chunk of overbuilt suburbia and a  cathedral in our midst.

Then came the toppling of the economy. The development stopped. People lost jobs, lost homes. The poorest were hit the hardest, of course, but almost everybody felt the pain. In East Sacramento people stopped talking about Centrage 2. Now we talked about sicko mortgages and foreclosures and the bleak economic future.

A national Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission was appointed. This would be like the famous Pecora Commission which investigated the causes of the Great Depression. The Chairman of the new Pecora Commission? Phil Angelides. Back in his white hat, he summoned experts and culprits alike to hearings and in the end published the famous conclusion: the crisis was avoidable. It was caused by, among other things, lack of financial regulation, lack of transparency, “a systematic breakdown in accountability and ethics.” It was widely lauded and made the New York Times best-seller list. I didn’t read the whole report because phrases like “OTC derivatives and credit default swaps fueled the mortgage securitization pipeline” give me paralyzing neural spasms (tiny strokes caused by excessive technical language). But I did read explanations and analysis of the report, and thought Angelides had done a remarkably credible job. Later I also read his Washington Post comment criticizing Paul Ryan for blaming the collapse not on Wall Street and the invasion of Iraq but on the food stamp program. “How do you revise the historical narrative…?” Angelides asked. “You and your political allies just do it. And you bet on the old axiom that a lie is halfway around the world before the truth can tie its shoes.”

Locally things finally began to get better, at least for the luckier sort. The housing market improved. Unemployment slowly, slowly inched down. But the bad project returned—now it was Centrage 3, this time without the cathedral. But it would be 328 houses with two-car garages crammed into the same place. Now they were insistently calling it McKinley Village to associate it with the lovely old growth park neighborhood it would violate. They were again going to blast holes in our secondary levee so they could funnel 3, 500 cars daily into our streets. Flood dangers? No worries, they’d put in floodgates, they said, sounding as confident as that raving stock market guy on TV who’d predicted that nothing really bad could happen to the economy. McKinley Village would nestle snugly between railroad routes and a freeway that extruded diesel and auto exhaust upon its residents. The solution? Hepa filters in every house. Not unlike the big banks’ internal monitoring system. But what about kids who want to play outside in the diesel and auto exhaust? Simple. The development would plant two thousand trees to absorb the air poisons. But two thousand scarecrow baby trees with trunks like twigs and arms like sticks take many years to grow and even then they can’t absorb all the contaminants. Would the developer perhaps pay for the inhalers and asthma treatments the frolicking children would require? No, because the fault would lie with the parents who purchased the modern amenity houses with the modern amenity filters and modern muck in the air. Would there at least be retail to keep villagers home for shopping? Yes, there would be room for a store in the recreation center. Kind of like having a soda machine in the lobby. And how about these requirements for good infill: public transportation or a shuttle to bus lines? No. Not “economically feasible,” said the developer. So, no real retail, befouled air, holes in the levee, manually operated floodgates, and aggressive traffic invasion of nearby neighborhoods. And they would call this toxic thing with its cannibalized name ‘smart growth.’ A lie is halfway around the world before the truth can tie its shoes.

“I can’t believe he would do this after that Commission,” someone said. Where was the Angiledes who had delivered the noble reprimand to Wall Street? Well. He was visiting members of the Sacramento Planning Commission and showing them his car-centric design plan. Later he would speak at length before the Commission at a public hearing. He represented his little village as ideal infill, fully integrated with adjacent park neighborhoods. He didn’t say that the holes he would blow through the levee would hugely escalate our traffic burden, escalate our exhaust pollution, escalate our pedestrian hazards and ultimately cause home values to plummet because nobody wants to live on bumper-to-bumper thoroughfares.

When Midtowners and East Sacramentans who attended the hearing rose to protest this invasive, un-neighborly prospect, they were given two minutes apiece to speak. If they went a few seconds too long a little bell was rung to silence them. Of course we understand that we can’t have uncontrolled public access to the microphone because some of the citizenry will, like officials, become intoxicated by the amplification and babble incessantly, oblivious to the suffering of listeners. But really, two minutes? How about one full hour to present our best arguments? That’s what Angelides got. Moreover, it’s a safe bet that nobody rang a little bell on him when he visited each Planning Commission member privately.

I ran into my political opposite at Corti Brothers. She said she might move because she lived near ground zero where the frankenstorm of traffic would hit. She might make her home a rental. “Everything will turn into rentals there,” she said. “It’ll completely change the area. Your candidate. How could he do this?”

So I asked if she had now become a regulator and abandoned her free market notion that profit justified everything.

She did not address this admittedly snide charge, but said instead, “This whole thing is caused by that infill idea.”

But anything in that space, including a leaking nuclear reactor, would be infill. It’s the kind of infill that matters. And McKinley village infill is destructive. It’s outspill.

So I said this and for once we agreed. She said she was amazed. I’m amazed too. Add embarrassment to the amazement. She said she would attend the Planning Commission hearing but I didn’t see her there. However we spoke this morning and she made a donation to our neighborhood group. So now, after all these years and all these elections, we’re allies. She’s red, I’m blue; she thinks the country, state and city should be run like a business, I think they should be run like a service; she distrusts big government, I distrust big conglomerate government and the Koch brothers; she hates welfare, I hate corporate welfare; she likes the Tea Party; I like beer. It goes on and on, and endless litany of disagreements–from sea to shining sea. But when we come to Mc Kinley Village ancient antagonisms are, by unspoken agreement, submerged. She wonders why people can’t think long term and protect these old neighborhoods and insists that they are ultimately more valuable to the city than the McKinley Village tax base. “Exactly,” I say. She says it’s a shame. It brings ruin. It’s shortsighted. “Exactly,” I say. And it occurs that Angelides has done what no politician in this whole fractured country has been able to do—bring us together.

Pat Lynch

 

 

 

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