Loving Worcester Action: Get Political

An improvisational riff on some of the place attachment behaviors that Melody Warnick described in her book, This is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live.

Nothing is more in-your-face this week than politics, elections, voting.  Why does it seem as if the fate of the country and maybe even the planet will be in our hands when we cast that ballot on Tuesday? In the week when we are choosing the next president and deciding the fate of our state’s public education system with Question #2, it may seem frivolous to advocate getting political in our city.  Shouldn’t we be thinking about the larger issues – climate change, income inequality, systemic institutionalized racism – and tackling them at a macro policy level?   How can we solve those larger social problems through local action?  So what if we fight for better designed streets or saving historic buildings or for better public transportation options or more funds for after school programming for our city schools? 

Remember why Melody Warnick advocates for us to fight for the little things in our cities and towns.  Getting political locally helps ground us in the places where we live.  Sit on a city advisory board. Testify at a Tuesday city council meeting on an issue you care about.  Speak out for more trees, better train service, more consistent trash collection. Attend a local rally. When we dare to take a stand on a Worcester issue, we place another stake in making our city a place where we want to live. 

In what is perceived to be the “life and death” outcome of this week’s elections, the story I’m about to tell may seem absurd and insignificant.  It’s not.  Think of this story as a little interlude in the seriousness of the day.

The sidewalk we fought for and won.  Isn't it incredible?  The action of organizing to get this sidewalk is really a triple-hitter for place attachment. 1) The collective efforts of advocating for the sidewalk brought our neighbors together (Say hi to neighbors). 2) We got political in a project that bettered our street and neighborhood. (Get political) 3) Once this sidewalk was built, many neighbors felt free to walk more than ever (Walk more!)

The sidewalk we fought for and won.  Isn't it incredible?  The action of organizing to get this sidewalk is really a triple-hitter for place attachment. 1) The collective efforts of advocating for the sidewalk brought our neighbors together (Say hi to neighbors). 2) We got political in a project that bettered our street and neighborhood. (Get political) 3) Once this sidewalk was built, many neighbors felt free to walk more than ever (Walk more!)

The Flagg Street School is just a stone’s-throw away from our street.  Heck!  One can practically see the school from the windows of our house.  Yet eight years ago, we were the only family who walked our children to school from our street.  It was a harrowing walk.  There was no sidewalk for the fifty plus yards along the skinny side of Flagg Street between our street and Aylesbury Drive right across from the school.  Our dead-end drive was landlocked with no viable pedestrian access route to link us to the neighborhood. Every morning, I held my breath and my daughter’s hand.  Our choices were few – the poison ivy lane on one side and the open road on the other side.

Run!! Run!
— my shouting to my daughter when there was a tiny reprieve of heavy commuter traffic and we had a second to get to the sidewalk half a block away

One year a fellow mother at the corner of our street and Flagg had had enough.  It was ridiculous that she had to get in her car to drive her children less than half a block a way to get to school.  She became the spark to make the change.  She contacted Bill Eddy our local district counselor at the time for help.  She knocked on the doors of all the families who lived on our street.  Were they sick of being landlocked?  Let’s meet at her house.  We had strategy meetings.  We had several public hearings.  A friend in the area produced a film on “sidewalks 4 us.”  We wrote letters and signed petitions.  We shouted for that sidewalk!

One might ask, “How could a SIDEWALK be political?  Who could argue against children having a safe route to school?”  In all my years, I’ve learned that everything and anything can emerge as a source of disagreement.  Three property owners were going to be impacted by the construction of the sidewalk.  Our neighbor who spearheaded the sidewalk campaign was willing to cede her private property for the public use of a pedestrian passageway.  However, the two other abutters were opposed.  They argued that they did not want to be responsible for shoveling the sidewalk in the winter months.  They feared that trees and greenery on their properties would be removed for the construction.  They didn’t want it. 

One of these abutters became the main opponent to the sidewalk.  She too was a mother with small children and lived on the corner of Aylesbury Drive and Flagg Street.  Her children attended a private school in Worcester.  She didn’t empathize with the children who couldn’t walk to Flagg Street School.  She was so upset about the possibility of a sidewalk abutting her property that she went up and down Flagg street gathering signatures on her petition to oppose the project. 

Despite the best efforts of the mother-organizer to stop the project, not only did we win approval for our sidewalk but the city soon sent surveyors to map out the area.  We thought it would take years after the approval to get our sidewalk but two seasons later, the sidewalk was built and our street was now free!

A little postscript to this story:  The mother on the corner who was so opposed to the sidewalk ended up moving to Princeton even before the sidewalk was built.  We didn’t think she liked to lose a fight. However, she too won out in the end. She negotiated with the city that the street in front of her Aylesbury Street house would be closed off in a dead-end in the new design so that her house  then had its own semi-private way.