August 06, 2006

Signs

Laura over at 11D asked her readers to tell stories about their involvement with the local political process. I could tell a number of stories about rallies I've gone to, or issues I was involved in during my years as editor of an alternative publication, but instead I'd like to tell the story that involves something that seems pretty mundane: road signs.

When I was in my twenties, with three small kids (With-a-Why came later), I lived in a quiet neighborhood of small houses lined up close to the road, a neighborhood not far from where I had grown up. Many of my elderly neighbors had lived in the neighborhood for more than forty years, and on summer evenings, they would sit outside on their paved driveways in metal lawn chairs. Sprinkled amidst the somber old houses with their neat lawns and flower-filled window boxes were also houses in which the short front driveways were filled with bright-coloured toys and red tricycles and playpens. Every time a long-time resident of the neighborhood died, the house would get sold by the estate and a young family would move in.

The road we lived on was the back route to a big manufacturing plant, one of the big employers in the area, and twice each day, our quiet street would fill with cars racing by at high speeds, as shift workers took the short cut to get to work on time, many of them traveling more than 30 mph over the posted speed limit. The traffic made the street a dangerous place for both children and old people. The woman next door to me, who was in her eighties and who still walked to the laundromat and the store, had several bad scares, nearly getting run down by fast-moving cars. I kept my own children in our fenced-in back yard, but had to let them walk in our small front yard if I wanted to go someplace in the car. I couldn’t carry three kids at a time, and I always felt fearful until all three kids were safely strapped into the car. If the kids wanted to ride tricycles and play on the paved driveway, I would sit at the end of the driveway, worried the whole time that a kid might dart into the road. But mostly, it wasn’t my own children who were in danger. A couple of houses down lived three boys in a difficult household, whose parents did not supervise them at all. I kept those three boys in my backyard whenever I could, but I knew that they had no one to protect them when we were off on one of our camping trips, and that they often played in the road.

I knew that other residential neighborhoods had stop signs on every corner in order to slow traffic down and make the place safe. It seemed to me that stop signs would solve the problem.

So I drew up a petition to the town, asking for stop signs, and went from door-to-door with the petition. I picked a sunny weekend and left the kids home with my spouse, while I walked from house to house.

Many of the nearest neighbors knew me, but as I moved farther down the street, I found I needed to introduce myself. Since I'd lived in the area my whole life, that wasn't hard. I’d talk about which schools I'd attended – some of my neighbors had kids who had gone to school with me – and I'd mention my father, because most people remembered the office he’d had on the main street for years. Almost everyone was friendly and nice: many asked me to sit down and chat. They offered me cookies and juice, or coffee.

Even as I chatted with the neighbors, I realized I was sort of playing a role. These were white conservative working-class people. In every case, I made a point of mentioning what I had in common with them. Never once did I mention my affiliation with the university, which would have made them mistrust me, and most certainly, nothing about my liberal politics. If my skin had been a different color, or if I had a lesbian partner, or if I was a young professor from out of town who had just moved into the neighborhood, would I have gotten such a warm reception? I suspect not.

Most of the neighbors signed the petition, but mostly just to humor me. I kept hearing things like, "Honey, that traffic's been a problem ever since that plant opened. It's been like that for years. It's dangerous but nothing we can do about it." Almost every one of my neighbors warned me that I was wasting my time. Everyone agreed that the speeding cars were a problem, but they all seemed resigned to just accept the situation.

One woman, LikesQuiet, whom I knew because I'd gone to school with her kids, said she didn't want the stop signs because it would make her life more difficult. She'd have to drive slower going through the neighborhood. She'd raised her own kids with that traffic, and none of them had been hit by a car, and she figured that if mothers didn't keep an eye on her kids, well, that was their problem. I knew I wasn't going to get her signature as soon as she started her spiel, so I shrugged, admired her garden, talked about how nice her dog was, and then moved onto the next house.

Pretty much everyone else signed the petition. I sent it to the town, and they put the stop signs on the agenda for the next town board meeting.

Five other couples went to the town meeting, all of them older residents. When it was time for discussion, I noticed another strange dynamic, something that will likely indicate what a conservative community I come from. When it was time to talk, the husband would stand up and say, "We are Mr. and Mrs. Neighbor. We think ...."

It happened five times. Not one of the women said a word. In each case, the husband would stand up and say something in first person plural, and that would be it. It drives me crazy when married people talk in the first person plural, as if they aren't separate people, but on top of that, I remember thinking it was a poor strategy. Even if both spouses agreed on the issue, having only one person talk effectively gave them one voice instead of two.

As soon as I saw what was happening, I moved a chair away from my husband. I knew he was planning to speak up, and I didn't want anyone to assume he was speaking for me. He and I did agree on the issue, but I wanted us to count as two voices, and not one. I knew I could trust him not to speak in first person plural. And I was deliberately waiting until everyone had spoken, because I wanted to be last.

Four men (including my husband) said they were in favor of the stop signs. And two men, including LikesQuiet's husband, came up with reasons why the stop signs shouldn’t be there. One man said he thought the stop signs would make people drive faster, because they would get angry that the signs were making them even later for work.

When all the men in the audience had spoken and it became clear to me that none of the women were going to speak, I stood up and said that I had circulated the petition. I explained my reasons, saying that the speeding cars were a danger especially to the children and older people in the neighborhood, and that as a community we needed to protect both the young and the old. I said: "We can't risk an accident happening."

The board discussed the issue briefly, but I knew my last sentence would seal the deal. As long as it doesn't conflict with a significant economic issue, local governments will usually act to avoid risk. Installing four stop signs would be pretty cheap. They could not afford the risk of an accident happening after residents had specifically asked for a measure that would make the neighborhood safer.

They voted unanimously in favor of the motion. And several days later, the neighborhood kids and I watched while workers from the town unloaded stop signs from their truck and pounded them in.

21 comments:

Mrs. Coulter said...

Did it help? We have a lot of speeding in our neighborhood, and I've been thinking about petitioning for additional stop signs and speed bumps. It irritated me when we were a childless couple, but the stakes seem higher now. Now that we are returning to the DC area with our toddler, we have decided that we must make ourselves active and engaged in our community association, since it is up to us (the residents) to help make our neighborhood a better place to live.

jo(e) said...

Mrs. Coulter: Yes, it made a big difference. Most of the workers who had been taking the short cut down our street stopped coming that way and began using the bigger road that led to the plant.

Ianqui said...

Did you start letting your kids play in the front?

jo(e) said...

Ianqui: No, I still kept my kids (and the neighbor kids) in the backyard where I could be sure they were safe. But at least I didn't have to worry quite so much when we walked out to the driveway to get into the car. And I didn't have to worry about the neighbor kids so much when we were off camping ...

jo(e) said...

I should add that Skater Boy (the same kid who comes to our house all the time now) was a really tiny kid, and when we were out of town, he used to go along the side of the road in a Big Wheel. I was always so worried that he would get hit by one of the cars. Whenever I saw him out there, I would go over and walk him over to our house.

One of our cats was killed by a speeding car, and as horrible as that was, I kept thinking, "What if that had been a child?"

So it was a big relief when the stop signs went in.

Bitty said...

What a multi-layered tale that was: from patriarchial attitudes to civic activism to the uncomfortable necessity of essentially hiding your own identity so that you would be listened to, and more. That, the hiding of the identity, affected me more than anything. I feel that most of the time I'm hiding my identity. I live among conservatives, I work among liberals, and I teach both, so I behave as a different person depending on where I am, who I'm with.

We're encouraged not to air our own politics in our classrooms in order not to silence the shy students or those who fear they'll get on the bad side of the teacher if they disagree. I see the wisdom of that plan, but it drives me nuts sometimes. The day following the 2004 election, I couldn't silence myself. I was so furious at our country's making a decision based on misinformation and misdirection that I couldn't shut up.

Ah, phooey.

Splendidly written, jo(e).

Andrew said...

This highlights one of the lessons I have learned in life - if you want something, ask! You will almost certainly never get it otherwise and the worst that can happen is nothing changes.

To Love, Honor and Dismay

peripateticpolarbear said...

You go Norma Jo(e)

revabi said...

Way to go Norma (Rae) Joe(e)

Laura said...

Great story, Jo(e). It's interesting that your neighbors were just as skeptical about their ability to make change as mine. I hope that your efforts helped to empower them.

Repressed Librarian said...

Thanks for another great story from your fascinating and inspiring life :-)

wolfa said...

If the fear of being sued is what makes them do it, well, in the end, at least it's done.

What did the neighbours say after the stop signs were put there?

cieux autres said...

I had myself all fired up to work City Council on extending the bike path to the major civic plaza in our downtown. The library was there, the courts, city hall, the arts center and museum. It seemed outrageously short-sighted to have the bike path pass within three blocks and to not have a spur that linked it to the major civic institutions of the town. I wrote out a petetion, drafted a letter, prepared to fight city hall and then found that there was a spur a half-block past where I was turning.

Nice work on the stop signs. Democracy, sometimes, is just about a four way stop.

cieux autres said...

Actually, right now it is a four-way stop. Hah!

Arbitrista (formerly Publius) said...

That's a great story. I'll admit it's very disturbing how so many people believe that they can't make changes in their community. I've worked for elected officials, and when they hear from 10 or 20 people in their district about something as easy to fix as a stop sign, they listen.

henna said...

What a great post. Like a short story in a book and Bitty recapped the themes for us :)

My street is very dangerous too and I could identify with Skater Boy's big wheel, the kids on our block dart out from behind parked cars on the side of the road. As I understand it though, the street is zoned commercial so there is little we can do to add signage or a speedbump. But I think I will look more into it now. Thanks,
jo(e)...

Yankee, Transferred said...

Excellent post. Good for you!

halloweenlover said...

Love it. I'm sure people will appreciate those forever.

cloudscome said...

I didn't realize (or had forgotten) that you were a worrier, like me. Do you think you worry less now that the kids are older? Cause you don't seem to post on what you worry about now. I am terrified to let my kids go in the front yard and Thank God we have a fenced in backyard. I don't even let myself think about what I worry about for my oldest...

jo(e) said...

Cloudscome: I am both a worrier and a caretaker. It's a horrible combination.

I don't worry about my two older kids too much any more because they are such smart, self-reliant, capable kids. But there are still all kinds of other things to worry about.

landismom said...

I don't think it's so much hiding of your identity that you describe, as not making your identity the thing that you were organizing around. In my life as an organizer, I know it's a lot easier to move people if I come from a place where they are comfortable, than if I insist on staying a place where I am comfortable.

I also think it's important, when doing this kind of organizing, not to get stuck on the one person who wouldn't sign the petition, or spend time arguing with them, but just to thank them and move on. There are always more people to talk to then there is time to get to them in.