I’m working on little sleep, so forgive the in-eloquence. Little sleep because we didn’t get home till about 11pm last night, having spent the evening with several hundred fellow citizens at the Gaillard watching the orchestrated theater that is the Charleston City Council. Pretty good show. Laughs galore. The Keystone Cops have a better grasp of parliamentary procedure.
Lots of drama, too. Pacing was a bit slow. It lasted five hours. Talk about emotions! Like Aristotle recommends, plenty of pity and terror. But in the end, we avoided tragedy: the Ashley River pedestrian and bike lane passed in a squeaker, seven votes to six.
SOME BAD IDEAS JUST WON’T GIVE UP
Time does not allow me to explain why the Charleston City Council was voting for a third time whether or not it wants to convert one of the four lanes on the Legare Bridge from automobile to pedestrian/bike use. That Council had to affirm the decision on three separate occasions demonstrates the dysfunction of local government, especially at the County, who really controls this project. Imagine what the business of the nation would look like if every act passed by Congress had to be “reaffirmed” by a majority a second and third time.
Suffice it to say, the process of government was rigged to favor the status quo.
And what a status quo we’ve got here in Charleston.
“I’m not against bike lanes,” said Councilor Perry Waring, when he moved that we kill the pedestrian and bike lane.
“I’m all for people getting out of their cars,” said Bill Moody.
We knew a “but” was coming. They each had a big but, really the one shared between them, and it boils down to this: all decisions about transportation must first accommodate private cars.
That’s how we got the soul-less, hollowed-out cities that our parents built in the 1960s and 70s. I’m 54 years old. My lifetime more or less spans the Dark Ages of the American city, when we utterly dehumanized our urban spaces. We disconnected our neighborhoods. Some neighborhoods, which is to say, poor neighborhoods, we destroyed with roads like the Crosstown. So far as planners were concerned, the city was where you worked in the daytime. You lived in your distant enclave, and the goal was to keep the rotten things in the city from infecting your sanitized home out in the suburbs. Disconnection. The ugly but honest term for this is white flight.
MILLENIAL TRAPPED IN A WHITE-FLIGHT BODY
So we built abominations like the North Bridge. That supposedly public space is a wall between North Charleston and West Ashley. Unless you have a car. The Legare Bridge is the same: built in 1961, one year before I was born, it erected a wall between the downtown and West Ashley’s neighborhoods.
Old rich folks in The Crescent and Wappoo Heights, who have owned their houses since the 60s and 70s, oppose the lane conversion, as attested by two superannuated residents at the Council meeting; young rich folks in these neighborhoods, as an older gentleman from Wappoo Heights had the decency to point out, want to erase this disconnection. They want to push their jogging strollers over the river to downtown.
We’re still stuck with the white-flight city. Connectivity for cars. Division between human beings. This was all by design. We’re still saddled with the legacy.
Our youngest kids, 18-year old Hannah and Owen, went to an elementary school in West Ashley where students were not allowed to walk to school. School policy. Ride the bus or take the car line. We can’t have kids walking. Too dangerous.
Too dangerous by design.
We’ve got to throw that kind of thinking into the scrap heap, right on top of the 8-track tapes and those little boxes that pet rocks came in.
Look at young folks today. Our oldest child, Spencer, lives on the East Side. He’s 27, he works downtown, he doesn’t own a car, he doesn’t want to own a car, he rides his bike to work and walks to the grocery store. If he goes out to a bar at night, he and his friends tap Uber for a ride home. People under 40 want us to design cities around the human body, not around the automobile.
Sitting next to my wife and me at the Council meeting was a young man, I’d guess he was twenty-five or six. He had that close-cropped kind of beard you see on ball players these days. Not the shaggy brewer’s beard. I thought he might go to MUSC or work for PeopleMatters. A bike helmet sat on the floor under his seat.
For a long time we didn’t talk at all, cooped up in the reticence white folks bring into auditoriums. But three hours into the meeting everyone started to get that shiny friendliness that Londoners had during the blitz when they huddled together in the Underground. The long, tedious, contentious Sergeant Jasper debate felt like that. Boring and dangerous at the same time. Mayor Tecklenburg said we’d take a ten minute break, and the place erupted in talk, strangers to strangers.
“I just moved here from the West Coast,” the young man told us, “seven months ago.” He had the thin frame I associate with San Francisco. Not yet used to our Southern-frigid air-conditioning, he pulled on a thin jacket. It had a Bridge the Ashley sticker.
“Did you come here for a job?” we asked.
He mumbled something, sheepish, inaudible, and as if on cue a young woman in a white dress and dimpled smile slid into our row, graceful as a figure skater. Clearly she was coming from work, had arrived late, and was taking advantage of the break to join her boyfriend.
Charleston is half-committed to building the city these people want to live in. At least downtown. For instance, city council is pretty good at keeping the scale of new buildings relatively small, and all those hotels going up on Meeting and King have to offer something on the street-level: shops, restaurants, public spaces. We’re rebuilding our sidewalks. We treat access to the river-fronts as a public right, and joggers, walkers, and bikers all enjoy the views along the Ashley and Cooper Rivers–at least downtown. Downtown, councilors cast their votes according to whether it increases or decreases livability for the public.
But for some reason, we lose that focus when it comes to West Ashley. Just about nowhere in all of West Ashley does a walker or a baby in a stroller or an old man with a cane or a roving gang of 12-year olds on bikes have access to the Ashley River. Downtown you can’t swing a cat without hitting a view of the water. Nary a drop of water West Of.
Roads are just about the only public space there is in West Ashley. But they’re not designed for living. They’re designed for private cars to pass through from suburbs to downtown. Anything on a human scale–public transportation, side-walks for pedestrians, bicycles–get the leavings, nothing but crumbs, if they get anything at all. In West Ashley, that amounts to the already-chewed gristle that cars spit back out on the plate. The hubcaps and bumpers and other car detritus that litter the little sidewalk on the World War I bridge.
A SUBTLE ALLEGORY
I have in mind an image, a personification of the 1970s-era city. Let us call him Mr. Potter, after the evil banker in It’s a Wonderful Life. A feast of meats swimming in their sauces, vegetables roasted to a turn, a scoop of potatoes under gravy, all devoured night after night after night, and at meal’s end our Mr. Potter shoves back his chair to give his belly room to digest. The legs of the chair groan under the strain. (That’s the groan of roads clogged with a traffic jam, just to make sure you get the allegory.) He puts a fist to his mouth. Stifles a belch that half-escapes. (Exhaust fumes.) He contemplates the wreckage on the plate, congealed grease and gobbits. With generosity and real feeling he turns to the slim young man who just moved here from the West Coast, and he says, “Feel free to eat what’s left.”
“I’m not against bike lanes, but . . .
. . . it slows the commute from West Ashley (it doesn’t)
. . . it slows the commute from James and Johns Islands (it does)
. . . we can’t have pedestrians trying to cross Folly Road (why not?)
. . . it will harm folks with diabetes (WTF?)
. . . this solution is crappy (it’s going to be spectacular)
. . .pedestrians and bikers need to wait till we replace the Legare Bridge
. . . pedestrians and bikers need to wait till we build them their own bridge.
I want you all to know, I am not against bikes,” Councilor Wagner told us just before he voted against bikes.
What he failed to say aloud, what he might not even realize was the hidden meaning of his words, is this:
. . . but if we vote for this lane conversion, we’ll be rejecting the whole logic of white flight.
DO THE RIGHT THING
In the course of his or her public service, a city councilor might have one or two votes that really do something. Sure, controversy comes round every month. It seems like there’s a really important vote almost every meeting. There’s always something that affects the lives of some of the citizenry, maybe even affects some lives deeply. Sergeant Jasper is one of those. It’s going to have a big effect on those Broad Street neighborhoods.
But in reality, there are only a few times in a councilor’s public career when they have a chance to dictate the course of their city, to turn it towards this direction or that. Last night was one of those chances.
That’s pretty much what Mike Seekings told us. In a couple of sentences, he blew away the fog of all of those “buts.” We’re not going to replace the Legare Bridge. Not in this lifetime. We’re not going to build a dedicated bridge for bikers and pedestrians. Not when we councilors freak out over the dollars required to raise the railing on the James Island Connector.
We have one chance to connect downtown and West Ashley. One chance. This is it. It might not be perfect. It’s a compromise. But it’s the only solution there is. If we reject it, West Ashley will never be connected to downtown. Not in this lifetime.
(That’s the gist of it. I’m not doing justice to his actual words.)
A vote against this project means that you are against bikes. Period.
The real irony is that West Ashley’s councilors spoke against the lane. Bill Moody, Marvin Wagner, and Dean Riegel. Even Perry Waring, one of two black representatives from West Ashley, clings to that old 1970s-era, white-flight city design.
The councilors who represent largely-black neighborhoods on the peninsula get it. James Lewis, Robert Mitchell, and William Gregorie. White flight has scarred their neighborhoods for decades. Houses bull-dozed for highways. Pedestrians run over left and right. Public transportation de-funded.
Rodney Williams, the other black councilor from West Ashley, gets it. And Mike Seekings and Peter Shahid.
Six to six. It came down to the Mayor. How would he vote?
He equivocated when he ran for mayor. You can tell that he’s the kind of guy who wants everyone to like him. That’s a good thing. He wants everyone to go home happy. Or at least for no one to think they got screwed. That’s the art of the deal, right? Everyone profits. But in this case, he was going to piss off someone. There’s no getting around it.
He talked for a long time, explaining his reasons in such tortured complexity that for several minutes it was impossible to tell what he was going to do. At first, I thought he was going to vote it down. Traffic is a problem, he said, a priority. People shouldn’t have to crawl through bottlenecks in their cars. Then, about five minutes into his speech, I could sense that a “but” was coming. Only this time, it was twisted round.
. . . but we have to connect this city, he said, we have to bridge the Ashley.
Seven to six!
Of course the marathon debate could not end there, not with a bang, not with the Mayor’s dramatic revelation that he would vote to convert the lane. This was comedy, after all, not tragedy. We had to end with a whimper. Martin Wagner needed to say one more thing, and he rambled on and on about having a stroke and how he was going to die in an automobile on the way to a hospital, all because we were giving bridge access to bikers and pedestrians.
But it didn’t matter. We knew we had the votes. As Wagner spun out this long and longer thread off the wheel of his curious brain, we had the luxury of not really paying attention. None of his words mattered.
For the third time in a row, Council did the right thing.
Charleston is headed to a new era.