So-Called Thoughts: A short history of alt-Arcata’s public safety revolution

The transformation of Arcata didn’t happen overnight, and there was nothing mystical about it – even though it’s almost like a magic wand has been waved over Arcata.

It began in November 2016, when the City Council acted with urgency, wasting no time in forming the Public Safety Task Force. Interviews for membership took place prior to the first December meeting, with the task force formed up then and there, and in time to meet before year’s end.

Taking a cue from the City Council, and with the assault on a child in Cahill Park still very much front of mind, members of the Westwood Village neighborhood filled Council Chamber for the task force’s rst meeting.

The raw citizen energy propelled the task force to address that neighborhood’s issues with dispatch, backing the Cahill Park Pathway Project. It held its February meeting on site at Mosgo’s, taking its agenda to ground zero. Area residents attended and signed up for a number of neighborhood projects, including Neighborhood Watch and informal community patrol efforts.

Not wishing to wait for the task force’s monthly City Hall meetings and no longer content just to ineffectually complain on Facebook and NextDoor, Westwooders started gathering on their own, with everything from neighborhood barbecues, block parties, multi-home yard sales, play dates and more. Neighborhood representatives were appointed to attend not just task force, but other city committee meetings such as Parks & Rec and Economic Development, where issues were further discussed and amenities requested. The Westwood reps returned to the ’hood with weekly reports.

Noting the attention lavished on Westwood, neighboring Janes Creek Meadows got into the act. Westwooders mentored that neighborhood into establishing something similar, and it took off with similar fervor.

The two neighborhoods collaborated on nightly group walks, noting local trouble spots and areas of potential improvement. One area of special interest was the pathway linking the two subdivisions, where a number of homeless camps had sprung up. Other camps on Westwood’s west side, in the county jurisdiction, got similar outreach.

Residents of the two neighborhoods visited the camps, from which it is suspected some burglaries and other petty crime have sprung. Holding dialogue with the campers, the residents and the homeless individuals came to know each other.

Respectful relationships developed, with a few adventurous residents spending nights in the camps in order to better understand the travelers’ everyday lives and challenges.

With each visit, the neighborhood folks took away some of the garbage and debris in the area. In time, the travelers became more scrupulous about their camps’ tidiness. As the travelers and residents became familiar with each other, crime dropped, and so did the camps’ population.

Some residents pursued an informal “adopt-a-transient” program, helping those who wished with certain needs ranging from basic sanitation supplies to food, even transportation to medical and other appointments. Some of the travelers were given jobs around the neighborhood, mowing lawns and other tasks. The inchoate success became the talk of the town, and was much discussed at task force meetings. Before long, other Arcata neighborhoods wanted a piece of the action.

The South G/H neighborhood, through which many marsh campers pass, inspiring many a petty crime complaint, was next to step up, modeling Westwood’s success.

At the other end of town, Valley West’s many and diverse neighborhoods, from River Community Homes to various apartment complexes and mobile home parks, also sent reps to task force meetings. The task force returned the interest, holding both its regular monthly meetings and some special ones in rec rooms and businesses in participating neighborhoods throughout the city – from Valley West to Sunny Brae, Curtis Heights to the Arcata Bottom, Windsong Village to Pacific Union. Even upscale Diamond Drive and California Avenue areas got into the act.

(One outlier was chronically rogue Eye Street, which declined to participate. It did organize, however, solely in order to secede from Arcata and form its own “virtual island nation.”)

With citizen support burgeoning, grant money began to flow. These made possible new playground fixtures, park improvements, public art, community policing, homeless assistance, transportation improvements and a host of other civic enhancements.

Eventually, the surging spirit of community even pervaded reform-resistant downtown. With the newly-formed bonds between housed residents and the unhoused, street folks became protective of the town, and somewhat self-policing.

Their mellow harshed by their peers over obnoxious behavior like aggressive panhandling, shoplifting, yelling obscenities and vandalism, among other quality of life-deteriorating activities, non-contributors became uncomfortable and departed for less-challenging climes based on buzzkill power alone.

Crime rates dropped, and overall comfort rose. Unintended consequences included a perceptible decline in yelling, and with it, the local newspaper’s Police Log lost a significant portion of its comic grist. No one minded, particularly the writer, who no longer had to figure out new ways to say the same old thing.

Many citizens found public engagement gratifying, and chose to volunteer for positions on the city’s many advisory committees and commissions. These became breeding grounds for quality City Council candidates – ones not stymied by the nominating petition. Democracy became fashionable in Arcata again, and the town's institutions gained relevance and effectiveness.

The massive, multi-neighborhood resurgence throughout Arcata was well noted in local media, then regional, state and national. “HOW ARCATA DID IT: One Town’s Bootstrap Transformation,” screamed the cover of TIME magazine.

Reality check

Of course, very little of this actually happened – at least in this world. Maybe in some alternate Arcata elsewhere in the multiverse the folks there have been woke enough to seize the opportunity. Here, not so much. Attendance at the Public Safety Task Force is minimal and mostly episodic, flaring when a major crime occurs but mostly limited to a few concerned citizens.

Even the members’ attendance is less than impressive, with frequent absences at the monthly meeting and a quorum sometimes barely achieved.

Meanwhile, online fora are on fire with moralizing and calls to action.

It’s slightly galling to hear criticism of the task force as ineffectual, especially by those who don’t add their contributions. Bodies of this nature are effective only when they catalyze public energy. Lacking that, they become debating societies doomed to prepare a report few will read.

The task force meets tonight, Wednesday, Sept. 27 at 6 p.m. at City Hall.

UPDATE: This month's Public Safety Task Force meeting has been postponed for lack of a quorum.

 







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