Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Two-Wheeled Pirates


THEY want my stuff. THEY want to hurt me. Keep THEM away.

NIMBYism is most obvious and somewhat understandable with the institutionalized — substance abusers, child abusers, convicted criminals, developmentally disabled. Yet many towns put a finer point on it for others.

I've been watching the inane hoo-ha for the past 15 years around here about (drum ratta tatta...wait for it) bicycle/walking paths. These perceived threats separate the sophisticated, civilized and sensible from emotional dunderheads.

Cross-post note: As political and non-political, this post appears at Harrumph! as well.

It was only after 9/11 and the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency's springing full-blown to dominate our thoughts and feelings that a parallel was obvious. Small towns about the country begged for security funding. To big-city dwellers, that is those at real risk of terrorist actions, such entreaties were absurd. Yet on a granular level, you see the motivation.

If you live in Wee Placidville, Idaho, you likely justify your quiet, hermit-like area with its positives. It seems safe and unchanging and folk around you look and act pretty much like you. You don't have to accommodate diversity in almost any form. City folk may think of you as a hick, while you are sure you live in a paradise.

Why wouldn't the terrorists eager to rip the heart out of America attack your ideal example of U.S. virtues? Of course, you need and deserve HSA funding to protect Wee Placidville!

Two-Wheeled Thugs


Closer to Boston, an all too similar dynamic has played out for decades. Think the 11-mile Minuteman Bikeway from Bedford to Cambridge. Proposed in 1974, furiously debated, and dedicated in 1992, it was a demon child to some...but has proven quite the smiling angel.

The asphalt strip runs where trains used to go. The anti-bikeway folk keened portents of certain doom. Noise would be terrible and well into the night. Litter would dot and blot the meadows and woods. Punks from Boston, Somerville and who knows where else would cycle over to rob and harm the gentle folk of Lexington. Property values would plummet while the bucolic life by the path would be no more. Oh, and the bisected towns would go broke paying for additional police, fire and sanitation related to this blight.

Pretty much the opposite occurred. The path is a gem to all the communities. Citizens walk, bike, picnic and otherwise enjoy it. Houses on its length are more desirable and valuable. Literally no one rides five to eleven miles to commit any crime. (Plus, I try to visualize an inner-city teen cycling out to Lexington, breaking into an alarmed house, grabbing a plasma TV or the like and trying to chug it back to a housing project far away.)


Other Times, Places and Loonies


Regardless, the parochial fantasies did not disappear with the Minuteman's obvious, long-term success. We heard the same craziness in Weston in 1997 and just recently a somewhat muted version in Milton. For the former, consider the Weston Rail Trail Task Force Final Report & Recommendations.

Weston's pathetic NYMBYism held the way as they refused a trail extension there. It got wide coverage, mostly ridicule, as in the 1997 LA Times piece with the lead, "Imagine: A bicycle trail through the state's wealthiest suburb. Do you have any idea what kind of people would be pedaling into town? Ruffians, criminals--mountain bikers!"

The Weston task force glued a veneer of reason on their emotions. They rejected the trail because they were "unable to adequately mitigate several serious impacts, thus making the trail unacceptable." The unproven and certainly unprovable impacts would be an annual $162,000 town-services cost, having to pay tax abatements to abutters whose home values would plunge, and "decreases in 'quality of life.'"

Forward to this year in Milton. The town borders Boston starting at the Neponset river. Although our African American governor has a home there, it is not racially and culturally very diverse. It has the nation's highest per capital Irish-American population (38%) and overall is 85% white, 10% black, and about 2% each Asian and Latino. Its median income is roughly twice that of Boston.

There is a short, flat, benign bike/ped trail along the Neponset on the Boston side. The state Department of Conservation and Recreation wants to expand this popular trail just slightly as the parks and paths alone the river develop. Miltonians want none of that, thank you very much.

A full accounting of the opposition appeared in the Bay State Banner recently. For the proposal that the trail include a bridge so Boston and Milton residents could bike or walk over to each other's tennis courts and such, the lingo was familiar. Despite the clean, quiet, pleasant and safe history of the existing sections, Miltonians at a hearing spoke of lowered property value, litter, and crime. While additional lighting as well as bike and foot traffic in fact create a safer environment that hikes property value, the obvious backed up by statistics can't sway the parochial.

Not surprisingly, the Milton selectmen just voted to oppose any bridge or trail on their side of the river. Prompted apparently by a reactionary enclave in the Capen Street area, the selectmen urged the state to put a big bump in the preferred route. While their letter to the DCR said nothing of race or inner-city criminals, its scheme would coincidentally keep the trail in the black-densest areas of Boston's Hyde Park and Mattapan neighborhoods. Hmm.

Town and neighborhood pride has good aspects. Yet as we see in the highly segmented Boston, too much of such identity has other features. You may well distrust and dislike anyone who is not like you and not from where you are. Such is racism, classism, religious intolerance and the like. Not from here too often translates into not good.

There's a fair chance Milton's NIMBYs will get their way. In coming decades people may forget and wonder why there's this odd circuitous crinkle in the popular path.

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