Finding civic engagement in San Francisco

Every time anything happens in San Francisco, I’m reminded of the Simpsons episodes where there is a vote at the City Hall and the entire room will vote, “yay” while there will be a single, dissenting “nay”. Obviously, sometimes that “nay” is this guy, but he’s just one of many constant contrarians in this town. They’re a baffling breed. Basically, they live to oppose anything and everyone is against them as they see it.

But, I’ve never been to one of these neighborhood meetings that seem to attract these types, so I went down to the last Lower Polk Neighborhood Association meeting to see how it all works, partially out of curiosity and partially to ask questions. On some fronts I was surprised and on others, I wasn’t.

What didn’t surprise me were the people who hated everything. There was this one woman named Linda who was hell-bent on shooting down just about everything that was brought up. She had notes, many, many notes of anger at the ready. There were others who got up and were near tears about parking possibly going away–this in a dense downtown area where you can walk everywhere and there is tonnes of public transportation.

What was interesting was the fact that I realized city government is indeed approachable if you wish to take the time to engage it. At this particular meeting was a girl from a transportation planning agency who was there to get feedback for suggested changes. Naturally the crying parking people tried to get a word in edgewise, but she managed to keep directing the conversation to things that were useful. Obviously she does this a lot in this town and knows the profile of conversation hijackers.

Also present were the police to ask questions to and they were quite cordial overall. In general, I still don’t respect the SFPD in how they handle day-to-day affairs, but the fact that they were at this neighborhood group was somewhat encouraging.

Overall though I took away from this meeting that San Francisco just behaves in a singularly reactionary fashion to most every issue that faces it. Instead of following along with issues and proposals as they’re brought up at community meetings like this one (and there are countless associations just like this in the city) people wait until something is nearly a done deal and then decry it as evil, try to put a stop to it, march down Market street, occupy buildings, or whatever other lunacy they do to get attention that does nothing. While I’m sure it’s frustrating, there is still the possibility that even in a city like San Francisco where one idiotic voice can have so much power that if you choose to be an engaged citizen, you can indeed have some say in the logical process of civic proceedings.