Field Tripping By Kate Drabinski

Field Tripping: Safety foruming

City Paper
Field Tripping: On the political theater of a public safety forum at the new library branch in Waverly

My third date with the ladyfriend kind of sealed the deal: She met me at the bus stop between our two apartments for a ride down to the Pratt's main branch on Cathedral to attend a reading by their community writers program. The bus, the library, a community meeting, all in one night? She had my number, for sure.

I love stuff like this that reminds you that you live in a city with a whole bunch of people who both are and aren't like you, and a lot of them will be at that meeting or event at the library, sharing stories, reminding us all that we live here together. I also love the community meetings where we get together and try to figure out how to make our neighborhood better—fewer rats, more public trash cans, more lights, or whatever else people think we need. I even enjoy conversations about parking, which is what the really local meetings usually end up being about. Whatever happens, it's excellent public theater as we put on a show for each other. Sometimes I enjoy the show, like when those local writers read their short stories and poems to each other, plus the two of us, and then we all had iced tea and cookies.

Other times the show is just so fucking terrible that I'm jolted back to the reality that though the meeting's often a farce, the material effects of them are very, very real. I'm thinking, for example, of the mayor's forum on the new youth curfew a year or so ago. This was one of those alleged community engagement events where we're supposed to feel happy to hear our voices heard, but it's really just a chance for our elected officials to tell us about decisions they've already made. It's awkward—you think they're going to listen but then they do all the talking, and when the community they were so eager to hear from starts getting antsy, starts rumbling with their own concerns that don't fit the script the officials brought with them, they threaten to close the whole thing down, because if you're going to talk to us like that, raise your voice, use that tone, well, we don't have to listen.

When the ladyfriend asked me to a hot date to the mayor's public safety forum to be held at the just-about-to-open Waverly branch of the library, I had two thoughts. The first was, of course, swoon!, and the second was, hey, this could go either way. It could be library theater, full of good feelings of community and sharing, those feelings that only a library gives you. Or it could be another one of those things where elected officials just need you there to fulfill the expectation of community engagement, and if anyone goes off script, it's over.

Well, it turned out to be both. We've been waiting for this library branch to open forever, and now it's here. Walking inside, seeing librarians at their stations and books in their carrels, was awesome. Public libraries are our last bastion of shared resources, keeping alive the idea that if we all need something (books, internet access, a place to take kids to see other kids, etc.), we can collectively build a place like that, for all of us. We go to battle to decide whether or not to even have a rec center, much less one that looks decent, but at least we still have libraries, and Waverly has her branch back.

The library part was great, the public safety forum, less so. Granted, I'm suspicious of anything with the words "public safety" in it. Which public are we talking about, and which publics are actually made less safe by "public safety"? Too often "safety" means having cops stationed in all places to make sure no property is ever stolen and no people are ever threatened or hurt, but that's often where it ends. In my vision of safety, there is enough for everyone—enough shelter, enough food, enough efficacy, enough self-determination, and enough of all the things that make us safe in a deeper sense. Usually, though, public safety boils down to more, better cops. The worst.

This public safety forum met most of those expectations. The first 28 minutes (I timed it) were for the public officials to tell themselves and all of us what a great job they've been doing. SRB told us how hard she's been listening and how much change she's been making. She gently chided the City Council members in attendance about not yet calling for her vote to increase funding for rec centers, as if we were all going to quickly forget about the ones that have closed under her watch. There was some ego stroking for the lieutenants and commanders and lieutenant commanders, gentle laughs shared among these city officials as we all sat in our chairs, waiting for our turn to ask questions.

A man who called 911 to report a burglary in progress asked why no one every picked up the phone. A 79-year-old woman from Ednor Gardens asked if after three or four years of calling the Department of Public Works, the police, the mayor's office, her city councilmember, could crews finally come clean up the mess on her street made after a repaving effort. A man from up York Road asked if, when the cops bring their tactical vehicle to the neighborhood, they could maybe think about the unsafety they bring to the blocks around said tactical vehicle. A woman complained about the time somebody in the city set up a floodlight outside her house that shined into her kid's bedroom, and no city agency would agree that they'd done it, so it took days to find someone to turn it off. Won't happen again, she was promised.

In every case the city officials looked shocked—shocked!—that something could fall through the gaps of their well-oiled machine. Nobody, on or off the microphone, could ask if maybe we need a different machine altogether. I want to go to that meeting.

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