Thursday, November 10, 2011

Path Wanderers

After spending a fair amount of time at Occupy Oakland (“fair amount” being relative to me who almost never goes to demonstrations), I decided that I must do something entirely for the commons which would not be controversial.  I chose to join a work party this weekend with a wonderful all volunteer organization called Berkeley Path Wanderers.  Their membership dues of $5 per family insure that anyone can belong.  They create, expand, maintain and repair the 140 stairways and public paths that run throughout the city of Berkeley.   

I went to the designated site where we were installing stairs up a steep hill to connect one set of paths to another.  I learned how to clear the space for a three foot long railroad- tie style step, make sure it was level and the right distance from the next step.  It was harder than it looked and each step took about 25 minutes to install accurately.  Fortunately I had a great partner who had installed many stairs and was generally very handy. 

It was a beautiful fall day and the people were very nice and welcoming.  But as for my wish that this would not be controversial, alas, no such luck.  The leader of the work party told those of us who were new that at some point, a woman at the top of the hill would come out on her balcony and yell at us.  She does not want this path installed near her house.  We were instructed to ignore her.  Many people have tried reasoning with her and every attempt to engage her makes her yell more.  Sure enough, about 20 minutes after we started she came out on her deck and said, “You are in violation of Berkeley City Code 92436.5” and then, for emphasis, “Point 5!”.  My stair partner said, “Point 5—that’s scary.  Point 4, not a big deal.”  We laughed.  I looked up just to see what she looked like and she screamed, “Didn’t your mother teach you any respect?  What about my privacy?  You are invading my privacy!”  I looked down quickly and got back to work. 

The fact is that we are not in violation of anything—in fact the city of Berkeley loves Path Wanderers because they do so much work and they pay for everything.  All the tools, the wood for the stairs, the storage shed where everything is kept between work parties—all paid for by volunteers who also do the work.  A cross section of the public is maintaining a certain kind of public space through private donations with the blessing and protection of local government.   To me, this in an ideal arrangement.  It is the totally appropriate use of private donations and volunteer energy.  The paths can be maintained by volunteer time and money for the sake of everyone in the community who likes to walk.  Many of the paths are wheelchair accessible and most have benches along the way so you don’t have to be a big hiker to benefit from this work.  Since they are throughout the city, there is almost no one who doesn’t live near a path. 

I asked if the work parties often had trouble with neighbors.  Not surprisingly the answer was no.  Most people are glad to have a path near the house and certainly glad to have an existing path maintained or upgraded.  However, sometimes people really object to the idea of the public being able to walk by their house and look in their yard or windows.  The tensions between private and public, and the width and depth of the liminal space between those is the topic of many commons discussions.  What belongs to me alone?  What must I share?  What must others share with me?  How much more do I have when I share?  Am I ever willing to have less so that others can have more?

After the work party, I walked by myself for awhile and enjoyed being alone.  We often say “less is more” and there are many instances in which that is true.  But also, “more is more.”  The more public space there is, the stronger the social safety net, the more engaged people are in their communities, the more we all have, both for each of us alone and for everyone. 

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