Bitter Tea and Tasty Sandwiches: Yesterday’s MTC “You Choose Bay Area” Workshop and “Tea Party” Eruptions

Attended MTC’s second Oakland spring workshop for Bay Area future planning and visioning tonight, May 24th, 2011.  The visioning process is called “You Choose Bay Area” which is part of ABAG and MTC’s “One Bay Area” project.  You can “vote” on the type of sub/urban future you’d like to see at the YCBA site. The workshop was from 5:30-8:30pm with basic box sandwich dinners provided.  Ham, roast beef, tuna and chicken. Tea was also provided…though not by MTC. I’ll dive into that later.

The purpose of this event (like the oversubscribed May 19th workshop I missed) was for residents of Alameda County to tell the MTC what they’d like their future to be like: Business As Usual or new and different.  How to prioritize land use and transportation options, policies and incentives and tax money.  Everyone did that quite well, though some less civilly.

The night’s most memorable negative feature was the sizable and obnoxious contingent of all-white* folks mostly from Livermore, Alamo, Dublin and other 680/580 suburbs. Some people might call these people “Tea Partyers.”  They were variously very dismissive, distrustful, extremely rude/shrill/loud/uncouth, (think Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Malkin, Sarah Palin and ten of their dittohead friends in a room), ignorant about fossil fuel realities and were completely “antiMTC, public mass transit, planning, taxes, regulations and density. By re-arranging the letters in WASP, we get SAWP, or Super Angry White People. That’s what they were.

[*5/28/2011: At this point, let’s take a break and discuss race. I couldn’t help but notice that all the people who were loud, or anti-MTC/transit, happened to be white.  Does that mean the tensions in the room were due to race issues? In some people’s minds it very well could play a strong part. In a better read of the situation, it really boiled down to who was from newer  suburbs/exurbs, vs who was from older suburbs and urban cities.  Urban workshop participants were also largely white, but far more racially mixed (Asian, black, etc) given the more mixed demographics of the urban Bay Area.  I’m leaving the text as I wrote it, but keep this in mind. It’s more of a “inland vs coastal” sparring match. In microcosm, the US coasts vs the “heartland.” You can see charts of this I commissioned in 2008 for a city sustainability study.

Inlanders from the 680 valley were defending their car-based single family home way of life against decreased funding for them (which they’ve enjoyed for decades mind you), and increasing funding for less car-based, more “dense and convenient” ways of life.  I also have to note, based on the Bay Citizen story this week, that it is self-serving for Tea Party efforts to be led by a sales commission-based realtor… but still the main tension is over “The Economy, Stupid.” Also, there are no black UN (US) helicopters forcing people out of their SFHs and cars back into cities… economics alone do that. We’re in the “maturity and death” part of our society cycle right now. A new society will be born in the US by 2030. Now back to original post…]

You could say they were the ultimate version of that group of NIMBYs in North Oakland and Berkeley who frown upon any buildings taller than two stories or  Bus Rapid Transit. From talking to other people who tried to engage with them, and seeing their actions and hearing their words, I could see that they were there to get their point across to MTC (fine) but their manner of doing so was extremely rude. “Ghetto” would not be far from accurate. They were a riot. The irony!

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t love MTC. I hate them and BART for sh*tting out a billion dollar sky-tram joke project between Coliseum BART station and Oakland airport and calling it “progress.” Such a missed opportunity; it would have been good in the 1980s. It’s 40 years late.

Details. These white folks (they were all lily white, like my dad) were very dismissive of the entire workshop process, distrustful of the wireless voting remote controls we were given (to vote on priorities which showed up on the screen with realtime results), distrustful of “why” the workshop asked people’s ethnicity/race as one of the identifying questions during the very beginning (age, rural/burb/urb, etc), shouting down the workshop’s facilitators and other participants, flipping them off, etc. These people, men and women, were all middle aged (“Tea Party” demo) with several elderly people and only one young person. It seemed their only mission was to crash the workshop and prevent any meaningful presentation of information to continue. But that wasn’t it – completely anyway.

Unfortunately, I didn’t take pictures of them.  (Stay tuned.)

Their antics were at once comical, rude, aggressive, hilarious and ultimately, sad. You would think that everyone else in the room was somehow there to take their cars away from them and stuff them all into youth hostel housing, then bulldoze their beloved country ranch imitation single family houses on large lots to make space for endangered species habitat only. But I’m glad they were there and I hope to speak with more of them next time.

I think they are shrill and loud because they believe (for various reasons) that their “rights”, power and status are being taken away and they are not being meaningfully listened too, as if it were possible to conjure up new supergiant oil fields because we wish for them.  These were mainly baby boomers and older GenXers who feel sorely entitled. Unfortunately for them and the world, it is not possible to bring back “infinite” growth and consumption favorable debt financing powered by cheap oil.  In the words of one of the angry men: “Our standard of living is dropping.”

That is really the crux of it, and they are lashing out at any perceived government “help” in this inexorable law of nature that they and we ourselves have contributed to: the ever continuing extraction of oil from the planet which made Americans kings and queens for the last century without realizing how entitled, in geological terms, we have been. The slices of economic pie are now shrinking faster and faster and we’ll all fight over who has more scraps.  That’s the ultimate cynic view, and it’s not that there won’t be good outcomes from this too – there are and will be. But yes, material standards of living are dropping. We’re not in the 1970s anymore.  And there’s no more debt to paper things over to pretend we are.  Can you say HELOC cold turkey!

All this storm and fury illustrates the MTC’s key challenge to near-term TOD style urbanization — in suburbs and even some urban areas. It is important for MTC and city planners (and aspiring ones) to educate the public and get everyone’s buy-in on building a realistic better future. It’s also important to call out what the better future vision is and not sideline or downplay people’s fears and alternate visions — or lower-rise suburban possibilities. There were other folks from Livermore who came out who were not as shrill, loud and closed minded as these folks I’ve just described. I’m glad they came too. They have a crying need for education about realities and our (shrinking) options available.

The world is not black and white and we need to compromise and understand and listen to each other. But most importantly, we must deal in facts and reality – even as we confront and recognize people’s emotions, background and motivations. Planning is inherently political and must be conducted with political finesse. This can always be improved with faster iterations of design charette, more of these design workshops and meaningful dialogue with what planners rightly view as ideologues. This may best be done between residents led by a guide who gets people to ask questions. But people should be honest too. About ultimate fears, hopes, dreams and motivations.

The “freedom of speech” participants numbered about 10-20 people at most, but were the most vocal of all workshop participants. There were nearly 70 of us in total. I thought of them as the “oral minority” as Max Allstadt would say.

At the end of the event, I caught up with one of the guys, from Livermore, and we talked about the proposed BART extension there. I understood his contention that they want to keep the riff raff out. (Code for unruly young people who are obnoxious and usually black but also asian, latino, white or other – I am not a fan of obnoxious people either when they are rude and aggressive assholes – and also homeless and drug users, thieves and panhandlers.) Who doesn’t?

I also understand that any community would want to build their promised and paid-for-with-taxes BART extension in a manner appropriate to local conventions. So to cut down on riff raff, Livermore will make the train line follow the 580 freeway and avoid downtown. It will stop south of downtown by over a mile. I suppose this is one way to kill your downtown nightlife… and smart businesses will cluster around the future BART station. That will create a competing, separate downtown. The guy’s other bone to pick with this Livermore BART extension is the undergrounding of the BART track inside the city. Why, because it would cost a billion or billions of dollars.

I understand that too – I have the same problem with BART+MTC in Oakland on their stupid billion dollar OAC connector project.

Ultimately this fellow gave me two websites to look at, so here they are:


As you can see, these folks are prime John Birch Society membership candidates, but sadly they are probably only Tea Partyers – I assume. I say this knowing what JBS is about because I read their magazine in high school. I’m not unsympathetic to people’s fears and doubts.

I think what is happening here is that people living in the exurbs are under more pressure. Gas/food prices up, taxes up, services down, economy and jobs down. (They think they are alone in this.) With all the talk of AB32, “global warming” and climate change, they feel under additional attack. These folks really believe they are being attacked for their (in Dick Cheney’s words) “non-negotiable American way of life,” which is why I believe they are lashing out like this. The less you believe you are heard, the louder you will be. Just like a ghetto or prison riot, or revolution, no? I also think they are ignorant to the realities of supply and demand in the world of cheap energy, which is what suburbs were built upon. It is imperative for MTC to address this ignorance with education – through video presentations. Perhaps screenings of Escape from Suburbia and  Q&A with thinkers like James Kunstler and Richard Heinberg panel would help.

Having grown up in and lived in many suburbs (Fremont, Burlingame, North Oakland, Northern Saitama) I understand their plight. They grew up, as I did, driving everywhere, and living in single family tract housing. But their problems are shared by the entire world. Everyone’s cost of living has risen, not just theirs. All the “brilliant minds” and “technology”in the world cannot dream up new oil, gas and coal fields. One of the more genial Livermore men in my working group suggested we need “more nuclear, and we have 100 years of natural gas left in the Dakotas, and 50+ years of coal left.” He also was happy to have a nuclear plant in his backyard. Good luck!

I told him straight up that we’ve used up the easy to dig up coal, burnt a lot of oil already, and there isn’t “100” years of natural gas left as CEOs of natural gas companies or analysts suggested in 2009.  At most there is probably 20 years of natural gas left at current consumption rates for both home and transport use.

I also told him that sure, we “should” use cheaper Fossil Fuels (FFs) before using wind power. But eventually we’ll be plumb out of FFs so we’ll have to use renewables. And I also said that renewables won’t scale up to meet the output of FFs. What’s so wrong with planning ahead for these things? (Note; I know that few people are masochists, and few people obligingly give up their power and status – it’s built into human psychology for biological fitness that we all acquire as much short-term status, wealth and survivability possible… something else MTC should address with HUMOR, if nothing else. Get people to laugh and they listen to anything!) MTC really should hire James Howard Kunstler to give talks in Livermore and other Alameda County suburban cities. (is that an oxymoron? suburban cities…)

These people are simply in denial that their chosen lifestyle (suburban living, happy motoring) can and should be their Christian God-given (or whatever) right for life forever and ever… despite the fact that we’ve burnt up all the easy tasty cheap oil in the world. No politician will get elected admitting the future is dimmer. But that’s honesty. MTC should be honest here.

I get that they want jobs and Morning in America. Doesn’t everyone? I think they need to get over their anger and realize what is coming, and embrace the future. And we all will, with or without them. But that’s just my own opinion.

In closing with the Livermore guy, I gave him two links to check out:

  • (I think I wrote .org, oops)

So, I’m really looking forward to the next MTC workshop. I think MTC staff have their work cut out for them. Because of the anti-urbanization folks’ chosen home cities (suburbs and exurbs), they are getting hit harder by gas price increases due to their longer commutes and greater auto-dependence, the real estate crapper market, and finally feeling the economic pinch that “ghetto” people have felt for decades. And in a way that they would not appreciate me saying, it is by their own choices as well. (Location and education.)

AB32 did not crash the housing market, Wall Street and “consumer” greed and hubris did. But the Tea Party on the radio isn’t telling people on their daily work commute that, are they. The “Tea Party” aka Koch Industries oil company, and like-minded corporation ExxonMobil are sewing self-serving seeds of doubt in these peoples’ minds, which is then taken up also by fringe rightist groups. It’s hard for these people to change their minds about going “more urban” – they want what they know, which is comforting and familiar. Kunstler’s image of “happy motoring, WalMart and Disneyworld” comes to mind.

Comforting and familiar is probably likely for all of us, but there will more likely also be new, unfamiliar and at first undesirable changes. What do you think?
Last tidbit for MTC/Calthorpe/SVCF/TF:

Basically, this envisioning process IS a “slap in the face” to everyone who is invested in outer suburbs and exurbs. This process by questioning at all the present status quo, implies that the status quo is somehow bad or lacking. By association, then MTC is sort of saying that all these white folks in the valley made bad life decisions. No wonder they’re pissed! (Even if MTC is not intending to imply that.)

So, then we need to affirm these people too. Suburbia made sense when we had seemingly “infinite” supplies of energy and fresh drinking water. Unfortunately we don’t, and never really did. We know this now, and we know lots of suburbanites (and Americans) have invested a lot of their capital – financial, social, physical – in suburbs. It is a bitter truth to accept. That you are the “new loser.”

Well, then, MTC is trying to help these people right? I see that their cities themselves (Dublin, Pleasanton, Livermore) have proposed that certain portions of city area be funded by MTC for increased infill development. If we’re all crashing into the brick wall of “The End of Growth” then we may as well make the best of it. And that’s all MTC is (or ought to be) trying to enable.

To retain their property values, these people should check out or Zillow and notice that cities are retaining higher property values. (Though many city dwellers are underwater to be sure, too. So?) Cut your losses and move on/out. OR, improve (renovate, upgrade) your suburb with city-like amenities: walkability, public amenities, art, nightlife. In fact, it’s already happening nationwide – there are monthly art gallery nights in probably 100s of US cities. And that’s just one method of improving civic life.

My guess is that these complainers are reflective of a larger unseen majority, upset about their diminished status and sense of worth, and most of them have not traveled or lived/worked extensively outside the country.

My other advice to frustrated “tea party” type folks from Livermore, Concord and the 680 valley is to watch Escape from Suburbia.  It’s a good film which will show you why we’re in the predicaments and dilemmas we’re in, and what they, and we, can all do together, and why.

Finally, photos of normal people – workshop participants who didn’t come here to kick scream and yell with fingers in ears:

[Update 5/27/11: Everyone and anyone with a brain, motivation for truth and research abilities knows this. Someone please connect the dots publicly for Tea Partyers: “In its 2010 Quadrennial Defence Review report, the Pentagon stated: “Climate change and energy are two issues that will play a significant role in shaping the future security environment.”” From the horse’s mouth. So ignorant, paranoid, willfully stupid and car-lovin’ white (and other) folks: wake up and smell the burnt toast. When you drink all the milkshake out of your Winn-Dixie cup, it’s all gone. You aren’t going to get that milkshake back in any usable, desirable form in a jillion years. Think of the planet as one big oil milkshake if you must. We’re sucking it dry and you’re never getting your $1.20/gallon motoring back. Suburbs and rural areas will become the new backwaters (some will become ghettos), as they always were. Enjoy!]

9 responses to “Bitter Tea and Tasty Sandwiches: Yesterday’s MTC “You Choose Bay Area” Workshop and “Tea Party” Eruptions

  1. THanks for the recap. I was getting so irritated at the interruptions and rude behavior. I felt like I escaped to elementary school or something. My biggest beef was with the people who went to multiple YouChoose sessions. You choose doesn’t mean You can Choose if you drown out the other opinions. In then end I had lots of feedback for the organizers, and heard some interesting opinions. My favorite: density = more crime. It is fair to say density equals more crimes, but crimes per capita and crime are not the same thing. There was lot of fear of “different” “other” and “unknown” and that’s what scared the suburbanites. It would be helpful if the planning sessions did a better job of helping people visualize that a dense neighborhood could have multiple housing types. Including single family homes, and that not everyone only wants one choice.

  2. Bravo for long-term planning and sustainable growth, but don’t let the ink dry on those buy-sell agreements just yet.

    A few key points to consider:

    – The groups behind this development effort say we have a choice, but they present the most important choice as a simple assertion: Bay Area population will grow by 2.2 million people by 2035. Our roads, downtowns, parks, transit resources will all be more crowded.

    – According to their website, in 2010 SVCF granted roughly $75,000 each to 16 organizations that advocate for building more housing, and for groups that go to public meetings to advocate for more residential construction. It’s Board of Directors is a “who’s who” of real estate developers, bankers and architects.

    – According to California law S.B. 375, Bay Area cities are forced to join this transit-based development effort in order to qualify for billions in Federal and regional transportation funding.

    – Transit-based development, as defined by S.B. 375, provides a loophole used by real estate developers to avoid compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

    – We have 10 percent unemployment and a glut of vacant housing in the Bay Area. Building 900,000 more units and increasing the population by 33 percent will only increase job competition, strain resources and add congestion, while the few profit.

    – And the challenge of reducing our carbon emissions consistent with California law will be made more difficult as a result of this hypothetical population increase. It’s that simple.

    You can choose Bay Area.

    • HowMany – which city do you hail from?

      Yo, I’m all for population control (freedom not to starve VS freedom to all reproduce crazily) but no elected moderate politician will promote population control via war/genocide or “family planning” unless we — all of us — are super educated.

      So the educated long-term planning will never happen. We are still animals after all.

      Just because rich developers will get fatter jowls from infill development doesn’t mean the message is wrong.

      If an axe murderer tells you that the sky is blue, doesn’t mean the sky is not blue. Separate the messenger from the idea.

      The realities of peak oil and peak everything force us to necessarily downscale our grand modern civilization across the board. We do it willingly in planned fashion (ABAG/MTC visioning process) or we let the so-called “free market” (has never existed anywhere except economics voodoo classes) and millions of people decide things on their own.

      We’ll probably end up in the same place anyway, just the background music will be different with planning or no planning. (Actually, I’d vote for more smart, reality-based planning.)

      I don’t think the housing glut and unemployment (actually closer to 25%!!) will go away in a generation. Japan’s hasn’t.

      We may as well spend $4-8 BILLION dollars a day building GREAT TRANSIT that we can use for maybe the next FIFTY (50) years, instead of spending that same asinine amount on GASOLINE that we all burn ONCE and have nothing to show for it, and only do this for the next TWENTY (20) years, if that.

      But we Americans can’t agree, and the oil business lobby is going to muscle any alternatives into the ground, as you can see by the Koch Oil Company sponsored “tea party.”

      I agree that population control is key – China did well here, although a 2-child policy would have been even smarter and more effective.

      Regarding urban “job competition, strain resources and add congestion, while the few profit” — how is that ANY different from today? We may as well be in physically better shape, enjoy more daylife and nightlife and waste less money on gas/home heating while we’re at it! =)

      Thanks for your comment and cheers!

      -Childless in Oakland. (well okay, i have a pet rabbit…)

  3. in your face lily livers!

    okay suburbanites and exurbanites – behold a good potential future for the 680 corridor. If mormons can do it so can you!


  4. The world is not black and white and we need to compromise and understand and listen to each other.

  5. While the author makes some excellent points, his message is diluted by the implied racism. Just like in previous generation people were led to feel inadequate if they were not white, now it seems the sentiment is to make you feel guilty if you ARE white. I found it distracting and disappointing every time the author of this article referred to the color of peoples’ skin, as if that somehow implied something about their values and intelligence. In some ways we’re still very far from MLK’s dream of a color-blind society.

  6. Michael, it’s hard for any of us to pretend we’re not of some group or another… the human mind categorizes, and makes use of such conceits as “race” … I just couldn’t help but notice that most people who were exceedingly vocal were “white” – not that it’s a bad thing, but they just happened to be. We all generalize, make associations, assumptions… hard not to. Thanks for bringing that up.

    It may be far more accurate to say “suburban” – and it may be worth my time to attempt to take any implied racism out. That’s not what I want, but that’s how the “Tea Party” comes off and how these people came off to me. They did happen to be all white as far as I could see.

    But for purposes of what the tension over the bay area’s future is, it mostly wasn’t that they were white, it is mostly that they were all from the suburbs/exurbs, defending the car and single family home way of life they have (which is fine, as long as we stop putting too much more money into that because it has no sparkling future like it once did) … if the anti-MTC/ABAG crowd had been more mixed that would have helped me not to think of the issue that way.

    Yes, we’re basically Yugoslavia, and it’s hard to get past that since various things have gotten so out of hand. I don’t think “whitey” should be guilty, just aware, and so should everyone else.

    In the end, maybe we can all use some humor to counter the “oh they’re just white complainers” mindset, which it can be easy to get into, even for whites. And let’s not pretend that old white Marinites don’t want “habitat for humanity” or BART-like systems in their area to keep out “colored” people… there is some element of that, for various reasons, anywhere in the world. (fear of the “other” for various sometimes valid reasons)

  7. I was at the meeting in Oakland and although I did not exactly agree with every argument brought up by the audience. I could see why some were frustrated when their questions were not answered by the facilitators. Some people were shouted at and flipped off by other members of the audience who did not respect their opportunity to ask questions. How is that helpful? So what if these people are “tea partiers”. What does that have to do with anything? The overall meeting appeared to be rigged toward a predetermined result and that was clear. The vague questions were bound cause some consternation. Clearly our tax dollars were wasted if this is the best ABAG/MTC could do. There should have been more specific information for people to vote on. Garbage in…. Garbage out! Total waste of time for everyone.

  8. Sean, thanks for commenting.

    The questions could have been explained better, with more examples. I guess that would take more time (cut into the facilitator contractors’ profit margin a bit, but be helpful for city planning newbies not familiar with certain “special urban planning phrases” or possibly vague terms such as “open space”), and we didn’t have hours for the event.

    A good way to prep for future workshops? Include a preview/agenda for workshop participants. To review at your leisure ahead of time, with definitions of potentially confusing phrases and words. Visual examples to illustrate concepts and definitions.

    That would solve some of the “vagueness.”

    What do you mean by specific info? It seemed pretty clear to me that people were to vote on specifics:
    “more freeways”
    “more transit”
    “financial incentives for denser housing”
    and so forth. do you mean, specific like “8-lane highway between alamo and rodeo?” and “more buses” vs “more light rail”?

    I would point out that I saw the “tea party leader” Ms. Gass flip off another workshop participant. You guys were blurting out of turn, without raising hands too.

    I think at this point your voices have been heard and MTC/ABAG need to consider that, and revise their workshops a bit. (They claim they won’t because it would be “unequal” between cities… but I think it’s been long enough at this point to roll in some improvements.)

    The fact that you guys came out, instead of watching whatever TV shows you watch at night, or whatever you do, tells me this was not a waste of tax dollars. You participated, which is great. You also can’t say “garbage in” when you and other “tea partiers” were talking. Were your words part of the garbage? I would not like to think so.

    See you next time. I hope the “tea” folks are civil like everyone else was, with specific SOLUTIONS to our shared problems. Yes we ALL share the problems of ever-rising gasoline and diesel prices, food prices, housing slump, falling tax revenues, falling employment. I would be very bored if it’s all “Libertarian freedom” yap next workshop, without any focus on fixing our problems… or at least recognizing that we have a dilemma we can’t solve to everyone’s satisfaction.

    Specifically, I think money should be gradually shifted away from highways to rail and water transit over time, as these are most energy efficient.

    Suburbs MUST densify, so it will be easier and CHEAPER for your suburban “cities” to maintain your suburban utopias. (repaving 10 miles of road every year for instance, instead of 30 miles of road.) It’s not really illegals causing most of the population growth – you’re/we’re all having kids! A study would prove that. We’re running out of room to put people – there isn’t “infinite open farmland” (aka “green fields”) to build thousands more single family homes on — if you like to EAT anyway. So get on board the train or put on a condom. Your choice. And in the meantime, let’s get more suburban gardens going. Save your health and your money!


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