In 1997, I arrived in Davis, a small university town in Northern California. It had cultural activities, good schools, and lots of parks; at the time, it was a fantastic fit for me, a displaced Midwestern boy unaccustomed to the insane frenetic energy of the Bay Area, my first stop in the Golden State. I started a family in Davis and began two separate careers – first as a journalist and then as a community college English professor.
The best parts of Davis allowed me to thrive the first few years that I lived there: my family was on the lower-end of the socio-economic scale compared to other Davisites, but we managed.
When my first-born was five, I was working, going to school and serving as a primary caregiver. When the weekends rolled around, Davis provided the perfect space for me. I could walk along a bike path behind the apartment to a small park, complete with slides and a sandbox. My son would walk or scoot to the park alongside me. I could enjoy time with the boy, engage him in games of tag and sandcastle building. Then, if I had to study, my son Alex could entertain himself or play with other kids while I could retreat under a nearby shade tree and do some work.
Why, then, did I move to Sacramento last year?
Some reasons for the change in scenery were decidedly personal and pragmatic. My commute to work in South Sacramento went from 40 minutes to 15; as after my divorce a few years ago, it was time for a change. Beyond my personal reasons, the Davis ethos just wasn’t a good fit for me anymore.
The Davis community has always been incredibly well intentioned, but at times it’s also possessed — at least to me — a lack of self-awareness. Cases in point: Davis wanted to be a quiet little burg, so a stringent noise ordinance led to a resident getting cited for loud snoring. The city wanted to be environmentally friendly, so it built a toad tunnel. The lack of any toads using said tunnel resulted in a Stephen Colbert investigative report on The Daily Show (http://www.cc.com/video-clips/x8gy2p/the-daily-show-with-jon-stewart-tunnel-vision).
The aforementioned examples are lighthearted. Some city decisions, though, held more weight. Two years ago, in the name of biker safety, the city created larger bike lanes on a major road – and narrowed the street from four lanes to two. It gummed up downtown traffic and, during peak times, resulted in a 20-minute drive from downtown to my then-home just a mile away. The city repeated its mistake last year in another section of town. The change caused drivers exiting a subdivision an extra 10 to 15 minutes simply to get out of their neighborhoods during rush hour. Luckily, in the latter instance, the city council admitted the error and began to explore ways to improve the self-created traffic chaos.
It was the assumptions that got to me. It’s as if the city and its leaders figured, “When people see these nice bike lanes, they’ll be sure to abandon cars and pedal to work!” Listen, I’m fully aware that global warming is real, and I personally want to limit my carbon footprint. But, there is no way in hell I would ever commute 25 miles to Sacramento on a fucking bike. Never. And it’s as if Davis never once considered how unrealistic their aspirations might be.
I experienced the same lack of mindfulness with the educational system. Over the past couple decades, whenever the state would reduce school funding, Davis residents would make up for the deficits with a parcel (property) tax. To this day, I think that Davis residents have passed every single educational tax measure placed on the ballot. The result has been an exceptional K-12 system. The assumption is that if you own a place, you can certainly afford and contribute to education. Never mind that those property taxes are reflected in higher rents for everyone who lives in the city — including the poorest of residents. Never mind that the soaring cost of housing further restricts access to the city for certain demographics.
In addition to the school district and city’s belief that residents are all capable of managing significant financial burdens, there are also assumptions about other resources. Every year my children have attended Davis schools, I’ve had to read an email about “back to school night,” a “parents only event.” The message is clear: no children allowed. The unstated assumption? As a Davisite you can find and afford a sitter. I imagine those who can’t afford childcare feel incredibly overlooked.
Keep in mind, 20 years ago, I glossed over these very same issues. I never thought about access to childcare or property tax implications. Now? I try to be more cognizant of my assumptions. There’s no question my employment has influenced me; most students I work with are at or below poverty. My students are working, caring for family (parents, siblings and children) while struggling economically. Their day-to-day lives are incredibly unpredictable. When they walk into my classroom, I can’t assume they have a bed to sleep or have had food to eat, a far cry from my safe, privileged “Davis life.”
Davis is a city with incredible amenities and benefits — benefits that will always keep residents on the privileged side of America; that privilege comes at a cost: less diversity and a homogeneous mindset that assumes my students aren’t Davisites.
David Weinshilboum hopes the Davis school district will provide daycare at next year’s Back to School Night. He sorta sent an email. And he’s pushy. You can reach him at David_Weinshilboum@yahoo.com.