The Boardwalk: Building a coalition of neighbors

Just over than three years ago, frustrated and angry merchants and residents filled the Nevada City Council chambers to demand the city do something about all the people and dogs strewn across lower Commercial Street sidewalks, intimidating visitors and blocking customers from entering businesses, ultimately causing loss of business.

Soon after, a creative solution was identified, and through a public process, the Boardwalk on Commercial Street was built and installed. The ultimate goal was to alleviate the situation, as well as to encourage more diversity and stimulate economic development.

Many people had said, “But why would you give ‘these people’ a place to sit?” Simply put, we have given those who were sitting on the sidewalks a place to sit, so you and your visiting friends and relatives would not have to step over their dogs, backpacks and legs or turn away because you couldn’t reach the front door of your favorite eating establishment. If we were to push “these people” off of these particular sidewalks, they would simply go to another sidewalk and create the same set of problems.

For the first time in more than 30 years, we no longer have the issue of a multitude of people regularly sitting on the sidewalks and doorsteps. For the first time, we are actually moving toward a solution. With the support of many businesses, organizations, residents, students and police who are engaged and committed to turning things around on a step-by-step daily basis, we have become a neighborhood coalition of sorts.

In spite of a small handful of vocal opponents of the Boardwalk, it has become clear, according to the official 2012 survey, that the Boardwalk is doing what it was intended to do. Sidewalk congestion has been reduced by more than 90 percent and a diversity has been fostered on lower Commercial Street that includes grandparents, families, teens, children, visitors, regulars, shoppers, husbands relaxing as their wives shop. and, yes, the homeless and marginalized. Somehow, we are getting along.

This is an amazing turn around from just over two years ago.

Are there still issues on Commercial Street? You better believe there are. But as long as there are issues throughout Nevada City and in communities across the nation, there will be issues on the Boardwalk. The Boardwalk does not exist in a vacuum and it’s important that people distinguish between Boardwalk issues and city/police issues at large. Smoking, drinking, illicit activity and an influx of “trimmigrants” are all city and countywide issues and must be addressed as such.

However, we are not deterred by what we face on our streets. We are continually developing creative ways to alleviate these challenges through daily outreach and communication. We are engaging the neighborhood as much as we can. Some want to be involved, and some do not. This is everyone’s choice.

There is a saying — You can’t control the winds, but you can adjust your sails. The Boardwalk is the epitome of this. There is no silver bullet to Nevada City’s challenges. There will only be a series of small steps to success, and the Boardwalk is currently one of those steps. For the first time, we are reclaiming interrelations within our community because we simply can no longer afford such “dangerous otherness.” On the Boardwalk, we are willing to work with whomever crosses our path.

Today we have businesses taking ownership of the Boardwalk by bringing the chairs, tables and umbrellas in at night and putting them out in the morning. We have volunteers who water and clean the Boardwalk, businesses that donate plants to the planter boxes, musicians who share their music, knitters and grandmothers who share their craft with our youth, spontaneous chess games and students waiting for their parents to pick them up after school. Business owners and their employees get to know the names of many who frequent our streets regularly. Today, respectful relationships are developing where there were few relationships before.

Commercial Street is experiencing a vitality and color it has not seen in many years — teens enjoying Open Mic Night on Monday evenings at Café Mekka, live music during the Acoustic Thursdays series, the First Friday Art Walk and the transformation of the Boardwalk for a Farm to Table Banquet. All of these activities are converting Commercial Street into a vibrant heart of Nevada City.

Throwing shortsighted stones into the path of solutions never helps anyone. Our progress is evident, and if the Boardwalk is removed, those no longer obstructing the sidewalk and stoops will return. We would lose all the advancements made, as well as any future opportunities for continued community building.

Reinette Senum is a former mayor and member of the Nevada City City Council.