The Rhythm of Change
When do they realize you’re not going away? That you’re going to nag and keep at it until things change? It’s hard to know because even when you win it’s so subtle usually no one notices.
Environmental activism is not like the Super Bowl. No cheering from the spectators, no trophies. Sometimes it’s just the satisfaction of knowing something did not happen.
A group of us hippie professionals moved to South Laguna about the same time in 1971. We weren’t drop-outs. We had advanced degrees, but we were part of the counterculture just the same, but in a milder sort of way than the demonstrators in Berkeley’s People’s Park or Kent State. Just as they did, we wanted to change the world, instill more respect for the environment, plan our lives and communities with sensitivity and a conscience.
We thought we could work through the system. The South Laguna community was threatened with development of the hillsides into high-density tracts. We wanted to stop that—protect our cottage community, preserve the scenic mountain backdrop, the rare vegetation, prevent increased traffic on our little streets. We didn’t want a series of roads like Nyes Place cutting up into our hillsides to serve high-density housing.
How to get a handle on it? Fred Lang and his committee were working on getting Orange County to rezone the area and preserve open space. We thought of another tack. Our local water and sanitary districts seemed all too willing to accommodate any requested development. Could new boards help to bring a more cautious, conserving approach to extending service?
We decided to run for the water and sanitary boards, calling ourselves the “unincumbents.” (Remember the “uncola”?) Believe me, the hair was long—mine and Barbara Heiser (now Picheny) was long and straight, Jack Heiser’s long and curly. Lorell Long had long straight hair, but it was always hidden under a massive Afro wig she had bought at White Front. (No, I didn’t make that up; White Front was a discount department store.)
We had a fundraiser, sent out mailers, even advertised in the Pennysaver. I remember the graphic artist for the Pennysaver saying that she had cropped Lorell’s photo really close to try to minimize the effect of the Afro wig. I was shocked she was so concerned; I was so used to seeing Lorell that way. I naively missed the association with Angela Davis, Black Panthers, etc. and the effect that might have had on voters. Can you imagine the contrast with the conservative-suited board members of another generation?
Even so we each got about 800 votes against the incumbents’ 1,500. Not bad, but not a win. Kind of like the 3-2 votes we still get today at the Council. You don’t feel totally rejected, but nothing changes either.
Still our group kept going, year after year, meeting after meeting, organizing, publicizing, taking action. Open space was preserved, the hillside roads were never built, Village Green Park came into being, stairs now go to Secret Cove. Instead of high-density condominium blocks along the coast, there are single family homes. Treasure Island Park is larger, and the Montage building is one whole story lower than it would have been without our efforts. There’s a community garden, landscaping along Coast Highway and a marine reserve. This is 40 years worth.
Was it easy? No. Did we often feel victorious? Most times we felt we had gotten less than half of what we were asking for.
At the Laguna Canyon Conservancy meeting on Monday night Greg MacGillivray, documentary film maker, put it into perspective. He said that Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” film about climate change had been viewed by 40 million Americans. Before the film, 50% of us believed that climate change has been caused by human actions, afterwards the percentage increased to 75%. But now several years later, only 45% hold that view.
His conclusion is not to be depressed about the colossal effort it takes to change society. Rather his approach is to recognize that what’s needed is repetition, consistency of message, and a commitment for the long haul. On his part, he has a 20-year plan for films and raising awareness of the importance and beauty of the ocean; he calls it “rhythmic storytelling.” “I think it will make a difference. I hope it will make a huge difference,” MacGillivray insists optimistically.
He recalled the 1989 walk to save Laguna Canyon and gave tribute to the environmentalists in the room, “With your persistence, your almost nagging, you made it clear we weren’t going away.”
That’s what’s needed. Now the Environmental Committee will be reconstituted, and they will be taking up the issues of Complete Streets. It’s not time to be frustrated and go home. Activism and working for change is not a one or two year effort; it’s a life’s commitment. Welcome to the walk.
Former council member Ann Christoph works as a landscape architect.