Growing Pains: Thirty Years in the History of Davis

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Davis is an unusual, if not unique place, a city of more than 50,000 people that likes to chart its own course, rather than follow the lead of others. It's driven partly by a fear of conformity, worried that someday it will wake up and discover it's just another Anytown U.S.A.

Defenders see Davis as a community that's enlightened, progressive, environmentally aware. It embraced growth control as gospel, saw the sun as an energy source, and began singing the praises of recycling long before most communities. It's a nuke-free, pro-choice city that declared itself a sanctuary for political refugees from Central America and adopted an anti-smoking law that at the time was perhaps the toughtest in the country.

Its adversaries tend to see Davis as eccentric, self-absorbed. They can't help but wonder about a city that cites a woman for snoring too loudly. Or creates toad tunnels, so frogs can safely migrate past a new freeway overpass. "Only in Davis," they remark, responding to each new tale about the city's peculiar ways. They call the city the People's Republic of Davis. Or Carmel by the Causeway. Or the City of All Things Right & Relevant. Bob Dunning, a local newspaper columnist, penned the last name years ago, chiding the city for its unusual ways. No one seems to mind the name much, though, probably because they realize Davis needs to be reminded from time to time to take itself too seriously. As early as 1971, the district attorney of Yolo County warned about having too many Davis residents on the county grand jury. They were too liberal, too hung up on being fair.

My theory is that Davis is a city with an overabundance of middle-class, well-educated high-achievers out to save the world. Failing that, they at least want to save Davis from urban sprawl, suburban shopping malls, the nation's love affair with automobiles and other affliction of the modern world.

That spirit gives Davis politics a distinctive flair. Political battles often become crusades. Discussions take on a strident tone. Admitting defeat isn't an option, because the losing side is convinced its cause is just. Losing is more than just a setback. It's the final straw that will open the flood gates to rapid development, bankrupt the city or bring some other calamity. So, the losing side often resorts to lawsuits or ballot measures to carry on the fight. Sometimes, the result is political paralysis: decisions are challenged again and again, issues never get resolved. Instead, they fade away, only to reappear later.

The flip side, though, is that Davis is a committed community, where most everyone is ready to help out. For years, residents joked that the only traffic jams in town occurred weekday evenings when residents strapped on their Birkenstock sandals, jumped on their bicycles and headed off to meetings of one sort or another.

Without doubt, the community's unique brand of politics has paid off over the last 30 years. The population more than doubled, but Davis remains a compact community with a strong sense of identity and a small-town character. It was the kind of place where most residents still knew their neighbors, and didn't have to worry about big-city crime. Greenbelts abounded, and bicyclists could pedal throughout much of the town without fighting automobile traffic much. Neighborhood had their own shopping centers, but an old-fashioned downtown remained the social and commercial hub of town.

The anti-Davis forces miss the mark when they call the community the People's Republic of Davis. The community was reformist, not radical. It was interested in change, but not too much. It was willing to try something new, so long as it didn't undermine the community's underlying values.

Many of those values were conservative. That's why so many residents showed up year after year for the city's old-fashioned Fourth of July festivities in Community Park. Or, they spent warn summer evenings walking around downtown in between dinner and movies. Or they flocked Saturday mornings to buy produce and visit with friends at the Davis Farmers Market.

That's the story told in this book. It's a story about a unique, progressive place with conservative underpinnings. It wasn't necessarily better than other communities, but definitely was different.

The story starts in 1968, the last year covered by "Davisville '68: The History and Heritage of the City of Davis," a book that chronicles the community's first 100 years. [1]

Another important reason for writing this book presented itself as the 1990s unfolded.

An angry, sometimes hostile mood reverberated through Davis politics during that paralleled a nationwide distrust of politicians and their spending habits. Something else was amiss in Davis, though, as the Rev. Jim Kitchens noted during a 1998 community forum titled "Davis in Transition: Visions for the Future."

"There's something happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear," observed Kitchens, borrowing his words from "For What It's Worth," a popular 1967 song by the rock group Buffalo Springfield.

"Things in Davis have changed from when I moved here 10 years ago," said Kitchens, the forum's keynote speaker. He was less worried about how much the community had grown in a decade than an angry, in-your-face approach to politics that had become all too common. He recalled watching a woman address the Davis Board of Education, saying the content of her comments didn't make much of an impression, but the anger, disrespect, and downright meanness she displayed caught his attention. "And she was attacking the board members personally, saying not that she thought they held mistaken positions, but that they were bad people." Kitchens noted. "I'm more than a little scared about where this trend toward more in-your-face political discourse is taking us." [2]

Davis Community Television and The Davis Enterprise organized the forum, noting in a flyer advertising the event that Davis faced an important City Council election and another vote on a city park tax in June 1988, as well as deep divisions over growth, commercial development and a host of quality-of-life issues. "It's a good time to ask, 'What do we want Davis to look and be like in the future, and how do we get there?' " the flyer explained.

Uncertainty over where Davis was headed was one reason for the anger that resonated so frequently through the community's political debates during the 1990s. Perhaps an even bigger reason was the conviction that Davis was under attack by forces undermining its distinctive character. Though most everyone pledged allegiance to slow growth, Davis appeared to be growing at an alarming rate, with new houses popping up all over town. Many residents fretted that Davis was looking more and more like communities that surrendered long ago to rampant growth, shopping malls and automobile-oriented planning.

By 1998, the progressive tide that swept over Davis in the 1970s and remained deeply ingrained in the community's consciousness in the 1980s seemed to be losing momentum. Political leaders had to spend much of their energy fixing financial and other problems, and were less inclined to launch ambitious initiatives. Many of the progressive policies established in earlier decades remained in place, but their import waned as their origins and purposes blurred with the passage of time.

As the turn of the century of the century approached, Davis clearly needed to chart its course for the future. First, though, it needed to understand its past. Too often, political debates of the 1990s lacked historical perspective. My hope is this book will help provide a context for future debates by showing how Davis got to where it is today.

Mike Fitch
June 1998

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