On July 28, I attended a meeting of the Princeton mayor and council. I had been asked to come by a member of Food and Water Watch. The pro-consumer NGO wanted a student environmentalist there to show support for a proposed local fracking ban. I had never been to any such meeting, and didn’t know what to expect. When I got to the location (400 Witherspoon Street, a short walk from the University) and entered the crowded room, I assumed that most people were there to discuss natural gas extraction. Through my green-tinted, macropolitical glasses, fossil fuel infrastructure is the ultimate issue. Other agenda items like “2015 Leaf and Brush Schedule” seemed like banal distractions.
I could not have been further off. The brief discussion on fracking was among the least compelling events of my four (4!) hours at the meeting. We started at 7pm with some general procedural stuff: a roll call, the Pledge of Allegiance (people still do that?), the presentation of an award to the police. Then we got to agenda item 8: “Work Session.” And work we did.
The first topic, of four: “COAH Comments Presentation.” COAH, as I had to look up afterward, is the Council on Affordable Housing. Honestly this section was a little hard for me to follow. Apparently there is some sort of proposal for more affordable housing in Princeton, there was some sort of forum for comments on the proposal, and at the meeting people were presenting and discussing those comments.
I suppose now is as good a time as any to bring up the demographics of the meeting’s attendees. There were maybe a couple score citizens in the audience, and they were mostly old and white. I may have been the only male without gray hair. It also seemed that many attended regularly, showing some familiarity with Mayor Liz Lempert and the six-person council. Given the stereotypes associated with the Caucasian post-middle age set, one could have imagined a discussion on low-income housing going poorly. Instead I was treated to a series of folks standing up to explain how cultural and socioeconomic diversity are part of what makes the town of Princeton great. Affordable housing, they declared, is a worthy, even necessary pursuit.
At least I think that’s what they were saying. Again, I was not privy to the technical details of the proposal, and I had not yet thought to take notes at this stage of the meeting, so perhaps I am getting it wrong. I did not think the meeting would be worth writing about until part two of the work session: “Parking Ordinance Discussion.”
You may be thinking, “Dayton, what could possibly be noteworthy about discussing a parking ordinance?” That’s what the old me would have asked, but now I say don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it. The issue at hand is that the Borough of Princeton and Princeton Township had had different parking regulations, and as part of the recent consolidation into one united Princeton, these differing laws must be combined into one broader ordinance. One option would just be to keep the old set-up—different rules for different sides of town—but many think the two policies should be made consistent.
The reason I bring this up has little to do with the details, so I won’t bore you with myriad specific points people made. What I find so fascinating is that so many people had specific points to make! I know lots of people have their own well-formed political opinions on the Big Issues, but I always figured the mundane stuff was handled by bureaucrats behind closed doors somewhere. It was strangely comforting to know that these decisions on parking are directly influenced by the regular people—or at least, the regular old white people with lots of time on their hands—who have to go out there and park every day. While the decision is ultimately left to Lempert and the council, it was good to see ordinary citizens turning out to get their voices heard.
(As an aside: at least two individuals spoke with annoyance of Princeton graduate students parking in residential areas of Maple Street. Grad students who park there, if you’re reading this, the people don’t like it!)
The third item on the work session agenda read “Limits On Hours of Retail Business Operations.” If affordable housing showed Princeton’s nobler side and the parking discussion displayed an admirable civic engagement, a debate over business hours revealed our self-interested side. Parents (mostly women) complained of hubbub in nearby parking lots keeping their families awake at night. Businessmen (not one businesswoman) balked at this government intrusion into their basic freedoms, fearing a slippery slope.
To be clear, the limits being proposed were meant only to “codify existing practices,” as was repeated ad nauseam. The 2 a.m. closing limit would not affect any existing businesses, given that special cases like “beloved Hoagie Haven” and the U Store would be exempted. This led some to see it as a sensible preemptive measure to prevent unduly late hours in the future, while others denounced it as “capricious and arbitrary,” a “solution looking for a problem…if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” There was one man at the meeting who wanted to open a 24-hour business, and his plans would have been concretely thwarted. But for the most part people debated the theoretical principle behind the regulation more than the practical effects.
Businesses open late are a “nuisance,” said one woman. We need a “break from commerce” here and there. Princeton is not New York City; it has a “unique charm,” and the backlash to the proposal is “kneejerk” more than reasonable.
Business owners were less enthusiastic—“shocked and astonished,” even. I learned from a series of middle-aged men that “We live in a 24-hour world,” a “never-sleep community.” I learned that merchants are the “lifeblood of the community,” and thus to do anything to hamper them is “silly and stupid.” More surprisingly, I learned that any hour limits essentially tell students (us!) to “stay on your side of Nassau Street,” because of course, one man assured, students operate on a “different time frame than you and I.” If you can’t be open past 2 a.m., then students ain’t got no time for you.
Being (I assume) the only student in the room, I was somewhat taken aback to hear all of us grouped together as some amorphous blob with one specific schedule and set of shopping habits. I was also hit by the realization of just how much the town is shaped by our presence. Princeton may not be New York City, but as one man pointed out it is also no sleepy rural enclave: it is a vibrant college town—at least in theory. Princeton’s residents take pride in the university, and they hope our bubble’s borders extend past FitzRandolph gate.
Students were not the only area of contention. Others might also be excluded from establishments that close between 2 and 6 a.m.; one affluent white male hesitantly posited that maybe the most “diverse” members of the community might be awake at those hours too. Folks disagreed over whether late-night businesses reduce or encourage crime: such enterprises encourage people to stay up late (and often self-intoxicate), but they also light up the sidewalk and make it harder to sneak about.
The debate over business practices went on quite a while, with no one budging an inch. Eventually it was called to a halt, for Lempert and the council to consider further at their own leisure. At this point much of the citizenry left the meeting, but there was still one item left in the work session: “2015 Leaf and Brush Schedule.”
Here I thought I would struggle to remain invested—how could anything top the high-stakes excitement of limits on workplace hours? But brush-pickup is rather difficult to schedule, because, as someone so eloquently put it, “Who knows when the leaves fall?” The fundamental arbitrariness of when this service might be necessary challenged everyone’s preexisting conceptions of justice.
Apparently there are sometimes unannounced pickups, on days when much leaf and brush has fallen and no scheduled pickup is near. But some asserted that this punishes law-abiders, who dutifully keep their leaf and brush in their backyard shed (or whatever) until the scheduled time, as opposed to just, I don’t know, leaving it out, which I guess is supposed to be frowned upon?
Once more I was out of my depth, the political and environmental implications of the clean-up going far beyond me. Most shockingly, some out-of-towners (suspects include landscapers, but the culprits remain elusive) seem to be leaving their own brush on Princetonian lawns so that the municipality of Princeton will deal with it. The crime is glaringly obvious because the debris does not match the tree!—that is, the disposed leaves come from a species not found on the property. Mayor Lempert did not seem too concerned, but it would not shock me if righteous anger from the crowd soon leads to a wave of vigilante justice-seekers.
Perhaps the most beautiful moment came when a woman, who had spoken on previous issues and was standing up to share her own experiences with leaf and brush pickup, exclaimed, “The whole agenda is my life!” What to me were irrelevant trivialities are vital components of the day-to-day for many. People park. People interact with neighbors and businesses. People have to dispose of excess plant matter one way or another. For this woman, these were areas of her life she was now able to influence, take some measure of control over. I think ultimately we don’t want complete authority, to exert our will unilaterally over our fellows. Much more meaningful is the chance to be heard equally, to come together and exchange ideas and have them count. The meeting was not a perfect example of this—Lempert and the council still had the final say on all the issues, and the demographics in attendance were not representative of Princeton as a whole—but it approximated political equality to a far greater extent than, say, the electoral college.
Finally, when the brush debate (if not the brush itself) had been cleared, the work session was over. The room had emptied significantly. Out of respect to those few of us who remained, the council decided to skip ahead to agenda item 12, introducing “an ordinance by Princeton banning the use of hydraulic fracturing in the municipality.” It was quite obvious from the start that the council favored the ban, and that it would be passed with or without my testimony. It was entirely unnecessary for me to go up and say anything.
But I’d been there nearly four hours, and I’d be damned if I was going home without putting in a few words. The council’s initial description of the issue focused on the local environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing, so I said a few brief words about the global climate impacts of natural gas drilling and burning. My decision to speak required a strange cognitive dissonance, knowing my words were irrelevant to the outcome but hoping they might somehow last in others’ minds. I had voted before, but never had office-holding politicians been so captive an audience to me. I actually began to shake; I was literally (if not figuratively) speaking truth to power.
Now my work was done, it was time to go and let Lempert and the council complete their agenda in peace. The woman from Food and Water Watch told me this was an unusually long meeting, and thanked me for staying the whole four hours. I walked back to Princeton alone, and with a renewed appreciation for small-scale, participatory governance. Yes most of the participants were old white people complaining about stuff, and a less homogenous range of voices would of course be ideal. Yet I left inspired to better understand this town and this university I have chosen to call home for over three years, with a renewed conviction that part of belonging to a place is to play an active role within it.