Civil Society Reports

1. University down. One’s used to the idea that the university’s standards are falling (one hopes not at your university, your alma mater!), grades are inflating, civility is threatened, and freedom of speech, endangered. Books on these subjects pour off the presses. Blogs proliferate.

At our local institution it’s not the life of the mind that’s threatened. It’s the bricks and mortar, wiring, furnaces. Transformers blow. Light and heat fail. Classrooms close. Students are abruptly evicted from buildings.  E-mail’s an off and on thing.

A residence went up in smoke last month. But for goodness sakes, that’s attributed to arson. Arson’s in another category. It can happen even in a well-maintained and well-financed institution. No one was seriously hurt. What was notable about the event was that local residents opened their doors to displaced students. The very people who have been complaining for years about late parties, broken beer bottles, and the general chaos attendant on the attempt to civilize the new barbarians each fall, were eager to offer their spare rooms, and a place at their dinner tables.

2. Local Democracy. It used to be that the neighbourhood association newsletter offered chiefly opportunities for cleaning up the ravines. You’d spend a Saturday morning picking garbage out of streams and brush, and you’d done your local civic duty. You’d come away with new acquaintances, bit of a tan under your sun-block, a tee-shirt, and a good feeling.

Much more is required now. Or I should say that many more opportunities are open. I could go meetings two or three evenings a week: to review five-year proposals for transportation routes; park use, bike trails; tree counting, tree planting. I could staff booths at local fairs, contribute to newsletters. Join the local gang that cleans up graffiti. I could “own” my local mailbox with the responsibility for keep it graffiti-free. (Cleaning fluid supplied by the authorities.) It’s a great life. City officials get in touch by e-mail (when the server allows). I check in with the police reports for our area regularly. (Car thefts, home invasions, rowdiness, neatly tabulated and marked out in colour on a map.) A special symbol denotes a crack house.

I hear from local organizers and city officials, times, dates, agenda attached. “We need YOU to help make this happen. Hope to see you there.” At the meetings there’s a facilitator to juggle comments, sum up the thread of the argument from time to time, flatter everyone present.

I recently received (e-mail again), the draft of a twenty-five year plan for moving masses of people around our locality, and between the major cities in our area. Twenty-five years! I should live so long! I send a reply: more street-side benches, please. My contribution is gratefully received by the researchers investigating local “walkability.”

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