Trashy Marin: Where Have All the Environmentalists Gone?
On the first day of a new year it is a tradition to make a list of resolutions for the year ahead. For the last two years we have had a different tradition. We reflect on the prior year and attempt to remind people that moving ahead without acknowledging our on-going problems is the mental equivalent of getting your car stuck in the sand, revving the engine and watching the sand fly as the car goes nowhere.
Something very few people wanted to acknowledge in 2021 is that the urban homeless encampments and decay, that have turned too many San Francisco sidewalks into a squalid nightmare, have moved into suburbia. Marin County now has sprawling, visible, San Francisco style homeless encampments.
Marin County has, for decades, been the gilded dream of post-war California suburbia. Rural enough that you can drive for fifteen minutes and see cows, nice weather and an easy commute into the city from most of the eastern part of the County. The northern areas --Terra Linda, Novato-- were fairly blue collar through the 1980s. Marin County's "hippie petting zoo" vibe may have been firmly established in the eyes of the media by the 1980s. But long term Marin residents who have been here for longer than I have been alive, will tell you that the hot tubbing, peacock feather fondling, suicidal, narcissistic, trust-fund types profiled in the infamous 1970s era documentary about Marin County entitled "I Want It All Now" were really more Mill Valley types.
Most of the rest of Marin was still a suburban dream-land. Loads of people who grew up in the ranch homes around Northgate and the post-war stucco boxes in Novato had typical mid-century American lives. They had fathers who were mailmen, violin teachers, radio sound technicians, truck drivers, professional printers, electricians and plumbers. They had moms who were teachers, nurses, administrative assistants, small business people. (A lot of the small town storefront businesses that typified Marin before 2004 were run by women.) Life was good. Suburban. Generally sleepy. The "I Want it Now Types" were sort of a local joke, and an embarrassment. People in Novato, in particular, spent a lot of time telling their friends from out of town that Novato was the "normal" part of Marin.
Novato was also the "affordable" part of Marin. (If you just gagged on your coffee reading that, please realize that a few decades ago Novato was considered down-market. No one, not even the most deranged realtor would have ever guessed that those two bedroom stucco starter homes near Novato High would someday sell for 900k.) Being the affordable part of Marin, Novato ended up having a split personality by the end of the 20th century. Still a lot of working and blue collar families who just happened to own their homes outright, a surprising number of aging once semi famous stars of the 1960s --hey, the weather was really good in Novato, and if you had a hit record in 1967 and wisely spent the money on buying a hill house in Marin outright instead of squandering the cash on chinchilla coats and coke, you could afford to keep living in Novato in a hazy hippie dream decades after the Summer of Love ended-- and newer families who figured they could handle a Novato mortgage better than a Mill Valley mortgage, and the commute from Novato was better than the commute from Rohnert Park.
If you know anything about modern day Marin County you know that a serious percentage of the residents are strident environmentalists. Or maybe they just "identify" as environmentalists. We're not sure.
The political and social environment in Marin makes being an "environmentalist" a fashionable code word. People strike up conversations with strangers in the aisles of Whole Foods talking about how they worry about the environment. Strangely, most of the people who seem to worry most about "the environment" don't seem to care too much about their local environment.
Maybe it is literally and figuratively cooler to care about polar bears than it is to care about Novato Creek?
Maybe worrying that someone somewhere may be using a plastic straw is more emotionally rewarding than staring at the heaps of trash that are now strewn on the lawn of the Novato library and tumble into the creek?
Marin environmentalists used to have some street "creds" for lack of a better term. They walked the walk. They did more than just "care." They raised huge amounts of money to save second growth redwoods and restore wetlands. The Marin GOP's Millennial blogger is just barely old enough to have a hazy memory of some first or second grade classroom speech by some woman wearing a hug-the-earth t-shirt and dangly earrings talking about how we shouldn't litter and we should volunteer to clean up beaches.
Sadly it has been YEARS since the strident environmentalists of Marin showed any noticeable public interest in cleaning up the trash, reducing litter or taking care of local problems.
The past two years have been a master class in avoidance. You could claim that Marin has always been good at avoiding reality. If you actually watch the blast-from-the-seventies "I Want it All Now" Marin documentary it ends with one of the few quasi normal families featured packing up a moving van to leave town. They want their kids to have a better life, they want to get away from the crazy.
Over forty years later, that is a story that still rings true today. And, strangely, it isn't a political story. A lot of people are moving away from Marin. Marin true-believers either say the people who move away are "cashing out their equity" or just "can't afford it." The fact that Marin has gone from a solid aspirational blue collar and middle class working community, to a community of artsy indebted coffee shop patrons in less than a half century isn't lost on the public at large. Novato used to be a cow town. Now we have hipsters with trust funds. People seem to spend more time talking about property values than quality of life.
Maybe it is easier to talk about the exponential increase in property values than it is to focus on the sad reality than in a community of million dollar starter homes we now have a regular crew of beggars in front of the post office, at the traffic light near the turn to get in to the Vintage Oaks mall and near 7th Avenue in downtown Novato. We also now have a homeless community that is well established on the lawn of the Novato library. Used needles in the gutter used to be a San Francisco thing a mere 3-4 years ago. Now you can find bloody hypodermic needles abandoned on the trail at Deer Island.
These photographs were all taken on the last day of 2021 within a three block area of downtown Novato. This is the creek between the Creekside Bakery and the back of the Novato public library. This is the side lawn of the Novato public library. More than twenty tents... trash tumbling down in to the creek. Random detritus scattered through the woods. This was a public park where children would play on sunny days and high school students would meet up to do their homework a mere five or six years ago.
This is what the environment looks like today. And so we must confront our new reality. This is the "new normal" of Marin. It wasn't quite this bad a year ago, if trends continue it will be exponentially worse a year from today. We know what is happening. We know very few people are concerned about it. (Some are. In fact the Marin GOP got a very thoughtful, if odd, message from a local woman a few weeks ago suggesting that the homeless crisis in Marin was caused by Republicans. Apparently she had turned to us because she hadn't gotten a response from Jared Huffman's office.)
Republicans in this county are a political minority. We have been a "super minority" politically for years. (A super minority means that although we are a political party, our power is so limited that the dominant Democrats can ignore us. Unless they want to blame us for something.) Frankly the Democrats OWN the political scene in Marin. Which means they own Marin's problems as well. Which may explain why Jared Huffman wasn't interested in listening to a voter incensed by homelessness. (Jared Huffman is a Democrat. In fact most of the higher level politicians from this area are Democrats.)
Ignoring a problem is often easier than fixing it. It is definitely easier than accepting responsibility.
As Republicans we accept responsibility for the fact that we have not been more outspoken about our snow-balling problems. Screaming in the streets really isn't our thing. We also believe in personal choice. For years the evidence suggested that a majority of local voters WANTED more poverty, more homelessness and more beggars. After all... they kept voting for politicians who promoted the policies that led to suburban blight. So we assumed that suburban blight was a "choice" most voters approved of.
Dan Bongino the podcaster often crudely says that if "you vote for Progressivism you deserve to get it, good and hard." Marin voters have spent years voting for Progressives. But Marin is a place where reality isn't always the same as it is for the rest of the Bay Area. San Francisco stumbled towards decay years ago. Visible blight is a relatively recent trend in Marin.
But it is a trend we believe we can reverse if we have the courage to actually acknowledge the problem. It is a trend we can reverse if we have the courage to get out of our partisan bubbles. It is a trend we can reverse if we can talk to our neighbors about solutions rather than scream in the streets. It is a problem we can reverse if we embrace real change. And it is a trend we can reverse if our Democrat and decline-to-state neighbors have the courage to look across the great divide and realize that their Republican neighbors may have a few ideas.
Do we want to be the kind of place where people actually care about the environment enough to keep our "habitat restoration" areas clean? Or do we just want to live in a place where people buy paper straws? Do we want to live in a place where people actually care? Or do we prefer mindless and vocal virtue signalling? Do we want to live in a place where people think the future can be better? Or do we want to live in a place where people have embraced decay and blight as the new normal? Do we want to live in dystopia? Or do we want Marin to reclaim the status of the gilded jewel of the Golden State?
We have choices. What choice do you want to make?