Brushfires of Freedom!

We have survived the first six months of this year. We are all locked into the strange nightmare that encompasses 2020. First, a thank you to the front line and essential workers that have kept working at peril to themselves and their families. Doctors, nurses, store clerks, municipal workers, and those who deliver to our doorsteps, thank you. Simply, thank you. To those of you who have decided a mask is not part of your wardrobe, call ahead and reserve an intensive care bed at one of our world-class hospitals for a family member, neighbor, or best friend, if not for yourself. Think about this. I’m not wearing a mask for me. I’m wearing it for you. I hope you will wear one for me. Please remember, wearing a mask is not a political issue. It’s a life-saving one.

~ Independence does not mean a lack of responsibility to the greater community. On the contrary, the only viable way for us to remain independent and free is to understand that our fates are intertwined. To pretend otherwise would be equivalent to a figment of Ayn Rand’s febrile imagination, and is not suited to these difficult times. It’s worth a reminder that people of color and lower-income status are disproportionally affected by the pandemic. COVID-19 has infected six hundred seventy-six Santa Monicans, and sixty-eight of our neighbors have lost their lives. These tragic numbers include those who resided in rest homes. Save a life, wear a mask!

~ The world’s economy has crashed. One microscopic parasite has wreaked havoc. We’ve seen the first coordinated global shutdown of the world’s economy, ever. In the 2nd quarter, the world lost the equivalent of 400 million full-time jobs. As Santa Monicans looked around, much of the city we knew evaporated. We witnessed the collapse of our vaunted Third Street Promenade, watched as our city was looted, and realized that tourism was going to take a long siesta. We have no quick, easy answers. As our town begins the long road back to prosperity, we must ask whether the previous direction was the right one. If there is even an inkling that our residents were not happy, and there is, then this is the right time for a course correction. The residents are the primary stakeholders and must participate in the planning for our recovery. It is time to examine all of our public areas, including the Santa Monica Pier, and determine the future, together.

~ While we don’t have cases of tea to toss into Santa Monica Bay, we seethe as our city continues to overtax our residents and visitors. Our sales tax rate is egregious and affects residents and visitors alike. Our residents also get “hit” by a utility tax that is the highest in California. A 14% bed tax “welcomes” visitors. While you may say that complaining about these taxes is petty, imagine that you’re a person of little means in our city. The 10.25% sales tax and 10% utility tax rates are considerable impediments to living adequately. If you miss moving your car on street cleaning day, the hit is $73. Add in all the misc license fees, and our city has its hand out from the moment you enter the town until you wind up at Woodlawn.

~ The city prevailed in the long-running California Civil Rights Act Lawsuit, brought by Santa Monica resident Maria Loya, and the Pico Neighborhood Association to force the city to change from an at-large city council election process to local district elections for each city council member. Maria won the battle in the trial court, and the city then appealed to the Appellate Court. The three judges wrote a tentative court ruling that the current at-large system was fair. The chance of a change in the verdict is less than 1% as of this writing. The Plaintiffs can appeal, but our 2020 elections will be as planned. It is a crushing blow for the residents who thought that the council’s perceived control by moneyed interests could be unlocked. They believe it is democracy denied. Five council seats will be available in November. Are the residents who supported district elections angry enough to support the candidate(s) who will overturn the cronyism that permeates our city council?

~ Casual racism is not an aberration in our community. It starts in the home and then spreads through our schools. For those who believe that our progressive city is enlightened, you must read the contrarian stories that are broadcasting via Instagram at @dearsamohi. Current and former Santa Monica High School students of color are venting about their experiences in our city’s public high school. The color baiting, name-calling, and disparaging of students due to their skin color and ethnicity are shocking. During my time at Samohi, decades ago, there were lines of color and racism etched into the culture. I had hoped they would have disappeared over the ensuing fifty years. Whether substantial or subtle, students of color are hurt every time racist remarks and actions surface. A school that produced both presidential advisor Stephen Miller and astronaut Johnny Kim in the same graduating class reflects our vastly differing societal norms; however, I want our students, teachers, parents, and administration to demand more. It is incumbent on all of us to rise. 

~ We want Independence from outside developers who make decisions only for their financial benefit rather than for our residents. As we celebrate Independence Day, this day of emancipation from the tyranny of moneyed interests and power over the common man, we should ask ourselves, “has this battle been won, or is it still being fought today?” The clash of the “haves” and “have not’s,” of the free and the oppressed continues, and Santa Monica is a prime battlefield. Although today’s ‘robber barons’ may wear Armani suits rather than military uniforms, and employ lawyers rather than mercenaries, it is still a battle for the control of the public domain – a fight between residents and those in power. The battle royale continues to rage. In the latest case, the acreage at 1301 4th Street under the heading of the so-called “Plaza at Santa Monica” will return to an emboldened city council on July 28th for a final vote. Resident groups have hired lawyers, sent hundreds of letters to the city council, and appear to have taken on the city and the developer successfully. My belief, the “Plaza” will sink under the weight of its more than 300,000 square feet into the dustheap of Santa Monica development history. But there will be more projects to fight. The battles will continue until our residents rise to demand height and density limits acceptable for a beachside lifestyle.

~ Black Lives Matter can’t be a catchword that fades as the news cycle moves on. It must stay front and center in every city, town, and village in America. I observed some lip service on the city council dais about change and our standard civic response, let’s “study” the problem. Meanwhile, we cut programs and raised rates for services that improve our youth’s opportunity to have a healthier, enlightened life. And, the police department has not seen any changes. A continuous crime wave has gripped our city over the past four years. Our police department will be better prepared to respond to significant challenges if they do not need to respond to every petty call. A healthcare professional or social worker can handle many requests for service. These do not need a badge and gun response. The acting city manager and our city council must make systemic changes to our police department. One positive step – remove the police chief. Then, instruct the Police Officers Association (POA) that city council candidates will not accept their union endorsements nor money in the upcoming election. Removing the POA’s power of the purse to retain council members who grant them big pay raises opens the door to real reform. We must eliminate racism within the SMPD, restore the confidence of residents, and reallocate resources where they are needed. 

~ Say his name…ELIJAH MCCLAIN Say her name…BREONNA TAYLOR

“It does not take a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority, keen on setting brushfires of freedom in the minds of men.” –Samuel Adams

By Phil Brock for SMart (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

Thane Roberts, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Architect, Dan Jansenson, Architect, Building and Fire-Life Safety Commission, Samuel Tolkin Architect, Mario Fonda-Bonardi, AIA, Planning Commissioner, Phil Brock, Santa Monica Arts Commission.

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