So I left my voice recorder and went back out to the hall. Some of those millennial youths I've been hearing so much about were selling shirts with “Yes Art Now” on the front. I'd had the vague idea of putting one on and rolling down the aisles like I was at an old Pentecostal revival. They were out of my size. Some angry looking activist-types walked by and shouted, “Don't put your fucking signs over ours!”
“Wait. What?” said Dan Majewski. He was young, idealistic and popping with irritation toward the people inside. I yanked him aside and asked what the deal was. “We're a tactical grass-roots group that's sick of the negativity and wants to add some positivity and rationality into the conversation. The foundation of our group is fact-based optimism.”
What I learned from Mr. Majewski is that the narrative being spun by local media (myself included)—of an angry town completely against the city's transit plan—wasn't taking into account that we were only hearing from the same 50 people who kept showing up at the meetings and not the entire city populace.
Not surprising, considering all the excitement we’ve had over the last few weeks. At an earlier meeting I had attended held in the African American Pavilion of Expo New Mexico last week, an elderly woman stood up at the front of the room, turned away from the speaker, and delivered her printed “question” to the crowd. “This is a car town. You drive around and you see one person per car.” I tuned the rest out and imagined her mother as a little girl, sitting in a meeting similar to this one, listening to some old bastard call Albuquerque a “horse town.”
I knew we were in trouble when the crowd cheered, as if being a car town is something to be proud of in an era of carbon footprints and holes in the ozone layer. Meanwhile, zipping in and out and between us, shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries was a bull of a woman wearing glasses with short-cropped gray hair. I'd seen her at every one of these meetings, stomping around, making sure everyone saw her. Every once in a while she would lift her head to shout an angry slogan with fresh violence etched on her face before going back to smiling and saying hello to everybody. She charged over to me, eyes conspicuously gliding over to my audio recorder. To dissuade her approach, I scrunched up my face to show how intently I was listening to the speaker and locked my eyes forward. It didn't work, and her hand was in my face a second later. “Hi. How are you doing?”
I wrestled up a look of annoyed incredulity. “What? No. I'm fine.” When it was clear I wasn't interested, she shambled off in search of other media attention, pausing to issue meaningless barks when key phrases broke through the discussion.
The only ART supporter, a young guy in the back—one of those naive millennials possibly—stood up and said, “I am one hundred percent behind this project.” The crowd mumbled dissent. Arms crossed over chests. Heads shook. Mouths pursed in distaste or chuckled bitterly. “I know it has some flaws. But you can't throw out the baby with the bathwater.”
“Yes, you can! They do it here all the time!” Shouted the grizzled bull. Her compatriots whooped behind her, apparently unaware that her comment meant literally nothing. She was positively glowing.
But what are these people shouting about? Not real issues, like New Mexico's pedestrian fatality rate—one of the highest in the nation—which might get worse when people start exiting a bus in the middle of the road to cross busy Central. Not the diversion of the Housing and Neighborhood Economic Development Funds, millions of dollars ear-marked for development in low-income neighborhoods, into the transit coffer. It wasn't being used (probably because no one knew about it), so it got snatched up.
And what about an alternate route? I've heard Lomas suggested, which sounds okay to me. But at the March 3 meeting, Chief Operations Officer Michael Riordan blew the question off by saying, “We have a certain budget every year for every location,” or, We chose this route, because it was the route we chose.
These upstanding citizens would rather holler about how the city will almost definitely run into problems when they start ripping out the 85-year-old pipes that run beneath Central. (Meaning, I guess, that we should wait until they're 100 years old, or at least not our problem anymore.) Or how the water utility authority might have to repair the entire line, clocked in at somewhere between $4 and $30 million if you look at three-month-old reports that are still being repeated. According to Riordan, though, the authority has already made their assessment and determined that an overhaul was unnecessary. They don't foresee any change in rates.
So where are the supporters? A number showed up to voice their opinions at the big Kiva meeting, but in previous discussions they were hard to find. Oh, you'd hear about all the “millennials” and their misguided love of ART, but it was rare to see one take a step up to the mic.
And that's because most of them wouldn't be caught dead at a city meeting. The more I asked around, I began to realize that most of the people I spoke to between the ages of 18 and 30 were all for the transit plan, but no one wanted to spend their evenings amongst grumpy crowds and dudes in suits. Which doesn't surprise me in the least. Finding pro-ART sentiment is much easier on Twitter and Facebook, a universe that in many ways is much more real to these damn kids than the dusty, muggy confines of public gatherings.
Unfortunately, the City Council will vote on whether or not to accept the $69 million federal grant for the project on March 21, and this hijacking of public discussion by a group of enraged naysayers is giving them the impression that Albuquerque hates ART. Too bad no one knows any better.