The Other N-Word

When he used “NIMBY” to describe the opponents of development in Santa Monica Jeff Tumlin violated consultant rule number one – don’t embarrass your employers – but his doing so at least brings up a question, one that I have wondered about for years, which is what should one call the political faction that most consistently opposes development in Santa Monica?

I’ll confess that when I was writing my Lookout column, I used words like NIMBY and “no-growther” that I knew riled up people who ­– after all – believed in good faith that they were being reasonable when they opposed every project that came down the pike. I even invented a term, “Santa Monicans Fearful of Change,” that may have been technically accurate, but which wasn’t nice at all.

There are people in town, with whom I’m probably in agreement about the issues 90% of the time, who are still mad at me.

But at the same time I found it hard to be political friends with people who described the Planning Commission when I was on it as being “rubber stampers” for developers. Planning staff were also rubber stampers, or worse, and of course the plans being stamped were always those of a “greedy” developer.

To this day, it’s absurd that people accuse the likes of Pam O’Connor and Terry O’Day, who have long and consistent records regarding their views about land use and how cities should develop, views that are, by the way, consistent with an overwhelming amount of research and thinking about urban and environmental problems, of being corrupted by the fact that some developers support their candidacies when they run for office.

It’s one thing to mock the fervency by which a group of your opponents believes in their case, it’s quite another to call people you disagree with corrupt.

But advocates from all sides in Santa Monica development politics, and I’ll include myself, are guilty of using intemperate language to describe political opponents. As for me, I have resolved in the future to use nothing more provocative than the adjective “anti-development” to describe the faction of Santa Monica politics represented by the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City. (Not that anyone who is not in that faction is necessarily “pro-development;” we’re all slow-growthers in Santa Monica.)

I don’t know, however, if “anti-development” will satisfy anyone. The anti-development faction likes to be referred to simply as the “residents,” and they speak of themselves in that manner – they are the residents and this is what they want (or don’t want). They get help for this from local news media, which habitually refer to any group that opposes something as the “residents,” as in the typical headline that begins “Residents Oppose…” It’s like the word “some” doesn’t exist in their word processors. There are many meetings of the City Council or the Planning Commission where half (or more) the speakers who live in Santa Monica are in favor of something, but our media typically refer only to the opposition as “the residents.”

But we all like conflict, the more elemental the better. The press likes to depict development issues, which typically involve complex social and economic issues and an equally complex cast of characters, as a zero sum game between the developer and the “residents.” No one else counts.

Take this as you will – as someone who, as a columnist, did my share of over-simplifying the views of people I disagreed with, I’m only a poor sinner who has now discovered the gospel, that it’s not only sticks and stones that break bones.

Thanks for reading.

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