One of the more atrocious things the Walla Walla City Council did, after the brouhaha with the toy store’s mural faded away, was to pump in classical music at Heritage Square, a little strip of grass between storefronts on the downtown Main Street shopping district. At one point there was a playground structure, some limestone boulders to climb on, and a shelter like you would fine in a regional park; now only the shelter remains. As the city’s heroin epidemic grew, so did the numbers of drug dependent people in Heritage Square, hanging out on the toddler slides, or perched up against the wall of a building grotesquely painted to look like a Wild West-era trading post. We were perhaps not ready for the “two Wallas” to intersect right in the heart of the tourism office’s territory. Legal alcohol consumption as part of local wine industry, everyone can get behind. Illicit heroin use, on the other hand, is not to occur in the open. To drive away injection users, the city began streaming classical music to Heritage Square, as if the melodies of Mozart and Brahms were naturally antagonistic, like slipping on high frequency bracelets to keep mosquitos at bay. In its essence, the move was problematic.
Next came a fight between a group of citizens who wanted to set up a half-circle of tiny homes for homeless people to use, and the city and county governments who thought this plan would interfere with the work they’d been doing to create a comprehensive response to homelessness here. There have been many town hall-style meetings, angry online debates, motions and amendments to motions, and it so far has amounted to neither the construction of tiny homes nor the effective roll out of broad policy (although I keep hearing the latter is just about to happen). When I moved to town with Susanne in August 2008, mental health was handled somewhere between a few charity organizations, the county-run service for people in poverty, and the willingness of Main Street business owners to find their common interest—one gentleman really enjoyed taking cardboard to the Whitman College recycling center, so he would collect it all morning along the downtown strip before walking with his wagon to the campus.
Those verbal agreements and informal relationships have faded, giving way to evidence-based analysis and polarizing approaches to a worsening issue. We are too rural for many large grants or cooperative agreements to take interest in us, yet we are not rural enough to qualify for many federal programs. Whatever our political leanings, it is becoming clear that we only have ourselves to sort through the vulnerabilities of our local economy.
I keep wondering when we will focus on community connectedness and move past antagonizing people who oppose our ideas.