Linda and I just returned from a five-day excursion to help pay for a certain wall—or not. We enjoyed being among friendly and kind people, learning about a different history and culture, seeing amazing structures and artifacts of the past, walking about a vibrant and safe urban area and eating delicious cuisine. When we are in new places my twenty years as a local elected official in the Tulsa area cause me to reflect upon and inquire about the provision of services such as water, sewage and refuse removal, streets and public transit, etc. and how they are paid for. My evaluation of how Tulsa fares in the provision of such services has always been pretty high because we have reasonably priced and drinkable water, our trash and sewage wastes are easily disposed of, the streets are paved and without major ruts or obstacles, I travel about generally without fear, there are fire and ambulance services at the ready, and every child has a school to attend. The only exception I note for Tulsa is the lack of adequate public transportation—Tulsa Transit does well with the resources provided, but for the 20% of our population for whom private automobiles are not an option due to disability or cost, they have very poor access to the street system they help pay for but can’t enjoy as the rest of us do.
These services don’t magically happen, they must be planned for, financed and implemented—something our current state legislature seems prone to ignore. Reflecting on differences between Tulsa and the city we visited reminded me of what I said to my parents at the last wedding anniversary, their 60th in 2004, we celebrated with their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren present. I told them that they made it look easy, the “it” being raising my brother and me, making a living to provide safe and clean shelter, plentiful nutrition, medical care and many educational and recreational experiences, all while having active social lives with other families through church, neighborhood and family connections. Growing up with my parents I just assumed making all that happen would be natural and easy. As an adult in 2004, not a geezer yet, I knew better. I remember when I thanked them for the loving childhood Clayton and I experienced, and for their special relationship with our children, and then said “You made it look easy”, my mother shook her head and said “No, it wasn’t.”
Making our lives on this planet we share safe, comfortable and enjoyable is not easy. It takes planning, resources, work and not taking what works for granted. We know from experience that some services are best provided collectively. Early Tulsans in 1884 established the first school for their children because they recognized the importance of universal education in support of a prosperous community; this was done well before Tulsa was actually incorporated in 1898. In the early 1920’s Tulsa’s city government successfully constructed the Spavinaw water line that assured the clean water supply needed for the city’s growth. These public services and the others we can easily take for granted did not just happen and were not easy to get done. And once done it falls to those who follow to continue to invest in the maintenance and improvement of these essential collective services.
The city we visited was experiencing a severe water shortage. Our friends, and other expats living there year-round or seasonally, do not drink the tap water, which lately is available only by filling roof-top tanks with privately purchased water. The sewage disposal is prone to clogging so residents dispose of used toilet tissues through the trash system, not by flushing. We ventured twice by taxi outside the central core where our hotel was located, once to a popular archeological site and the other time to a home-cooked dinner arranged by my college roommate with his in-laws. During the first trip I experienced difficulty breathing and noticed several residents with face masks—air pollution is a problem. The private home that was our destination for the second trip was on an unpaved City street. It was only slightly challenging for our taxi, and the companionship and tamales were well worth the venture. I did wonder about that street two days later during a heavy rainstorm. Every major arterial, both taxi trips, had many and frequent speed bumps. Our friends leave their car parked because it hits bottom and they fear the damage. They believe the speed bumps are considered a cheaper substitute for adequate traffic signals and policing.
I try to imagine what it would have been like during my years as a Tulsa City Commissioner and City Councilor if I had to explain to citizens that they could no longer drink city water, that they could no longer flush their toilet paper, that some streets would no longer be paved, that to save tax dollars we would invest in speed bumps on our arterial streets instead of traffic lights and police, and that they should regularly wear face masks. Yet not too many decades ago, and within the memory of many I have personally known, our city did have unpaved streets, houses without indoor plumbing, regular flooding, unsafe water and the regular stench of refinery emissions. These quality of life improvements that we take for granted—that our visionary city-builders have made look easy to subsequent generations—can be easily lost. All it takes is one generation of limited-thinkers in positions of power who believe that government is inherently wasteful, that cutting taxes cures all ills, and that private markets are the best way to provide for all services. I fear we are on our way, onward to the past, in Oklahoma.
On a happier note, we enjoyed sharing songs sung with our new friends, they sharing traditional birthday and romantic ballads, and we these lyrics from Woody Guthrie:
This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and Me.
As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
As always, lunch on me for first to ID the location of the photo.