Exactly Whose Well Being Did Santa Monica Summit, anyway?
City holds a one-day, $250,000 "Wellbeing Summit" to discuss how happy the city's residents are, which made many residents unhappy.
November 27, 2019
The City of Santa Monica just held a one-day, quarter million dollar "Wellbeing Summit" to discuss how happy the city's residents are, which made many residents unhappy. I'm not sure the city understands why, and the darker question is, do they even care why.
Four years ago, Santa Monica decided to become the first city in the world to measure the wellbeing of their citizens. Back then, we had a lot to be happy about. We were only the 40th most crime-ridden city in the state, per capita, instead of being number three now, according to the 2018 FBI crime statistics. Kids could use beach bathrooms without encountering sex for drugs trade, and play in the sand without fear of stepping on used hypodermic needles. There were seats in the library for them to sit down, that weren't filled with vagrants watching porn. Stabbings at the library and drug deals and naked people were well, unheard of. They could go to Chess Park and play chess, instead of seeing vagrants masturbate and shoot up. Bike chop shops and Typhus carrying fleas at Reed Park didn't exist. But toy stores did, and baby stores, and kid's indoor gyms and play places. Kids could don 3-D glasses and watch eclipses at Virginia Park, instead of hordes of rats scuttling by. They could play at Hotchkiss Park, without getting slammed in the face by a beer bottle. And when they walked to school, they didn't have to dodge piles of human feces on the sidewalks.
Women could jog at Palisades Park, and walk down Broadway without being chased, grabbed, or attacked. The Promenade did not reek of urine, and elderly people could walk there without getting punched in the face, or kicked in the back. There were trash cans everywhere that weren't overflowing, or missing, with piles of garbage on the ground where they used to be. Mom and Pop stores and restaurants still dotted the city, as did one of a kind places like Evett's Model Shop, and Angel's Attic Dollhouse Museum. Main Street didn't look like a ghost town. Lincoln Blvd didn't have large developments under construction every few blocks, creating more traffic than any city of its size in the nation. People weren't jumping to their death off downtown parking structures, and bodies weren't being plucked from alleys and beaches. There were so many things to be happy about then in Santa Monica, that it's a wonder the city felt the need to measure anyone's well being.
But they sent out surveys, with questions that asked about none of the above. They mixed it in with city data, added in a dab of social media, and a few dollops of Zillow. That recipe created the "Wellbeing Index", and the resulting summit (and party at the Fairmont for presenters and providers) at SMC's College of Art and Design. It was clearly a celebration of sorts, with flowing fountains, free food, a jazz ensemble, and dancing Inky, the costumed octopus that is the unofficial mascot of Santa Monica. All around were shiny happy people laughing, as they made their way into seminars such as "Wellbeing Imaginarium: An Interactive Visioning Experience, Create your own city of Wellbeing", "Civic Love--Learn how YOU can make a change in YOUR community, starting now"(Don't know why "1994's" "Ministry of Love popped into my head"),"Jam Session for Changemakers and Community Organizers! Finding & Funding your idea of a Wellbeing Microgrant" and "Creative Resistance Through Printmaking".
There were some sign-bearing protestors on the perimeter who were already practicing creative resistance. This made the shiny, happy people unhappy, and they told them to leave, several times. They said they were making people uncomfortable, were blocking the vendors, that this was a private event, and they were not allowed to sit down. One even had a $100 sign stolen, which she bought out of her own pocket, and was not funded by a microgrant. I will leave you to guess which one it was. Curiously, another Orwellian phrase comes to mind, "If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear".
Perhaps City manager Rick Cole was thinking something similar, as he told the protestors that the First Amendment, that little ol' thing, gave them the right to be there.
Inside, the workshops continued, with titles such as "Alexa, Can You Hear me? Gender equality through design," "DIY Human: A Connective Experience that breaks down walls to build Culture and Connection", and Gross National Happiness: How Bhutan Rewrote their Constitution to make happiness the goal of governments". Because, as City Manager Rick Cole told Bloomberg, "The goal of a city is not to provide services. It is well being."
Now many residents would disagree with that. City services such as trash cans and regular collections may not be cutting edge, but they do keep the streets free of garbage and filth. Vermin extermination is not sexy, but would cut down on the rat infestation that is spreading disease. More street lights, use of cameras, and Police foot patrols may not be the image a progressive city wants to portray, but it sure would keep residents safer. And don't these city services better one's wellbeing?
At the closing session, Mr. Cole said their findings showed that only 20 percent of residents felt the city was listening to their concerns. Let's see, 45 seminars, and not one dealt with homelessness, sky high housing prices, crime through the roof, traffic nightmares, and construction everywhere you look. Mr. Cole, these are the things residents are worried about, and are talking about. And not, with all due respect "Be an Upstander: How to Have Brave Conversations." But I am having the brave conversation here, because I know this city still has a soul. I will keep the faith, because I fiercely, unabashedly, and unapologetically, love Santa Monica. Don't lose hope, and never give up. Because, in the words of the immortal George Orwell, "In the face of pain, there are no heroes."