Roads. What is a road? Can a road cause conflict? Can roads cause radical behavior? Can they divide people? Communities? Towns? States? Nations? Roads: they can change communities. I know; it happened to my community.
I live on a steep winding hill that overlooks the center of our town. To get there, go up Lewis Street, past the Betsy and Tacy houses. (These houses were made famous by the Betsy Tacy series books by Maude Heart Lovelace). When you turn right on Sumner Hill Road 15 houses are reached after climbing four bends. The hill has placed a terrible hardship on my life. To go to school, get ice cream, or whatever it may be I have to walk up and down the long and steep road. The only good thing about this geographic isolation is that it has made us a tightly-knit community. Sumner Hill Road is the only access to and egress from our neighborhood. We have attended baby showers, graduations, holiday parties, and funerals as a neighborhood community. Sumner Hill Road has always been pretty serene. That is, until three years ago.
After 50 years Sumner Hill Road was starting to feel the effects of Mother Nature. The road had never had a major renovation in its entire existence. The retaining wall, holding up the side of the hill, was crumbling. (Figure 1). The myriad pot holes and non-existent curbs were evident even to Mrs. Jensen, my neighbor who is blind. The city finally decided to focus on fixing Sumner Hill Road. However, it turned out that each neighbor had his or her own idea about what should be done.
The city council decided to call a meeting. During this meeting they assigned the city engineer, along with others, to look at the road, and assess the damages. Not only did the road, retaining wall, and curves need to be fixed, the plumbing and sewage was corroded and also needed an overhaul.
Two weeks later, at another city council meeting, the city engineer laid out two plans. City council members were present, along with street residents. The project was estimated at $1.2 million. To help fund the necessary repairs, the city wanted $250,000 from the 15 street residents. The first plan was to split the cost up equally. The other was to split up cost by lot area. For most households, the cost difference under the two plans varied significantly. Many neighbors had strong opinions about which plan they preferred.
In the neighborhood a main proponent of each view emerged. The primary advocate of the equal cost scenario was Mr. Tyrone Williams. Mr. Williams was a family man. I played with his kids when we were younger. He was always there to take us ice skating, fishing, and sledding. Mr. Williams felt everyone was getting the same service, and thus should have to pay the same. He held this view because we were all getting new sewage, new curbs, and a new retaining wall. The advocate for the cost per area scenario was Mr. Abe Menszer. Mr. Menszer was unknown to me. I had never talked to him besides the one time he got irritated with me for playing on his curb. He kept his business to adults. Mr. Menszer believed people with larger lots should have to pay more. This was because neighbors with larger lots have more curb and wall space. Both men were very passionate about their views; it seemed as if they were moved as much by ideology as by cost-related concerns. They both came around the neighborhood with a petition asking neighbors to support their view.
People began choosing sides, a couple for reasons of cost, and many according to ideology. Many were attracted to the equal cost scenario, perhaps because of the solidarity it offered. Mr. Menszer was getting more vocal about his views. He agreed to talk to the Mankato Free Press for a story on the situation on Sumner Hill Road. Many neighbors were disappointed about this and felt the situation was divisive enough without the local newspaper doing a story on it. Word got out that both sides were very optimistic leading up to the final city council meeting on what should be done. Nobody was looking forward to the meeting, but everyone made sure to attend.
The council meeting began with an immediate vote. Both Mr. Williams and Mr. Menszer smiled, confident that their view would win. The vote took place. The council members tallied it up: seven to seven. A tie? How could this be? There were 15 members. The council members looked at everyone in confusion. Dr. Charles Knutson stood up. Dr. Knutson used to occasionally take care of me when I was younger. I hated going over to his house because he always quizzed me on math, English, and science. What 7-year-old cared about the cosine of π/6 anyway? The Harvard graduate expounded on his reason for abstaining. He discussed his dislike of Mr. Menszers actions, including getting the press involved. Yet he signed both petitions so as not to alienate any friends and neighbors. Finally, though, he had to vote. His uncharacteristically slow and halting speech was a testament to the difficulty of the decision he had to make. He finally explained that he came to the conclusion to vote for the equal cost scenario because he thought this was the most amicable solution for the neighborhood. He cast his vote.
Menszer looked shocked but was able to recover. He stood up and said, I have papers here to document that I will sue if the city opts for the equal cost scenario. Most neighbors were stunned by this. My mother finally managed to reply that as adults the neighbors should be able to talk about this and come to a consensus without legal intervention. After much discussion neighbors who were previously for the cost per area scenario changed their views because they realized that this conflict could destroy the social fabric of the neighborhood. Finally, an overwhelming majority convinced Mr. Menszer not to sue and to agree with the equal cost scenario. Sumner Hill Road could now be renovated.
Three years later, Sumner Hill Road is finally repaired. However, more importantly, our emotional feelings towards one another are still mending. Weve started to have neighborhood gatherings again, but there is still some apprehension about who will come to the gatherings and whether there will be any disagreements at them. Can a road divide a community? Yes. There is no question that a simple road can divide communities. It is no exaggeration to say that this conflict about how to fix our road effectively brought us to the brink of a neighborhood civil war. Yet by placing neighborhood community and well-being above ourselves, we were able to avoid what would surely have been a more unpleasant situation in the neighborhood.