From the Archive — From the October 2017 issue

Political Wilderness

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Lately it seems that politicians have made increasing use of the phrase “home rule.” The rash of rhetoric, which includes President Nixon’s reorganization plan to move government closer to the people, brings to mind a recent effort by a group of Port Washington, New York, residents, myself included, who went before their town board to plead for a traffic light.

Presumably, the installation of a traffic light, on a street between a library and a school, would present an opportunity for participatory democracy in its simplest form. But a closer look reveals the contradiction that goes under the misnomer of home rule, and puts into dismal perspective the growing alienation and anonymity in suburbia.

One thinks of Port Washington as the kind of town where citizens can still feel close to government, where a man’s voice can be heard in the decision-making process, where such things as the installation of a traffic light can be accomplished without the need of strident statements and baby-carriage brigades.

But like other dots on the maps of suburban counties across the country, the town is not a political entity. It is an oppressed colony, as it was in 1775 when the local farmers declared sympathies for a revolution, protesting that they had no voice in government. Nearly 200 years later the condition is much the same.

When a group of Port Washington parents decided in September of 1970 that a light was needed on Main Street to help shepherd children between the elementary school and the library, they found a jumble of jurisdictions. The school on the south side of the street was located in an unincorporated area of Port Washington, therefore controlled by the township. The library on the north side was located in the village of Baxter Estates. The street itself was a county road, but located in and patrolled by the Port Washington Police District, which is independent of the village, town, and county. Traffic lights on county roads are the responsibility of, naturally, the county. However, parking falls under the jurisdiction of the town. As a result, the parents’ request for the traffic light, made through the library board of trustees, was passed from one jurisdiction to another. Finally, the county turned down the request and recommended the elimination of parking on a section of the street, on the spurious theory that speeding drivers and anxious children would have a better view of each other.

Since the recommendation for the parking ordinance required a hearing by the town board, the parents at last were given the rare opportunity to confront openly a political entity. The hearing was scheduled at Town Hall in Manhasset on a weekday morning in January, when most commuter husbands are at their desks in Manhattan. This little gesture of scheduling by the board was not overlooked, stiffening the determination of a half-dozen Port Washington commuters to cancel their usual obligations and fill the front rows of Town Hall. From the hard-backed benches they attacked the ordinance with prepared statements, a rarity at hearings, and demanded traffic data from a somewhat stunned board.

Let us not delude ourselves that a simple matter of just a traffic light is involved,” a parent declared. “If the town cannot serve its immediate constituency on a matter of a traffic light, one wonders what it can act on.”

The rhetorical question was never answered. The board mumbled amongst itself and, in a characteristic action, reserved decision. Two months later it approved the parking ordinance. At the same time, prompted by the aroused parents who had collected 1,700 signatures, the county had second thoughts and promised a traffic light. The clamor died down.

It has been a year since the first request was made — and there is no traffic light. Children are still darting between the library and the school, dodging cars displaying American-flag decals and driven undoubtedly by advocates of home rule.


From “The Balkanization of Suburbia,” which appeared in the October 1971 issue of Harper’s Magazine. 

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