Eve Pearlman: Turn around, put your feet on the ground
You probably haven’t watched Footloose lately. If ever. It’s a 1984 movie staring Kevin Bacon as a high school senior who moves from big-city Chicago to fictional Beaumont (loosely based on real-life small-town Elmore, Oklahoma). In Beaumont, Bacon’s character, Ren, finds himself in a place where dancing – as well as rock and roll itself – have been banned.
Initially mistrusted because he dresses differently and spikes his hair, Ren takes up with the daughter of the Reverend Shaw Moore (played by John Lithgow) and eventually launches a pro-dance revolution. In the movie’s fast-footed finale, the high schoolers earn the right to dance to rock and roll at their own senior prom. Footloose!
While it’s easy to be transfixed by the time-capsule styles of the 1980s – the cascades of curls, the shoulder pads and high-riding, über tight jeans (who would have predicted that on a few decades later teen pants would sag so low?), it’s Lithgow’s Reverend Moore who sticks in the mind. Moore is a community leader who means well, but he’s also responsible for the banning of dancing when his drunken son died playing chicken on a town bridge. One can of course wonder why he didn’t ban alcohol instead of dancing – but that would be a different movie.
But can imaginary Beaumont offer any advice to real Alameda? Not dance-wise, I’m glad to say. But the two towns certainly share an ability to overreact. Ugly apartment buildings are constructed, a shopping center is built on the Bay, and the citizens ban all multiple unit residences and many take to resisting new attractions – Office Max, Target, an Orchard Supply Hardware.
In Alameda at public meetings, people regularly preface their remarks with, “I’ve lived here X years,” or “I’m a fifth generation Alamedan.” And that’s nice, but longevity doesn’t necessarily improve logic or enhance the quality of evidence. It might, but it doesn’t necessarily. And an individual’s tenure in a particular locale doesn’t necessarily make a position more valid. A newcomer may have perspective on something that an old-timer might not. An outsider’s knowledge of a subject may exceed that of someone who has stayed put. And a newcomer may come in and that say it makes no sense to, say, ban dancing.
The values of a community like Alameda can be both positive and negative. The best of community is kindness, generosity, respect. The worst is insularity and inflexibility. And we are, of course, all sometimes guilty of overreacting. Humans turn out to be imperfect. In Footloose, our preacher-hero reflects and listens – and eventually realizes that his zealotry has not made Beaumont better. He learns that life and leadership require sincere and flexible engagement with change. Moore finds out his allegiance isn’t to a simple principle – dancing is bad – but rather to a larger one – making life better for the children and in the town he shepherds.
In Alameda, our endeavor should not be to freeze the world as it is. Alameda is not a museum. It’s Shaw’s type of engagement that we desperately need. A sincere concern for all people. An understanding that we can do more together than alone, and that the goal of civic life is not merely to satisfy one’s own needs, but to build a community together.
And this process demands, from all who participate in public life – from the commenters on blogs to those who take seats at the council table – honesty, flexibility, and a constant rechecking of purpose. And maybe leaving our high school selves a little further behind, not making fun of the new guy with funny hair. Because maybe he has something positive to bring to the community.
Eve Pearlman offers her take on Alameda’s stories, big and small, every Friday on The Island. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.