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Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal Paperback – June 1, 2009
By Frank Schaeffer In a dream world where the shouting stopped, where of course Americans argued with each other, but where we all assumed that we were all in this together, that we all wanted a better America, that it was about building community and treating each other with decency and respect, what would our discourse sound like? I am happy to report that I can point to an example of what America could be about if sanity prevailed. People who have read my books about my life over the past 20 years know that I have a friend in left-wing Santa Monica, California, named Frank Gruber, an old-fashioned "jobs, housing, education and the environment liberal." Back in the days before I left the Republican Party (or it left me), Frank and I used to argue a lot about politics, but it never became personal. We both knew that we wanted the best for each other, for our families, for our communities, for the country and for the world -- we only disagreed about how this might best come about. Ever since I knew him, starting around 1990, Frank was involved in local politics, which in Santa Monica -- sometimes called the Peoples Republic of Santa Monica -- is taken seriously. ... Just before the 2000 election, Frank started to write a weekly column for a new website that had been founded to cover local news in Santa Monica. The column was to be about local life and politics, and it was, but it grew into something much more. A collection of columns from the years 2000 to 2004 has now been published as a book -- Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal. I recommend this book to all who enjoy a good read. It's a great example of a better way to communicate ideas than all the irrational screaming and yelling that passes for "debate" in America today. ... Urban Worrier is an extraordinary book about an ordinary life as lived in extraordinary times. I recommend reading Frank's book, Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, because it shows what the world would be like if facts, compassion and common sense ruled. It's also a great read. Urban Worrier won't be reviewed by the Times, nor will it be a brick in some culture war barricade. But it's an example of what America could be all about if we could just scale back the hate and talk to each other. Frank Schaeffer is the author of Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back and the forthcoming Patience With God: Faith For People Who Don't Like Religion (Or Atheism). For space reasons, this review has been edited. Read more at: huffingtonpost.com/frank-schaeffer/remember-what-civility-wa_b_286815.html --Huffington Post, September 15, 2009<br /><br /> --Huffington Post
Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal
By Frank J. Gruber
City Image Press, 2009, 326 pp., $16.95 paperback
REVIEW BY R. JOHN ANDERSON
Urban Worrier is a collection of Frank Gruber's columns spanning the four years from the Bush/Gore campaign in 2000 to George W. Bush's victory over John Kerry in 2004. While Gruber occasionally dips into national politics, most of his columns dive into the details of the local politics/planning, and development in Santa Monica, California.
Because so much of what the Planning Commission and the City Council of Santa Monica wrestle with is familiar, this book will strike a chord with readers throughout the US. All the classics are there: NIMBYism, hysteria over traffic and parking, conditional use permits, architectural review, granny flats, sidewalk dining. Gruber maintains that the little decisions are important; they make our cities work or not.
As the skirmishes play out, you begin to assemble a group of Santa Monica characters to root for and against. This makes it all the more satisfying when Gruber lays into the chairman of the Planning Commission or pillories a prominent NIMBY spokesman. Larger controversies, like the prospect of a Target store in downtown Santa Monica, play out with all of the gravity and drama you expect from such conflicts. While you might think that you have seen this movie before, you still really want to see how things turn out for the good people of Santa Monica.
The book is mercifully free of planning jargon. Gruber produces a number of those gems you sometimes hear in the diner the day after a heated city council meeting, such as: "Bad traffic never killed a downtown, but many were murdered in the name of fixing traffic." And "If you want to achieve something, you have to be able to leave something on the table for the other guy."
Gruber's columns take some quirky twists and turns. You will find an excellent recipe for cannelloni beans imbedded in the tale of how Trader Joe's was denied a conditional use permit to occupy a vacant space in a beloved building. The epic saga of a fence and hedge taller than the 48-inch maximum height gets more play than the downtown Target. The owners of the offending fence and hedge were the perennial opponents of everything. The ensuing stream of variances and appeals embodies every frustration the locals had with the planning process in Santa Monica.
Gruber lets you in on just how myopic and silly some of the daily items facing a planning commission can be. He makes the obvious argument that a corner store is not a paper mill. He lets you listen in on the folks who are convinced that arriving on foot to purchase a six-pack of beer will bring the end of civilization.
Frank writes about the town he knows, Santa Monica. The narrative that emerges could be about your town or mine.
R. John Anderson is a principal with Anderson Kirn Architecture + Urban Design in Chico, California. --Oct./Nov. 2009 New Urban News
By Lynne Bronstein. Frank Gruber, longtime Santa Monica resident and former Planning Commission member, has published a collection of his columns from the online Lookout News. Urban Worrier provides a glimpse into Gruber's assessment of Santa Monica s politics, urban planning, social problems, and the city s relationship to America at large.
The subtitle Making Politics Personal is also the book's disclaimer. Pulling no punches in his writing, Gruber is proud to state his opinions. He has the knowledge to back up his views, via experience with Santa Monica's often wild ride through urban issues, and from reading, traveling, and just plain living. While one may not always agree with him, one has to acknowledge Gruber's knack for pinpointing the excuses made by politicians and the manipulations that sometimes stand in for honest decisions.
Basically a liberal, especially on national issues, Gruber takes the middle ground on local issues, understanding the dangers of unlimited urban growth as well as the error of banning all growth. His style is pungent with ironic humor and a willingness to name names. "The opposition to Santa Monicans for Renters Rights must either seek professional counseling or open a branch of the Hemlock Society," he writes in regard to an anti-SMRR group's support of a flawed proposition. In describing the Santa Monica City Council's voting against a proposal for a Target store downtown, he compares the late Herb Katz s reasoning to Yogi Berra s famous remark Nobody goes there anymore-it s too crowded, and then compares another, still current Council member to Yogi Bear.
All kidding aside, Gruber constantly crusades for logical solutions to Santa Monica s problems. His pointed comments about the activities of commissioners, Council members, and community activists, try to make sense of what have often seemed like senseless actions. He analyzes the pros and cons of various civic developments, the need for reform on issues like the living wage and school funding, and the machinations behind local elections that often mar good intentions.
He defends the need for new construction as a way to bring a fresh approach to Santa Monica. "Santa Monica has its charms but they aren't architectural," he writes, listing various structural landmarks that he regards as awful public architecture. To Gruber, there are times when the defense of the old is not preservation but rather represents what he calls SMFCs (Santa Monicans Fearful of Change).
Some installments deal with personal events-Gruber's family and travels, while a few columns also take on events that rocked the nation and the world--9/11, the Farmers Market car tragedy. Just for fun, Gruber also wonders (during the perennially cloudy month of June) what can be done about Santa Monica's marine layer. "Perhaps we can have a moratorium on overcast days or at least require clearing between eleven and four."
Urban Worrier is a lively and thought-provoking guide to where Santa Monica has been during the first decade of the 2000s. It should be required reading for anyone who plans to get involved in local politics. --Santa Monica Mirror, June 18-24, 2009
About the Author
Frank Gruber is an entertainment lawyer turned local political commentator by way of a stint on the Santa Monica, California, Planning Commission. After becoming a neighborhood activist involved with the planning for the redevelopment of the Santa Monica Civic Center in the early 90s, the City Council appointed Gruber to the Planning Commission. There he made enough waves so that when a new council was elected, they voted him off. Gruber likes to say that he went from neighborhood activist to public pariah in only seven years. But what might have been the commission's loss became the news-hungry public in Santa Monica's gain, because in 2000 Gruber became a weekly columnist for recently-started The Lookout News, one of the country's first local news websites, created after Santa Monica's newspaper for more than a century, The Outlook, was closed by its out-of-town owners. Gruber has been writing his weekly column, called "What I Say," ever since, and now The City Image Press, an offshoot of the Lookout, has published his first collection of columns, Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal.
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Frank Gruber's Urban Worrier is a welcome exception. Gruber has collected four years of his columns for the Santa Monica Lookout News that chronicle the ups and downs of local politics and governments, as well as charting his own life. Gruber dives into the details: There's fascinating chapter and verse about hypocritical local activists who'd ceaselessly sought to restrict others' use of their property, yet battled endlessly to maintain the illegal height of their own fence. Gruber unearths the truly unique history of Seaview Terrace. But he also keeps his eye on the big picture--what do the City's accumulated decisions mean for the direction of the community. He (correctly) predicted 10 years ago that the City's rejection of a Target store--"too much traffic"--would lead to a radically upscaled downtown.
Gruber's writing is sprightly and pointed, but he avoids namecalling. It's a fine example of the civilized discussion he hopes to foster in the city. Gruber is just as hard on his putative left-wing allies as he is on NIMBYs and the clueless local right (which does things like distribute leaflets saying "Do you know Downtown Santa Monica smells of urine?"!).
This book will be most interesting to those who know Santa Monica--I don't live there but have visited a number of times. But Santa Monica is, and was, a city with contentious politics, wrestling with what kind of place it wanted to be when it grew up. Gruber calls Santa Monica "a post-sprawl city," a city trying to function as the great 20th Century oil binge is ending. Certainly anyone in California, and really anyone interested in U.S. local government, could find much that resonates with them. They should read it.
Los Angeles residents may know these characters from the weekly broadcast of the City Council meetings, which are heard on a major NPR station throughout Southern California. As a "progressive" city (often called "the People's Republic of Santa Monica") wrestles with issues such as homelessness, rental housing, education funding, soccer fields, and whether to allow a Trader Joe's store to open on Wilshire Boulevard, liberal values are claimed by those on all sides. Gruber brings his knowledge of constitutional law (and his wife's expertise in philosophy) to evaluate these issues and weigh in from a perspective that is informed by the national news and his international travel. In a city where the political spectrum is skewed, and a liberal Democrat is considered conservative, Gruber makes Santa Monica face international political realities, at least on Mondays (when his column appears in the online newspaper, the Lookout.)
Santa Monica, along with Pasadena and Los Angeles itself, is one of the oldest cities in Southern California. The mix of old-school neighborhoods, coupled with post-modern urbanism, makes Santa Monica endlessly interesting in a historic society/tourist sort of way. Here is the house that Frank Gehry built! There is the home of Marion Davies, actress and long-time mistress of William Randolph Hearst! And down this street is where Christopher Isherwood practiced Hinduism! If you're coming to Santa Monica as a tourist or transplant, Urban Worrier will give you a sense of what you're in for when you leave your hotel and venture out into Ocean Park, Sunset Park, Mid-City, Wilshire-Montana, North of Montana, Pico Neighborhood, or the extremely wide beach.
One reason to buy and keep this book is that it preserves some of the events that shaped our lives during the early 2000's. Where else have you read a place-based piece on September 11, where the place is not New York, or one of the other Ground Zero sites in the east? Gruber writes of the horrible tragedy in 2003, when an elderly driver plowed his big automobile through the crowded Wednesday Farmers' Market, and remembers the 1994 earthquake on its 10th anniversary.
Urban Worrier is a must-have for Santa Monica residents and their neighbors, but it is an entertaining read for anyone who has sat for hours waiting for a chance to speak at their local Planning Commission, or spent way too many hours in a PTA meeting.