There are some in our community who would have us believe a wider trail along the beautiful West Bay is merely for tourists; that no resident of Traverse City will ever benefit from it and that city staff, Progressive AE and other area experts and leaders are pushing for this only to attract more tourists. Some claim that, by advocating to widen the trail, all those listed above don’t care about people lower on the rungs of society’s ladder.
There was a time when I wasn’t that well-off. The mortgage was hard to pay, food was pretty minimal and my main mode of travel was bicycle. I rode the trail along West Bay daily to get to and from work because it was uninhabited in the early morning, often faster than driving, and it was beautiful. Even today, in my better (while not living in an ivory tower) financial state I still ride it to get to many westside places. Unfortunately, this trail expansion benefits only tourists.
This argument is a form of moral shaming that is, itself, morally shameful. To negatively connect one thing, a trail expansion, to another thing, disdain for lesser well-to-do people, is just too much of a simplification for me.
Worse yet, the moral shaming is thoughtlessly lobbed at the city staff, elected officials and other contributors who have dedicated their lives to making Traverse City a better place. I find the lack of critical thought disappointing. It’s knee-jerking reactionism.
Traverse City may as well not build any nice things because a tourist may enjoy it at some point.
City staff understand that events and issues are nuanced. Humans are capable of holding two or more thoughts, feelings or stances at the same time. One thought doesn’t always make another, different thought true. I think we need to expand the trail for all. Does it make me morally reprehensible that I want a trail expansion along the bay? No, because, at the same time, I understand the financial struggle that is experienced across America by many people and I do my best to advocate for bettering their lives.
This creation of a villain where there is none puts city staff, advocates, consultants and leadership into a position of having to explain the benefits of a trail expansion and also why they don’t hold in their minds a made-up negative connection. It must be exhausting to be required to do such mental gymnastics.
From afar, it’s easy to vilify anyone, even when their actions aren’t villainous. And these words from afar reek of a local populist rhetoric. But words are easy. That’s why this local populism, this moral shaming, this oversimplification of events is disappointing.
Rather than vilifying anyone, we might think critically and realize there are no villains beyond our own creation. Then, instead, we may be able to act toward creating a better city for us all.
Shea O’Brien is an advocate for inclusive housing and the future of Traverse City. He lives in Traverse City.