Why spurt in violent crime at home?

CUERNAVACA, MEXICO — Despite all the fear mongering about south of the border crime, it’s safer right here than at home.

On Tuesday, a man identified as a transient was arrested about a block from our home in Nevada City for allegedly brandishing a small-caliber automatic gun in the parking lot of Citizens bank.

Earlier in the week, an alleged armed robbery and rape occurred at a Flyers gas station in Grass Valley, also close to home. The assailant, supposedly an illegal immigrant, worked at McDonalds. Like many of you, we frequent these places.

What’s up with the spurt in violent crime in our small towns? On the surface, it’s the worst recession in decades, leading to some desperate actions. No doubt about that.

But that’s just *part* of the problem: We also set the stage for it — in both the private and public sectors.

First of all, where’s the enforcement of existing policies? I’m surprised McDonalds would hire an illegal immigrant. A background check is a common hiring practice. Who knows what it would have turned up?

Not all illegal immigrants commit crimes, but this incident will fan the flames of the emotional immigration debate.

In the other case, our area long has been a *magnet* for transients, partly stemming from lax enforcement of existing laws in the public sector. It’s an ongoing problem.

We’re a tolerant bunch and offer good weather, parks and lots of places for transients to hang out. I know it’s true in our hometown, in the parks and under bridges. Better policing would help.

The welfare roles are growing in our area, faster than some neighboring counties. We need welfare programs, but we also need to hold our agencies more accountable for the results. A “revolving door” policy doesn’t help much.

The biggest systemic problem, though, is a lack of higher-paying jobs: If we created more of them, we’d help snuff out some of the problems. We need to diversify our economy beyond minimum-wage jobs, tourism and well-off retirees.

I find it ironic that some of our residents are riding a bus to Sacramento for a “tea party” tax protest on Wednesday — fueled with blow-by-blow media coverage — when a bigger, more relevant problem is right under our collective noses.

llegal drugs: Is the problem supply or demand?

CUERNAVACA, MEX. — Even the polite discussions here inevitably turn to the drug problem: America’s demand and Mexico’s supply.

In *Grass* Valley, I point out, we support a “shop locally” campaign for food, truck tires, grass/pot, meth and anything else. Pot is our county’s No. 1 cash crop, as we all know — creating an “emerald triangle” linking our county with the ones in Mendocino with San Francisco.

In the United States, many government, civic and business leaders — including prominent ones in our county — like to blame Mexico for the drug problem: being a major supplier, with violent gangs peddling cocaine and other hard drugs.

They paint images of marauding bands of gun-toting bandits, who will kidnap your family on a Mexico holiday — or infiltrate rural America during pot harvest season to guard the commercial crop.

Many Mexicans and American “expats” you meet here see it differently: The United States doesn’t know how to kill the demand for illegal drugs. Our U.S. drug policy has failed miserably, in law enforcement, in the courts and in education.

They point to conflicting state and federal drug laws. No kidding.

In truth, the Mexican government recently has been cracking down on its drug lords, leading to thousands of deaths in the past year, as the gangs battle the military — and one another. Many of them are carrying guns smuggled to Mexico from the United States.

The fighting is hardly country-wide, however: Much of it is just across the border, in Tijuana.

When it comes to the illegal drug problem, it’s time to stop pointing fingers and accept blame on both sides.

The drug problem will be one of the biggest challenges facing the Obama administration. Last month’s visit to Mexico by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered some promise of a better working relationship between the two countries.

Gardening and groundskeeping: a lost art

Rake made of sticks, not plastic
Rake made of sticks, not plastic
CUERNAVACA, MEX. — Except for major league baseball fields, groundskeeping in America is a lost art. Most of it consists of the gas-powered “mow and blow.”

Not here: Gardening is practiced the old-fashioned way, with push mowers, clippers and rakes made of sticks. It’s classic “green” gardening.

PowerUp-NC, which wrote an exhaustive two-part series on pollution caused by power mowers, would be pleased. But the results are pleasing to all.

Gardening like this is an ongoing process. You can’t knock it out in an hour or two.

I’m a big gardening fan, so I talked a guy into letting me work on a patch of lawn with his mower. It’s a cool commercial-grade device, with the catch basket in the front.

I used to mow laws as a kid with a lighter rear-loading version.

His worked much better. Just don’t let the grass get too long.

To heck with ‘staycations’

CUERNAVACA, MEX. —Many of our county’s residents (not just Jim Keil) like to hang out south of the border in the wintertime or year-round.

We like getting away from the inevitable late winter frost — but more important, showing our son that there’s more to Mexican culture than Maria’s in Grass Valley.

Mexico is cheaper than it has been in years, thanks to a deep recession, a generous 13-to-1 peso-to-dollar exchange rate, and the fear-mongering in the media about getting kidnapped by a drug cartel.

Aeromexico just launched SFO to Mexico City flights, with 2-for-1 fares on new Boeing 737s.

We’re spending Spring Break at Las Mananitas in Cuernavaca, about an hour from Mexico City. In the “go-go” days, this was an expensive hotel. Not now, though, thanks to deep discounting.

We were here more than 10 years ago, and thankfully, not much has changed at this classic place: exotic birds, including peacocks, parrots and flamingos, roam lovely grounds.

The food is authentic — chilaquiles for breakfast — with gracious service.

The margaritas are served straight-up with tequila, Cointreau and fresh lime juice — no mix. You sit on the lawn in big wooden chairs and sip them. The patios surrounding you are made of stones, not stamped concrete.

Cuernavaca is a weekend getaway for well-off Mexico City residents and a growing colony for retired Americans. Hernan Cortes retired here, and the Palacio de Cortes has some superb Diego Rivera murals.

Our son is having a blast, drawing pictures of peacocks, swimming in the pool and boning up on his Spanish, which he is learning in a weekly class at school. He gets up close to the parrots — but not too close.

All of this is less than a trip to the Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland — a reminder of the need to get creative in an era of overbearing commercialism.

Amigos & Co. of GV to replace Dos Banditos in NC

Here’s a small-town scooplet: Amigos & Co., a popular Mexican restaurant on E. Main in Grass Valley, is soon expanding into downtown Nevada City.

The restaurant is opening where Dos Banditos used to be located, next to The Stonehouse. Dos Banditos grabbed the spotlight for opposing a Beach Hut deli nearby because it was a chain.

Don’t expect as much drama this time around, though. The new owner is a button-down guy and makes a delicious chile relleno. Mexican food is a good business formula in a slumping economy, and Amigos & Co. is more authentic than most of what they dish up around here.

The expansion is another example of a successful local merchant expanding in a downturn, when you can lower your costs and grow a loyal customer base.

Must read: A call for ‘democracy’ in our towns

Editor’s note: One reason I enjoy writing this blog — an avocation, not a vocation, mind you — is the thoughtful, signed responses I’ve been receiving: about 170 of them in less than three months. It clearly shows the demand for civil, intelligent dialogue in our communities on relevant, deeper issues — something I’ve believed for a long time. A good example is the response of Steve Frisch, president of the Sierra Business Council, to my blog post “Go wider rather than deeper” in small towns. I republished his response here because it’s so insightful. Put your partisan politics and preconceived notions aside for a moment and just *listen* to the message. You can be sure people are going to be talking about this more publicly in the coming months. I doubt you’ll be reading it in any of the small town newspapers — too touchy of a subject with the “powers that be” and advertisers — so I’m glad to be raising it here. It makes me wonder about the market for a nonprofit, serious-minded newspaper somewhere in the Sierra, funded with many small contributions. The background is here. I’ll ponder that one. Anyway, this is *exactly* the kind of thoughtful dialogue I hope to help facilitate. Thank you Steve and others.


Thanks for sharing this insightful article. I the last 6 months I have spent a great deal of my time traveling to the small town in the Sierra Nevada usually catalyzed specific requests to help identify economic strategies to adapt to the recession. There are about 150 communities with populations between 100-2500, and 30 with populations between 2500 and 30,000, in our region. I am hearing about the “decline of civic infrastructure” everywhere I go.

I am noticing that in many cases “decline” may be the wrong word. There is another cultural and demographic trend playing into the change we are seeing: we are witnessing an intergenerational transfer of power within our civic infrastructure concomitant with our recession.

The traditional economic power centers in our small towns (chambers of commerce, economic development commissions, large single employers and old line multi-generational families) supported the more traditional economic development strategies of growth for growths sake and many younger people are seeing that as a failed strategy.

The intergenerational transfer is driving key changes that civic leaders should be aware of and could adapt to in order to improve results.

1) There is a strong desire for greater ‘democracy’ driven by discontent with the old order in our communities. Many younger business people and community leaders, more attuned to the values of a younger generation, want a greater say for more people in civic processes. Many people believe that unresponsive government has disempowered large segments of our communities, business organizations have valued the status quo over change, and we have allowed oligarchic decision-making processes.

2) There is a growing respect for and acceptance of diversity in class, ideology, political philosophy, gender, race and thought. New leaders are put off by divisive language and personal attacks often seen as a lack of respect for equity.

3) There is a changing definition of leadership with the old order possessing a command and control leadership style where power is rarely shared unless forced and position and turf is jealously protected. The younger leaders preferring a collective leadership model where power is deeply shared and decisions are more collaboratively developed.

As the WSJ aptly points out, civic leadership has been concentrated in too few hands. I suspect that we have also allowed the baby boom generation, my generation, too hold too much power for too long. We need to learn how to share power.

If we can embrace a key business and ecological theory, that diversification of a system creates resilience and increases adaptability to new conditions, we may be able to turn the current recession, and 20% correction in the global economy, into an opportunity for civic improvement.

The following quotes are from an August 2007 article in the Harvard Business Review titled The Next 20 Years: How Customer and Workforce Attitudes will Evolve, by Neil Howe and William Strauss:

Defining the baby boom generation (born 1943-1960 now age 47-64), “…Boomers loudly proclaimed their scorn for the secular blueprints of their parents—institutions, civic participation, and team playing—while seeking inner life, self-perfection, and deeper meaning.”

Defining Generation X (born 1961-1981 now age 26-46), “…Xers learned early on to distrust institutions, starting with the family, as the adult world was rocked by the sexual revolution, the rise in divorce, and the R-rated popular culture. …..After navigating the sexual battlegrounds of AIDS and blighted courtship rituals as young adults, Xers have dated cautiously and married late. Many of them have begun to construct the strong families that they missed in their childhood. In jobs they prefer free agency over corporate loyalty, with three in five saying they want to be their own boss. They are already the greatest entrepreneurial generation in American history; their high tech savvy and marketplace resilience have helped America prosper in the era of globalization.”

And their final conclusion on Gen X, “Gen X political leaders will seek pragmatic, no-nonsense solutions and will argue far less than the Boomers ever did. Having grown up in a time when walls were being torn down, families dissolved and loyalty ties discarded, they will focus on reconstructing the social frameworks that produce civic order. They will waste no time on the obviously insoluble and won’t fuss with over the annoying. To them, the outcome will matter more than the method, money or rhetoric used to get there.”

Gen X, empowered by the election of the first Gen X President, wants results, resilience, a shift in American values and the return to sanity in our politics and leadership ethic. This is exactly the sort of pragmatism and energy we should empower to overcome the stagnant leadership and self-serving turf wars that inhibit many small towns. If we can connect the Gen X desire for democracy, diversity and shared leadership maybe we can finally start making some progress.