Out with the blue, in with the green, part two

It wasn’t enough that little progress has been made. A Zerby supporter argues students made the slums in which they live.

John Hoff

It wasn’t enough, apparently, to say “OUT, OUT DAMNED ZERBY” and hope the political demons that haunt Ward 2 would be gone by the power inherent in the name of City Council member-elect Cam Gordon of the Green Party.

It was a close election, after all, and City Council member Paul “Party Pooper” Zerby is still in power along with a hellish host of apologists and explainers who assert Zerby isn’t anti-student at all. They would go so far as to argue Zerby has been “vilified” all these years by the Daily and misinformed columnists. The “wish list” from my last column is part of their argument. One thing I wished for was a memorial to students who tragically died in a fire, students who “paid the ultimate price” for city neglect of housing issues.

In fact, it seems likely that the death of those students was very much a factor in Paul Zerby deciding not to run for re-election. During the recent election, discussion of the fire was politely muted and moderate. Nobody laid fault for the deaths upon the metaphorical doorstep of any particular city council member or inspections department. And that’s not the intent of this column. The deaths were an overwhelming tragedy. But the events leading to those deaths, and how the deaths are historically memorialized, are still politically relevant.

Be careful what you wish for, you might get… something not quite what you wanted. I wished aloud for a memorial to mark the site of this tragic fire. It turns out there is a plaque and a tree planted in a park not very far away. But the plaque contains no names of the victims. The plaque mentions nothing about a fire and certainly nothing about crummy housing or lack of inspections. The plaque expresses a hope for, well, community. It could literally memorialize anything.

I used to work for a historical society. Yes, as a matter of fact, I helped to write substantial portions of “Douglas County In Pictures” and was involved in the effort to save the home of Knute Nelson, a former Minnesota governor and Norwegian immigrant. I know firsthand that history is not a dry and boring topic; not when you start talking about putting up markers and memorials to something people still remember, something that still has political ramifications. I remember one small historical marker in Alexandria, which, for a period of time in the 1980s, was constantly hit with pink or red lipstick graffiti. The plaque memorialized the founder of a radical newspaper, a man who called bullshit on the established powers-that-be. I always figured the pink was for pinko, the red for communism. Real historical markers get a reaction. Real memorials are remembered.

Do not tell me, as you would tell a little child with a holiday wish list, “You already have one of those, which is quite good enough.” One dark night in September, I walked to the very house itself. There was nothing to distinguish that house from the other houses. The current memorial is not next to the house where one might look up and think, “This is the spot where my fellow students died.” The current memorial does not make one think, “This is the very house, a house subject to inspection like the house or apartment where I live… and are things really much better now than they were back then?”

There should be a more detailed, more realistic and factually substantive memorial which might also make mention of the living tree planted in memory of the students some distance away. My wish list stands. I want a memorial to those students, naming their names; a memorial which actually explains the real and awful deal instead of expressing vague hopefulness. With Zerby out, out, out, maybe it can happen.

Speaking of words that make everything clear, I would like to share with you a portion of one Zerby supporter’s eloquent e-mail defense of Zerby’s record, as follows: “So much for our efforts to get the city to more regularly inspect rental properties, which is now slated for every 5 years, down from practically never.” And, of course, “So much for our efforts to get student tenants to understand that they are also part of the equation on how these properties are run and what they become ” if you help make the slum, then that is the legacy you are creating for the peers behind you.”

Ouch. Students making slums, indeed. Inspections every five years described as PROGRESS? With “friends” like this in office, who needs enemies? The horrible historical memory of Paul Zerby, DFL, Ward 2, will probably be sufficient for the Green Party to win the next Ward 2 election as well, even if Cam Gordon is only able to advance modest progress in the next few years. In fact, maybe students in the neighboring wards will also become galvanized and begin to say, “Out with blue, in with green.”

John Hoff has mailed paperwork to join the Green Party and has been a Green Party member in the past. He welcomes comments at [email protected]