Free to be UCD and me

Ken Widmann is a Davis resident still waiting for his toad to emerge from the tunnel’s other side.

So the editor suggested I write a weekly column about Davis. Can’t we move on, I thought. The recall was ages ago.

Turns out, not that Davis.

If you’ve heard anything about “The People’s Republic of Davis,” you’ve probably heard the infamous stuff. That it’s a college town with a $14,000 tunnel built expressly for toads; a former mayor once suggested city-owned plantings contain only fruit trees as a cost-effective way to feed the homeless; potholes are deemed “historic”; and a woman once was awakened by police and slapped with a citation for snoring too loudly.

A lot of that stuff is overblown. Fact is, simple surgery could have solved her problem. To be sure, some of those events are indeed true, some not so much. I’m no expert. For someone who’s lived here the better part of four years, I’m pretty ignorant of Davis history. But I have learned that all of the above occurred during the relatively short reign of Julie Partansky, who left the mayor’s office seven years ago.

As far as I can tell, Davis is a warm and friendly city that doesn’t neatly conform to myth. It’s a decidedly quirky place, with a vibrant, occasionally contentious mix of students, aging hippies, young families, and transplanted Bay-Area types. Like any other ag-built town, there are plenty of dusty pickup trucks. Only here, they’re more likely to be flying “Impeach Bush” stickers. Sure, there are two stores that sell Birkenstocks, but neither will measure your carbon footprint.

Yet Davis is also the place where when I took our poor, 16-year-old, cancer-riddled and obviously dying cat to the veterinarian—a nice enough older chap rocking a white ponytail—he suggested a first course of action: feline massage. This, he said, could be augmented by a healer—a local woman who would “talk” to our pet to find out exactly what was wrong with her.

I moved here from Berkeley, and to my eyes Davis has most of the good parts—progressive spirit; interesting, engaged populace—minus the traffic, urban decay and dried urine of its more celebrated (and reviled) sister.

First, an overview: Davis began in the late 19th century as a Southern Pacific depot. It continues to sound like a railroad town, and the odd freighter lumbering through Fifth Street can gridlock downtown for 20 minutes. Empty boxcars parked on the Second Street rails still beckon the adventurous and the drunk to hop on and play Woody Guthrie for a day.

The depot and its surroundings were incorporated in 1907 as Davisville. The name proved too cumbersome, so people began calling it the ’Ville.

“Good day,” locals would greet each other, “perchance you might sign my petition against the introduction of the telephone machine, as it will render our local independent telegraph service obsolete here in the ’Ville?”

After France’s showing in the Great War, ’Ville was deemed insufficiently Gallic, too pale a tribute, so the name was changed to Davis.

Today the population is around 64,000. Tack on 30,000 or so university students and you’ve got a total population nearing 100,000, of which at least two dozen are Republican.

For an outdoorsy place, Davis doesn’t have much to offer in the way of natural beauty. Landlocked, featureless, with no real bodies of water except one piddly creek. Flatter than a pressed flower, Davis has no hiking to speak of. (There’s a single trail that runs along Putah Creek for about three relatively dismal miles, before spilling you out beneath an overpass).

Most notoriously, Davis proudly boasts more bicycles than people. In fact, if you were to stretch out all of the bicycle tires in Davis to form a single knobby line, it would reach from Amarillo to St. Louis, and you would be one exhausted moron.

I made that up; you are probably no moron.

Next week I will explore Davis’ vibrant bike culture, from a handlebar-mounted laptop. See you then.