This weekend my wife and I made a quick trip to Olympia, Washington. Well, our focus was Lacey, a smaller town adjacent to Olympia -- sort of comparable to Salem and Keizer, I guess.
Laurel and I went to take a look at Panorama, a retirement community in Lacey. But that isn't my focus in this post.
Rather, I want to share some impressions of Olympia -- which is, of course, Washington's capital, just as Salem is the capital of Oregon.
Olympia is quite a bit smaller, about 50,000 population versus Salem's 160,000. But the population of the urban area of each state capital is more comparable: 177,000 for Olympia and 237,000 for Salem.
Through her recent comment on one of my blog posts about Panorama, I met a woman who now lives in the Lacey retirement community, her husband and she having moved there recently from their home in Olympia.
Saturday night Laurel and I had dinner with them at a nice restaurant in downtown Olympia. It was interesting to chat with them about Olympia. Contrasts with Salem were quickly apparent.
A key difference is that Olympia leans liberal in its voting. Well, Salem does also -- in general elections -- but we have a conservative Mayor and City Council majority, whereas I was told that Olympia doesn't.
This could explain why, when I told our new friends that Salem doesn't have weekend or late evening bus service, they said "What?!" Olympia's InterCity Transit runs 19 out of 20 routes on Saturday and 15 on Sunday. There's a free downtown shuttle and late night service between downtown and Evergreen College.
Meanwhile, I came home to read the local Sunday paper, finding this letter to the editor in the Statesman Journal.
(This month Salem voters rejected a payroll tax to fund evening and weekend bus service, after the Chamber of Commerce spread lies and half-truths about the much-needed improvements to our Cherriots bus system.)
Anyone who suggests that bus riders should shoulder the financial burden of the buses has it backwards.
Most cities help provide service to people who would like to ride buses because they can't afford cars or are doing their part to help protect the environment. These are your neighbors who need public transportation to get to work or who want to shop or who need medical care from those same businesses (including Salem Hospital) that rejected the funding proposal.
I have lived in many small towns and metropolitan cities in the U.S. and have to say that Salem has the worst system of public transportation of any of them.
C'mon, folks. Let's find a way for the city to beef up a public transportation system so riders can get where they need to go with direct and frequent routes so we can reduce parking/bridge issues and protect our environment.
Check out Corvallis, Portland, Eugene and any other city to learn what can and should be done to enable a good bus system.
Right on, Ms. Valdez. Today I saw city buses roaming around downtown Olympia. Yes, on a Sunday. I also saw a downtown that seemed to be more vibrant that Salem's Historic District is around noon on a Sunday.
We ate lunch at a funky cafe on downtown 5th Avenue called Darby's. The Great God Google Maps found it for me when I searched for "vegetarian restaurants Olympia." The place was packed. Both the clientele and staff leaned decidedly toward liberal, free-spirited, and non-traditional.
After we'd ordered, I went outside with my camera to take a photo of the streetside eating area. Well, not only streetside -- the tables and plantings are right in the street, taking up several parking spaces that have been sacrificed for a better use.
This sort of thing is becoming fairly common in Portland and other with-it cities. Not in Salem so far, though I recall an experiment on Court Street where some parking spaces were taken over temporarily for something or other (a bicycle corral?).
It made Olympia's 5th Avenue look quite a bit more inviting -- to have some of the street explicitly used for people, rather than cars.
Crossing the street felt markedly different in Olympia as contrasted to Salem. It felt much easier and more welcoming to head to the next block, since three lanes of speeding traffic weren't separating me from where I wanted to go.
Now, I can hear the voices of those who often respond to posts like this one: "Hey, Brian, if you love Olympia [or Portland, or Eugene, or Corvallis] so much, you should move there!"
Which is ridiculous.
Salem has a lot of problems. Salem can be a much more appealing place to live and work in. Salem has much to learn from other cities.
As the letter writer above correctly pointed out, Salem has one of the worst mass transit systems for a city of its size. Salem's downtown has much untapped potential. Indeed, so does Olympia's.
By chance, Olympia's newly elected Mayor, Cheryl Selby, walked into the restaurant where we ate with our new friends last night. They went to greet and congratulate her, having worked, I believe, for her election.
Curious about the issues in the mayoral election, a bit of Googling revealed this post by a local Olympia blogger, who had talked with both candidates. A central issue of street people hanging out downtown was reflected in these excerpts:
Overwhelmingly, the top issue on voter’s minds is the condition of downtown Olympia.
A woman who just moved here last year asked Selby about the artesian well area and said she doesn’t go down there anymore.
“That’s a situation where everything that could go wrong did go wrong…. ” started Selby. She said that they are working on programs to help many of the people who hang out down there, and explained the role of Community Youth Services. The woman was unconvinced.
Moving along, an old timer bluntly told Selby, “The only thing the city council has done in 40 years is screw up parking.”
So Olympia is by no means perfect.
My wife and I were bothered by three or four street people asking for spare change in the short time we walked around downtown. Olympia just has some qualities that Salem should consider emulating.