Commercial Street Boardwalk: Building a neighborhood coalition

By Reinette Senum

Just over three years ago, frustrated and angry merchants and residents filled the Nevada City City Council chambers to demand that the city do something about all the people and dogs strewn across lower Commercial Street sidewalks, intimidating visitors and blocking customers from entering businesses, and ultimately causing loss of business.

Soon after, a creative solution was identified and through a public process the Boardwalk on Commercial Street was built and installed. The ultimate goal was to alleviate this situation, as well as encourage more diversity and stimulate economic development.

Many people had said, “but why would you give ‘these people’ a place to sit?” Simply put, we have given those who were sitting on the sidewalks a place to sit so you and your visiting friends and relatives would not have to step over their dogs, backpacks, and legs or turn away because you couldn’t reach the front door of your favorite eating establishment.

If we were to push “these peoples” off of these particular sidewalks, they would simply go to another sidewalk and create the same set of problems.

For the first time in over 30 years we no longer have the issues of a multitude of people regularly sitting on the sidewalks and doorsteps. For the first time, we are actually moving towards solution.

With the support of many businesses, organizations, residents, students, and police who are engaged and committed to turning things around on a step-by-step daily basis, we have become a neighborhood coalition of sorts.

In spite of a small handful of vocal opponents of the Boardwalk, it has become clear according to the official 2012 survey that the Boardwalk is doing what it was intended to do.

Sidewalk congestion has been reduced by over 90 percent and a diversity has been fostered on lower Commercial Street that includes grandparents, families, teens, children, visitors, regulars, shoppers, and husbands relaxing as their wives shop and, yes, the homeless and marginalized.

Somehow, we are getting along. This is an amazing turn around from just over two years ago.

Are there still issues on Commercial Street? You better believe there are. But as long as there are issues throughout Nevada City and in communities across the nation, there will be issues on the Boardwalk.

The Boardwalk does not exist in a vacuum and it’s important that people distinguish between Boardwalk issues and city/police issues at large. Smoking, drinking, illicit activity, and an influx of trimmigrants are all city and county-wide issues and must be addressed as such.

However, we are not deterred by what we face on our streets. We are continually developing creative ways to alleviate these challenges through daily outreach and communications. We are engaging the neighborhood as much as we can. Some want to be involved, and some do not. This is everyone’s choice.

There is a saying, you can’t control the winds, but you can adjust your sails. The Boardwalk is the epitome of this.

There is no silver bullet to Nevada City’s challenges. There will only be a series of small steps to success and the Boardwalk is currently one of those steps.

For the first time we are reclaiming interrelations within our community because we simply can no longer afford such “dangerous otherness.” On the Boardwalk, we are willing to work with whoever crosses our path.

Today, we have businesses taking ownership of the Boardwalk by bringing the chairs, tables, and umbrellas in at night and out in the morning.


We have volunteers who water and clean the Boardwalk, businesses donating plants to the planter boxes; musicians sharing their music; knitters and grandmothers sharing their craft with our youth; spontaneous chess games, students waiting for their parents to pick them up after school, as well as business owners and their employees getting to know the names of many who frequent our streets regularly.

Today respectful relationships are developing where there were few relationships before.

Commercial Street is experiencing a vitality and color it has not seen in many years: teens enjoying Open Mic Night on Mondays evenings at Café Mekka, live music during the Acoustic Thursdays series, the First Friday Art Walk, and the transformation of the Boardwalk for a Farm to Table Banquet: all of these activities converting Commercial Street into a vibrant heart of Nevada City.

Throwing shortsighted stones into the path of solutions never helps anyone. Our progress is evident and if the Boardwalk is removed, those who are no longer obstructing the sidewalk and stoops will return, and we would lose all the advancements made as well as any future opportunities for continued community building.

Reinette Senum is a former mayor of Nevada City.

Photo: Lisa Redfern (top) and Hojji Firemaker Photography (lower)

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