Ghent (707) 825-7088


Imagine a town with nearly as many
Green Party voters as Republicans. Where a series of marshes
treats wastewater biologically. Where a company called Sunfrost
builds the most efficient refrigerators in the world. You’re
talking Arcata, California. This coastal college town just made
national headlines as it became the first in the country to elect
a Green Party majority to its city council. Nestled behind the
"Redwood Curtain" 280 miles north of San Francisco,
Arcata is best known for its large population of no-longer-hip
"hippies" and its close proximity to The Emerald
Triangle–the nation’s notorious marijuana-growing region to the

But Arcata is a town of contrasts.

Logging and fishing once dominated
Arcata, but unsustainable use of natural resources, combined with
the rise of Humboldt State University, led the town in a
different direction. Most of today’s residents were drawn to
Arcata by the college campus or the tolerant atmosphere it
created. But most of the surrounding Humboldt County lacks
Arcata’s tolerance. Even Sheriff Dennis Lewis calls the town
"the People’s Republic of Arcata." And since much of
Humboldt County surrounding the town has made
anti-environmentalism a lifestyle, an island mentality pervades
Arcata politics like the mixture of fog and pulp-mill emissions
in the air. The progressives here traditionally were deemed such
for their ability to refrain from saying anything overtly right
wing and listen to people’s opinions without getting hostile. If
you recycle and take short showers you’re a shoe-in for public
office, as long as you also support "ecological"
housing-development frauds, more police cars, and logging in the
city-owned forest.

For the daring, bumpersticker
piety replaces activism, while activists over 30 isolate
themselves in the comfort of their particular franchise-like

A small but vocal minority of
conservatives finds its base of support in Arcata’s business
community, and the progressives always go out of their way to
avoid offending them. In Arcata politics, nothing is worse than
being yelled at by a room full of flag-wavers. Because business
people and their allies–including many liberals–found the sight
of homeless gathered in public places distasteful, the outgoing
city council last year sued Food Not Bombs, a group that serves
free food daily on the town square.

The mayor at the time, a
self-described "progressive" named Victor Schaub,
supported the lawsuit and even endorsed a right-winger, Carl
"I’ll-Come-After-You" Pellatz, in the recent election.
Pellatz patronized and threatened those who opposed a "big
box" retail store and an 800-unit housing development moving
to town.

While the threat of a Taco Bell
opening near Humboldt State University results in daily
politically motivated vandalism against the franchise, several
fast-food chains on the north side of town lie out of sight, mind
and harm near Louisiana-Pacific’s particle-board mill, where most
progressives rarely travel.

The mainstream press touting
Arcata as a modern-day Ecotopia won’t mention that visitors find
"Rush" Limbaugh bumper stickers on nearly as many
vehicles as those sporting "Save Your Mother" and the

A small faction of residents even
finds the latter sort of driver hypocritical, preferring to get
around by bicycle or on foot. So it’s no wonder that Arcata
houses the Auto-Free Times, a quarterly magazine for those
advocating alternatives to more roads and cars.

Perhaps for the first time
nationally in the Age of the Automobile, Arcata’s five-member
city council boasts an auto-free majority, too. One Democrat owns
is auto-free, while one Green is a bike nut who admits to
occasionally using the family car.

Indeed, Arcata appears to be at a
turning point. The new Green city council might occasionally sway
from the overly cautious, defensive politics of the past. All
three Green council members oppose the previous council’s lawsuit
against Food Not Bombs and intention to annex and develop nearly
200 acres of farmland. Surprisingly, the previous council
supposedly also had a progressive majority–so recent and
imminent debates are separating the genuine progressives from the
phonies. So it seems progressive politics might move beyond
innovative recycling, composting and wastewater treatment

"I see this Green experiment
as an opportunity for many changes," said seated Green
councilman Jason Kirkpatrick. "I would like to maintain
Arcata’s small-town atmosphere by looking into banning large
corporate chain retail establishments." Kirkpatrick also
wants to address domestic partnership and build a youth center.

But don’t expect radical change
anytime soon.

"There’s a lot of temptation
to do things, but we’re not about to block off four or five
streets and say ‘Walking only,’" said Bob Ornelas, a newly
elected Green council member.

"I think the Green Party in
Arcata has really become mainstream," added Kirkpatrick.
"Arcata is different from the rest of the country. Everyone
here knows organic food is good for you and that compost is

When the new council elects a new
mayor to replace the outgoing Pellatz, Kirkpatrick thinks the
council will choose Democrat Jim Test over one of the three

"It would look fascistic if
we just took over," Kirkpatrick said.


Randy Ghent is an environmental
activist who has lived in Arcata since 1991