Like many, I’ve been watching the Tea Party.

Anthony, my Fuel Coffee Shop buddy and Republican counterpart, has been drinking tea for a while.

I’m not talking about the corporate funded Tea Party, but the grassroots populist and libertarian movement.

And, I didn’t quite get the anti-government annoyance that fuels the Tea Partiers until recently. Until I realized we’re approaching our own Tea Party Moment here in Great Barrington.

Of course, small-town politics is very different than national politics. Our Selectmen are our neighbors. They shop in the same stores we do. And the fact is, they’re motivated by a desire to serve our community, not money and power. I voted for each and every member of the Board of Selectman. So what am I talking about?

It feels to me like we’re approaching a fork in the road. The Selectmen, led by the Town Manager, are committed to a downtown Revitalization Program, funded by state money in accordance with Massachusetts Department of Transportation guidelines and regulations.

Many of us, including large numbers of Great Barrington’s merchants, are worried about the scope and timing of the project. There’s a growing disconnect between the governors and the governed. It doesn’t have to be. And, in fact, we would all be better served to avoid our Tea Party Moment.

Part of the problem is how we solve problems. In my own life, I have several times tried to solve the problem of starving-artist-syndrome by funding my filmmaking projects with state and federal grant money. Grants are wonderful gifts but they are gifts with many strings attached. If you want money to make a documentary film you have to describe in excruciating detail what your film will look like, what it will say, why it will be important, and what it will cost to the penny. To win the grant, you are prompted to create an imaginary film – a film that your judges will love, that answers in advance their every concern. In a way you end up making their film not your own.

While downtown reconstruction is quite different than filmmaking, I imagine the grant process isn’t all that different.

The town wants $3.76 million from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. Mass DOT wants bike lanes and bump outs and has lots of ideas about ideal road conditions. To win you’ve got to employ engineers and consultants who not only understand what the DOT requires but can successfully argue that what we’re living with now just doesn’t meet DOT criteria. And that we really need the DOT’s help.

The consultants and engineers who offered their power point presentation at the Senior Center did a good job of doing their job. Unfortunately, there’s a disconnect between our life experience and DOT-world. The DOT believes our Main Street lanes are too narrow. But we have made our peace with our narrow road, and especially appreciate the ability to turn right coming north onto Bridge Street and turn right going south onto Taconic to go up to Fairview Hospital. Accepting the DOT requirements means losing some trees and parking spaces and adding some time to turn onto Taconic when we need to go to the Emergency Room.

I have a modest proposal – let’s for the moment put aside the grant requirements and think about the biggest challenges for downtown. I’ll start with my list: use modern day electronics to synchronize our traffic lights so pedestrians can cross the street from the Mahaiwe to Subway without the light turning red. Synchronization would allow traffic to move more efficiently from the Taconic Street light through the light by Bridge Street. Decrease accidents by assigning police officers to downtown traffic duty on busy weekend and summer days.

We now have a complete catalogue of all our sidewalk cracks, so let’s start to patch them. Let’s accept the fact that our trees are made by Mother Nature not man, and as such are unruly. If hit by lightning or snow or windstorms they might fall down. Then replace them one at a time as they die.

Let’s reduce our dependence on individual autos and create a model of green small-scale transportation to move people through town – small buses or vans or how about a solar-powered trolley. We can employ young people and retired folks as drivers.

How about a bold redesign – turning the Triplex parking lot into a town green/children’s park with our gazebo, and building the town parking garage we so desperately need? I can think of several possible places for it: across the railroad tracks on the Culleton property; in back of Town Hall; on the old firehouse property; or in back of Wheeler & Taylor?

What’s on your list?

Let’s work together to help the Selectboard solve our real problems. Let’s use our Tea Party Moment to make Great Barrington even greater.

The Berkshire Record, December 2, 2010. © Mickey Friedman