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Brian Hamilton: Look for the helpers

Much like many of us, when Marni Marshall came to town, she immediately knew she’d hit home.

Years before becoming director of the Grass Valley Downtown Association, and years after her family lived in states on both coasts and down South, the former “city girl” said — much like many of us — the towering trees and the refreshing river had her at “hello.”

But it was the people — “very conservative and very liberal people living in harmony” — who made it feel that way.

“I knew I’d found my home,” she said. “I just felt it. As soon as I got here, I knew this was going to be my place. And I haven’t left since. … It really is special.

“Everybody is just tired and trying hard to keep things going. So, yeah, a little kindness can go a long way.”Marni Marshall, Grass Valley Downtown Association director

“There really is no other place like this. It’s because people are sweet and because they care.”

Oh, they care all right — a whole lot. We all know this to be true. It’s evident in the hours-long public comment of government meetings, the ever-flowing emails of news tips, op-eds and letters, the long lists of volunteers — and opportunities to put them to work, the crazy number of nonprofits seeking to serve our needs and, of course, the rapid and robust response this community ramps up for each other in tough times.

And that’s why it’s so hard to see us being, well … not so neighborly.

A difference in opinion is nothing new. We’ve long found ourselves on opposites sides of all sorts of fences, and our ability to often agree to disagree — so that we can move forward — is the foundation for the “harmony” of our community. But somehow, in the face of uncertainty, stress and fear with this pandemic, we seem to be so easily shedding what makes this place so special with our knee-jerk reactions, condescending commentary and even outright labeling of “the other side” as the “enemy.”

Enough. We are not enemies. We are Americans. We are the people who make this community, our home, such a special place to work, live and play. And we need to help each other.

WHAT’S NOT HELPING?

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news,” Mr. Rogers told his television neighbors, including yours truly, “my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

Amid the angst and vitriol over mandated shutdowns and public health orders, by no fault of their own our merchants have often found themselves in the middle of a misguided melee, as they meanwhile struggle to scratch out a living, or to simply keep their doors open for another month.

We yell and scream in their faces. We belittle and shame them on social media. We even apparently write negative online “reviews” of their place of business — depending not on how well they serve us, but rather whether they agree with our opinions.

To be clear, none of that is helping — not our economy, not our health and certainly not our sanity.

But, of course, there are people who are helping.

We saw them last week, when Gov. Gavin Newsom once again shut down dining rooms, movie theaters, bars and pubs and other “indoor operations” statewide. Once again, on a moment’s notice, our business owners had to turn on a dime and react to another action that was completely beyond their control but absolutely threatened their ability to survive.

That’s when Grass Valley leaders stepped up to help, quickly collaborating on an innovative project — now known as “Mill around Downtown” — that provides downtown businesses with the space they need to operate and customers the comfort of knowing they do with their safety in mind.

“It has to be a partnership,” Marshall said, tipping her cap to the City Council along with City Manager Tim Kiser and Police Chief Alex Gammelgard, in particular. “The city is definitely the heavy hitter with this, to get this all done. … It’s so great to have people say ‘yes’ to new ideas instead of ‘no.’”

WHAT IS HELPING?

“Our downtown is our heart,” Kiser said. “We saw this as an opportunity to try to do something for our community, for the businesses downtown, to open things up and make people feel safer.”

City staff, downtown merchants and a small army of volunteers — including business owners not impacted by the shutdown order, but dedicated to helping those who were — transformed much of Mill Street into a city plaza by closing off traffic and installing tables, chairs, umbrellas and rows of planter boxes.

Though the idea isn’t exactly novel — after all, the street has been shut down for Thursday Night Markets and Cornish Christmas celebration for decades, and the idea of a city plaza has long been kicked around — the sweat-equity put into the effort has resulted in both a beautified downtown and a whole lot of praise from the public it seeks to serve.

And hearing anything positive out of our mouths right now can be quite refreshing, such as the appreciation shown for an altered but appreciated Fourth of July parade and fireworks celebration.

“With all the national news in the press and everything it just seems negative, negative, negative,” Kiser said. “Folks feel like, even myself, that the world is coming to an end in dealing with this pandemic. But it will get better, and for now it’s about how we are going to work together to make it through this, and hopefully uplift things.

“We need to create these spaces so people can safely group together, with proper social distancing and those things. We need to be able have normal events, to go downtown to Lazy Dog for a treat or to the bookstore to get a favorite book, or to go out to dinner. All these things used to seem commonplace, but are now more important, in my mind, to our health.”

ARE YOU HELPING?

Throughout the pandemic, and even amid the PG&E Power Safety Shut-offs they weathered months earlier, our business community has been blessed by various organizations seeking to help.

From the “Let’s Go Out Tonight” campaign to encourage local shopping and dining last fall to the recent creation of the Nevada County Relief Fund and the Rebound Nevada County support for small businesses, our community once again has offered a rapid and robust response to those of us in need.

And, as Kiser noted, that’s what can happen when we focus our energy on what we agree the community needs, by setting aside the differences and roadblocks standing in the way.

“The City Council was in favor of getting this done, and getting it done quickly,” he said. “Getting it done meant putting some things aside … that’s what it takes. And doing this work the last couple days has been really uplifting for me. The way people worked together, so that it’s not just an empty street.

“It was just amazing their willingness to drop what they were doing and help.”

There you go. That sounds like the Nevada County we all know and love, the place we are all blessed to call home. Even in the face of fear, anger and sadness, we can still step back, set aside our differences, roll up our sleeves and ask “How can I help?”

“This town can do this, our county can do this,” Marshall said, after catching her breath from the whirlwind of work that went into the downtown transformation, with all involved determined to make a difference. “We can only control our attitudes, and sometimes we need to do a check on ourselves, because good begets good.

“Everybody is just tired and trying hard to keep things going. So, yeah, a little kindness can go a long way.”

Contact Editor Brian Hamilton at bhamilton@theunion.com or 530-477-4249.


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