Change was in the air in Bloomington in 1971; only those in power could fail to notice.
By Charlotte Zietlow
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” –Margaret Mead
In 1971, Bloomington was a very different place than the modern city we know today. Surrounded by forests, quarries, hills, and hollers, you couldn’t tell if the home of Indiana University was a boom town or a backwater burg.
City and County governments were run almost entirely by Republican businessmen–upstanding citizens who were active in both their churches and the few charitable organizations in the area. As might be expected at the time, these city officials were men, and the charities they administered were geared mainly toward boys they hoped would someday take their place as city fathers.
In 1971, Bloomington was an employment center for thousands of workers from Lawrence, Greene, and Owen Counties. The majority of these were women who had come to work for local stalwarts RCA or Sarkes Tarzian, as well as for newly established firms like Westinghouse, GE, and Otis. The Cook empire was still in its infancy then. Along with Tarzian, it had not been unionized, but the other major firms were. Times were good for those who had jobs.
The Bloomington of 1971 was a city ready to flourish. The IU population had tripled to over 30,000 students in just over a decade and beautiful university buildings were sprouting up all over campus. Historical preservation was an unknown concept; elegant, older homes on Walnut and College were torn down to make way for bland, one-story insurance offices.
Mayor Jack Hooker had foreseen the wisdom of at least rudimentary city planning but the rampant residential growth to the east and south went largely unregulated. There were no uniform requirements in place for sidewalks, sewers and gutters. What older homes that remained were bought up by ambitious landlords and either replaced by poorly built apartments or chopped up into units. The calculations of these landlords were many–they fought vigorously to minimize city mandated maintenance requirements. Green spaces were ignored.
In 1971, Bloomington felt like a closed system. There was very little interaction between the connected folks on the city council and new residents–the faculty coming from around the world and other, more developed campus towns, the students and union workers who weren’t born in Bloomington and seemed like a passing phase. Government meetings were short, simple, and the decisions were made in advance. New ideas were not encouraged. Neither were questions. Checks and balances did not exist; beyond a few shunned outliers, the council was perpetually allied to the mayor.
Coming from Minnesota and Wisconsin, as I did, I couldn’t believe that developers didn’t have to help put in sidewalks and provide for storm water on the hilly terrain here. Single family homes were being rezoned without question. Housing codes were not enforced. Citizens raising questions were treated with condescension or ignored. We had to go to Indianapolis to buy kitchen appliances. The city government was unreachable—one council member suggesting that if we had a problem we should all go to church.
But change was in the air; only those who held all the power could fail to notice. New IU faculty poured in by the hundreds, coming from sophisticated university cites from all over the world. Most of the new hires at IU were men. Of course, most of the new faculty were too involved with their work to look around and notice the conditions that surrounded them. Except for the wives, that is. They had plenty of time to gauge what was happening.
In many ways, our experience in Bloomington was a reflection of what was happening throughout the country. After all, the sixties hadn’t exactly been a picnic. In fact, they were incredibly disruptive and challenging. Following the ‘quiet revolution’ of the Eisenhower years, a New Frontier suddenly appeared. JFK’s ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country’ urged all toward the future with a renewed sense of responsibility.
The Pill had just reached the mass market, changing the way women and their families could plan their futures. The Kennedy Peace Corps was unlike anything that had preceded it–a brand new and inclusive approach to the rest of the world. Those who possessed the stamina and curiosity for exploration suddenly had the structure necessary to do so. We could now reach out and help other nations much more easily, thereby increasing our understanding of diverse people and places. It was also the beginning of the Space Age, with the funding of NASA motivated by a race to the moon.
Millions of people, young and old alike, were excited. The smell of marijuana wafted through neighborhoods. There was even the possibility that everyone in the nation would receive sufficient health care. It truly was a New Frontier, one that everyone who chose to could participate in. Popular music broke out of its Great American Songbook tradition, the British Invasion mesmerized fans of many different ages, with rock and roll, folk music, and bossa nova added into the mix.
Then in 1961, The Bay of Pigs disaster shook our confidence. The following year, we waited through the fear and anguish of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which had housewives in Ann Arbor wondering if they should even bother to cook dinner. Civil rights leaders were met with systematically cruel responses. Women fought hard to carve out a place for themselves in a male-dominated society, but progress was slow and painful. This remained true even after the Griswold decision allowed married women in Connecticut to purchase contraceptives.
Unbelievably, in front of the whole world, our glamorous, charming leader John F. Kennedy was shot dead. Then, to make it a devastating one-two punch, his alleged murderer, Lee Harvey Oswald, was also killed before millions of television viewers.
So many of us had worked so hard to arrive in the New World, believing in its promise so deeply that we were filled hope and unbridled enthusiasm. We had a new President, Lyndon B. Johnson, a southerner, very effective as a Senate leader but what could we expect in the areas of civil rights, health care, peace?
At first it was a miraculous gift—Medicare, Medicaid, the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, the War on Poverty. Overriding his fellow southerners, LBJ worked to fulfill Kennedy’s promises. It was unbelievable, and major pieces remain part of the fabric of our society.
And then we bombed the Bay of Tonkin. Suddenly, young men were being drafted to take up arms in a tiny country no one had ever heard of and for reasons that were never fully clear. Young men, boys really, were hustled through basic training and sent off to fight in Vietnam. Many of these soldiers weren’t even 18 yet. Consider that for a moment. These young men found themselves in a tropical land of rivers and jungles, the alien backdrop to a culture and language they didn’t understand. They were surrounded by both enemies and friends, without any way of knowing which was which. We had weapons of mass destruction and used them viciously against a force armed with bamboo contraptions and Russian machine guns.
The whole country erupted after that. Friendships and marriages were destroyed by external events. Children disowned their parents and vice versa. It seemed like the whole world was trembling
By the end of the sixties, our country was riven, torn. Either you were for the war or against it with mounting fury and desperation. Young men poured out of small towns to enlist, many choosing the armed services over jail stints for petty crimes. College students, many of them white and affluent, opted for university deferments. The less well-to-do, who were disproportionately black, had no choice but to go. Students everywhere insisted that we ‘question authority.’ ‘Never trust anyone over thirty’ was another favorite mantra. They remained excited about the New Frontier and were willing to help bring it about through protests and violence. Chaos littered the prosperous times brought about through military production. Both free love and hatred were rampant. No, the sixties were certainly no picnic.
The city government was unreachable in 1971—one council member suggesting that if we had a problem we should all go to church.
The tipping point in Bloomington came with most of the shock waves rolling through the mayor’s office. A consortium of the largest church congregations had made a proposal to build a high rise apartment building for senior citizens at the intersection of Kirkwood and Dunn, where Dunnkirk Square is currently located. The City installed parking meters in the residential neighborhoods to underwrite part of the project. Needless to say, this idea did not sit well with the people who actually lived in those neighborhoods.
The City planned to contribute a substantial tract of land to the project. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any money in the general fund to pay for it. Undaunted by this difficult reality, Mayor Hooker dipped into the utilities fund to buy up a large parcel of land downtown. The plan was to repay this ‘loan’ with the revenues generated by the parking meters. In the meantime, the church consortium was working with HUD to support the actual construction.
Then something rather important came to light. Someone had failed to do their homework and using the utilities fund for such a purpose turned out to be illegal. Ultimately, the mayor and the controller were indicted and brought to trial. Prosecutor Tom Berry had no choice but to take the case to court. He did a workmanlike job during the prosecution, but the trial ended in a hung jury. Eventually, the mayor was fined two dollars and the City was forced to repay the utilities fund.
The fallout from all this was momentous. Outraged, many Bloomington residents began to attend city council meetings, intent on voicing their complaints. Unfortunately, they never had the chance. These angry citizens were denied the right to speak.
But this strategy turned out to be a big mistake because it caught people’s attention and persuaded them to become actively engaged. The outrage was pervasive throughout Bloomington, but nine of us were upset enough to offer ourselves up as candidates for city council. Along with this writer, the Democratic slate featured Bobbie Bennett, Al Towell, Sherwin MIzell, Hubert Davis, James Ackerman, Richard Behen, Brian de St. Croix and Wayne Fix. A promising young Republican named William Andrews ran for city judge, on a platform that had much in common with the Democrats’ agenda. Lastly, members of the old guard selected Frank McCloskey to run against Hooker for mayor.
Most of us were Roosevelt and Kennedy Democrats, but in some ways, we were all very different people. Fortunately, this did not impede our ability to work together. Although we came from disparate backgrounds, we had several important values in common. Chief amongst these were transparency and a commitment to citizen participation. We were new and inexperienced, but we certainly weren’t dumb. We knew how to learn and were willing to listen. Unlike our predecessors, we actively acknowledged the citizens’ inalienable right to be heard.
We ran in the primary election and became the slate for the fall.
We got down to business quickly. We worked hard every day. Most important of all, we persisted. We had the shared goal of increasing citizen participation and maintaining proper respect for their input. We wanted informed, professional city management, not constant political jostling. We wanted to replace the unresponsive cronyism of the past and build a city we could be proud of.
Senator Birch Bayh came from the State of Indiana, not exactly a hotbed of dissent. He and his staff saw what was happening and responded in kind, one of his aides drafting the 26th Amendment of the constitution and watching in amazement when it was ratified within a few months. The 26th Amendment granted the right to vote to all U.S. citizens over the age of eighteen. It was a response to the chant ‘if they’re old enough to die for their country, they’re old enough to vote for the people who send them to their death.’ It went into effect on July 1, 1971.
Strangely enough, Bloomington was the first city in the country to hold a municipal election after that. We were a college town facing an intense election campaign. The national press watched closely to see whether the students would ‘take over’ our little city as was generally predicted by the status quo. Reporters from the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune came to Bloomington. The city resonated with the dire warnings issued by the establishment. None of the reporters spoke to us. The people in power shouted: ‘the students will take over and ruin our town.’
Amazingly, we won. We won these seats in an upset and immediately began putting clearly defined policies into practice. Eventually, we transformed Bloomington by changing the way it did business. We didn’t turn the city around alone–it was truly a community effort–but we used our positions to lead the charge.
A Local Sea Change
Our efforts brought about a much needed paradigm shift. We created a list of issues called The Better Way to Govern and tackled each of its items in turn. Take the issue of patronage, for instance. Instead of the ‘to the victors go the spoils’ approach that dominated the era, we intentionally retained all government employees who did their jobs effectively. We also recognized the importance of having the department heads who helped make policy be in sync with the Mayor.
We encouraged citizen involvement. Both the mayor and the city council called on interested and qualified residents to serve on the growing number of boards and commissions that were created to manage the City. To stir productive dialogue, we insisted that citizens bring facts and knowledge to the table, not blinding biases or relentless self-interest.
We also made great strides in administrative effectiveness. When filling professional positions, we sought out well-qualified, credentialed candidates, hiring them for their abilities in the field. Whether looking for a city planner, a utilities manager, a city engineer, a city attorney, or a controller, we hired people who truly knew what they were doing–not just ‘good guys’ we knew in the community. Lastly, we always checked with our attorneys before starting on any project. We believed in doing our homework, not in taking orders.
Today, the term accessibility means something quite different than it did in the past. Now it refers to the importance of accommodating person with disabilities, but in 1971, it referred to the facilitation of open communication between local citizens and the government officials that served them. We wanted the people of Bloomington to know that their government listened whenever they spoke, and that they would be treated with the respect they deserved.
We were especially proud of the job we did on economic expansion. Up until the 1960’s, job creation programs centered almost entirely on skilled and unskilled men who supported single income households. In those days, corporate headhunter types took their orders from (“consulted with”) the Chamber of Commerce and the West Side Development group, neither of whom saw much need to create employment opportunities for unskilled or qualified women. This was true despite the fact that there was now a glaring need for jobs among this segment of the population. To counteract this, we advanced directives that helped women enter the workplace and allowed families to keep up with an economy that had made two-income households into a requirement.
At the time, the concepts of planning and zoning were anathema across Indiana. “You can’t tell me what to do with my land” was a common refrain. To its credit, Bloomington had tried to implement city planning but in 1971, property developers did not have a clear set of guidelines. With a new planning commission in place–one selected directly from the community–we began to transform the chaos into a working system.
IU experts were anxious to work with the City to create a public transit system and federal funds were becoming available to help. We were happy to work with both the feds and IU and confirmed the need for it with our Manpower task force. Bloomington Transit was born.
Republican President Nixon signed the bill creating the Environmental Protection Agency and in 1970 the first Earth Day was proclaimed. Bloomington merchants and students had been developing a plan for recycling, but had been ignored by the City. The School of Public and Environmental Affairs was born in 1972, and eager faculty worked with local environmentalists to protect our water supplies, especially Lake Monroe. We supported both strongly in contrast to those whom we defeated.
We also created a Manpower Task Force, established a preliminary historic preservation policy, a beefed up human rights commission and ordinance with enforcement options and a staff, and sought out federal and State funding for social services, a commission on the Status of Women, child care. And we made government feel as if it mattered.
At the very end of our term (December, 1975) a city building inspector denied a building permit to a group hoping to renovate space for a gay coffee house. At that point Brian de St. Croix came out, and in 1975 he worked to draft a gay rights amendment to the Human Rights Ordinance we had written and staffed to enforce in 1972.
The response was incendiary–both for and against–very vocal, threats, name-calling etc. When the time came to vote only five of the nine council members showed up. Both Council members and members of the overflow audience spoke passionately. The Bible was quoted—opponents favored the Old Testament, proponents the New Testament. The vote was unanimously “aye.” The Mayor immediately indicated he would sign it. It became law.
IU opposed the human rights ordinance for other reasons, and several years later sued to have it nullified at the State level. IU’s concern, they said, was that the ordinance might be applicable to the University. IU prevailed. They resisted any implications they would be subject to City rules and regulations in any way. In overturning the Human Rights ordinance, they also killed the gay rights amendment.
Several years later a new Human Rights ordinance was adopted by the City. It did not include the gay rights clause. Gay rights was finally codified in 1993 (about ten years later) ominously, but only after a marathon six hour meeting which also was incendiary, with lots of singing of Onward Christian Soldiers.
A Microcosm of the Wider World
On November 9, 2016 life in the United States changed dramatically. We suddenly had a president who was unpredictable and communicated in the most idiosyncratic ways imaginable. He was also new to the workings of Washington, D.C., ignorant of custom and precedent that demonstrate both his scorn for propriety and his relentless will to do things his own way.
Some of us are delightfully surprised at his election and are now waiting for America to become great again. Others are dismayed, fearful, and trying desperately to figure out how to cope with this bizarre new regime. Difficult questions abound. Will we continue to honor the Constitution? Will everything familiar be changed into something unrecognizable? Will the rule of law somehow prevail? Will Obamacare be replaced or eliminated? And if we wander into nuclear war, who will be our allies?
Here, in the richest nation in the world, economic inequality has worsened considerably over the past few decades. Small towns are disintegrating beneath the weight of economic hardship and an unprecedented opioid epidemic. Major issues surround us at every turn; we are beleaguered with concerns about everything from social justice to health care and education. All of these stand in great need of help. In other words, it’s an absolute mess. It doesn’t feel good. And what can we do about it?
This is not the first time in our nation’s history that our problems have seemed overwhelming. it’s not even the first time in my lifetime. Some of us experienced The Great Depression, World War II, the Korean Conflict, the Cold War, and McCarthy’s Un-American Activities Committee. Not to mention the devastating assassinations that occurred in the late 1960’s. And now more than ever, there’s the ongoing struggle for racial equality and prosperity and climate change. There have been many crisis moments in my lifetime, some of which are not yet resolved. Yet we have managed to find solutions for some of them, and we continue to try despite tremendous adversity.
Similar Challenges, Similar Methods
It’s been 45 years since a small group of concerned citizens helped transform the Bloomington community. Since then, some things have reverted back to near tyranny and a certain amount of power has shifted away from the citizens. But although this means it’s high time to remind those in power that they work for us and not vice versa, there remains a great deal of hope in the thought that most of the major changes remain in place. I write this story to encourage others to do as the ten of us did in 1971. Although some of us were recent immigrants and new to the work of government, we still managed to gather a little army to assist in our work. We recreated the City of Bloomington in a more democratic image. The result was a vibrant, attractive, and comfortable place to live, work, study, raise children, and retire. It will require faith, dedication, and a great deal of focused hard work to push back against the current adversity, but I hope all of you will find inspiration in our story.
Hope Going Forward
We can affect change today, but only if you become a part of the process. It won’t happen by itself, but you can do it. It will take stamina, careful planning, self-awareness, and understanding of our local citizens’ actual needs. It will also require a willingness to forge alliances whenever you can find like-minded people and to keep your eye on the prize at all times– a city where everyone can live and thrive.
Never forget that everything you do makes a difference. Your actions affect everything that comes next and life is full of surprises. Don’t burn bridges with anyone–you never know who your next ally might be and you’ll need to build working relationships with them in advance. Life is short, so use the time you have wisely. We must keep going. We must continue to fight for change right here at home; this is the best chance we have to contribute to a democratic world community.[editor’s note: Charlotte Zietlow moved with her family to Bloomington in 1964. She has a checkered career in linguistics, city and county government, business, education, social services and family. She was the first woman president of the City Council and the first female Monroe County commissioner. Dubbed by some as “the woman who swims upstream,” she believes we can all build a better world together. This article is a relatively short look back at the 1971 election and its results. Many details are not included, but will be presented in great detail in her forthcoming book We Did This, publication date to be announced.]