This past Saturday, a non-profit group I work with, Pensacola Open Streets, hosted its third annual Ciclovia in downtown Pensacola. Well, I said work … I wait until the actual work is done, and then write the press release. For an old journalist like me it’s a routine task, just don’t tell the rest of the group. Anyway, Ciclovia is designed to get people out of their cars and on downtown streets on foot, bicycle, skateboard, rollerblade, anything human powered. Last year 12,000 people made downtown their personal playground, and my inexpert estimate is that this year we hit 15,000. We wanted people to have fun, and there seems to be something irresistible about taking ownership of those nice paved streets without dodging automobiles. This year Palafox Street was closed from Garden Street to Plaza de Luna and Main Street from Bruce Beach on the west to the Gulf Power Power building on the east. Seeing these streets filled with people instead of cars was an amazing sight. But two things struck me the most.
First, as I walked around in my Ciclovia T-shirt I was amazed at how many people stopped me simply to say “thank you” for putting on the event. It made all the work worthwhile. It’s easy to be cynical and think that today’s society is all about people taking whatever they can, but to have complete strangers walk up and say thank you for the fun they are having is rewarding, to say the least. Given that Ciclovia is about building community, I’d say it’s working. Approaching someone you don’t know to say “thank you” is a supremely neighborly act. I’m sure volunteers in our many other community-oriented events experience this as well.
The second thing was how much fun people were having, and in such a simple way. All they were really doing was taking a stroll or a bike ride with family and friends, and smiling, laughing and talking. I was also gratified to see how few people were glued to their cell phones, especially young people, who sometimes seem to have had phones grafted to their hands. Yes, of course, cell phones were in evidence — and, in fact, it was a cell phone conversation that was the highlight of my day. My main job Saturday was monitoring ice at our loftily named hydration stations, where free water was made available. Passing by Ferdinand Plaza, I stopped to eavesdrop on a woman sitting on the low rock fence around the plaza, and talking, I assumed, to a son or daughter with children. She was observing a table set up by a local bike shop to provide free, properly fitted bike helmets to kids.
As I listened, she said into the phone that she had been sitting there for a while, and had watched the bike shop give out at least a hundred helmets … and urged whoever was at the other end of the phone to bring their kids downtown. What most warmed my heart, though, was to hear her say that “there are tons of people here, and they are having a great time.” I probably should have snagged her right then and there to write next year’s press release.