What do calling San Diego Unified the “best urban district” in the nation, throwing shade on America’s Finest City from up north and demanding men to care about diapers and tampons all have in common?

They were among the op-eds we published this year that instantly  launched some of the biggest exchanges in our corner of the internet, thoughtful and, at times, heated. We pulled out the arguments that seemed to rile readers the most intensely.

These were the opinions that roused the rabblers in 2014.

Yes, SD Unified Really Is the Best Urban School District

San Diego Unified School District has had a rocky few years. Even with a bright-eyed new superintendent, parents, teachers and observers haven’t been holding their breath for instant, dramatic improvement.

But education historian Diane Ravitch disagreed. She went so far as to call San Diego Unified the “best urban district in the nation,” a distinction VOSD’s Scott Lewis said did not bode well for the rest of the country’s public schools.

Ravitch stuck to her guns in a letter responding to Lewis.

San Diego is different. [Superintendent Cindy] Marten and the teachers and administrators of San Diego Unified are trying to create a culture for schooling that most people want for their children. They aren’t there yet, but they have the right vision.

I am sorry that there are commentators in San Diego who disparage public education. It is a cornerstone of our democracy. We must make it better and stronger in every community. We must help our schools become places that enable the talents and creativity of every child to flourish. That’s what Marten is trying to do. I say she is on the right track.

Density Isn’t a Dirty Word

One of the most heated debates around San Diego’s future boils down to density: How can we cram in all the people expected to live here in 2050? Plenty of folks don’t want to see their neighborhoods change.

So planners and developers face an uphill battle calming the masses and persuading them that dense communities might not be such a bad thing. Great Streets San Diego founder Walter Chambers took a swing at it, while also proposing a shift in language for that particular argument.

Cities are about people, community, engagement and serendipity. When you put people together, magical things happen. Even if it is just bumping into someone on the street, studies show that social exchanges make cities more innovative, more productive, safer, economically vital and happier places to live than their outlying, isolating suburbs.

So instead of thinking about density as impersonal “dwelling units per acre,” let’s talk in terms of how people make a great city. Let’s understand density as increasing the opportunities for social exchanges between people, or “social exchanges per acre” (sx/acre). Let’s talk about people and experiences.

‘I Just Wasn’t That Stoked on Where the City’s Going’

Friend of VOSD Jed Sundwall conducted an interview that we reprinted with Jay Porter, the guy behind failed restaurant The Linkery. It ended up being received pretty hostilely by readers. That’s not much of a surprise: In the interview, Porter sharply criticizes the very foundation and character of San Diego.

There isn’t much political will to do simple things to make San Diego a good place to live. Obviously, there are people who care, and people who want to make it great, but there’s not enough happening.

It’s in the DNA of the city. Most of the Southern California cities were started as corrupt exercises in expropriating property for private gain, and that creates a tenor that allows the underlying philosophy of the city to become very selfish and focused on taking.

The city doesn’t have a track record of communal experience or urban experience. It’s never existed here. The city’s not informed by a history of great urban experiences. Southern California just wasn’t built on that.

Pump the Brakes on the Hillcrest Bike Route

At first blush, restaurateur Chris Shaw’s argument against proposed bike lanes in Hillcrest seems to define NIMBYism: He says he supports bike- and pedestrian-friendly measures in general, just not if they threaten his businesses. Though he warns against tapping University Avenue for an expanded route, but he also offers an alternative to make progress toward a bikable Hillcrest.

Is University Avenue really the best option for bike lanes?

I have been in business in Hillcrest for more than 22 years. I have seen bicycling become more popular, as it has in cities across the nation and I see the benefits this project can bring to the neighborhood.

But SANDAG has to consider issues of land use, mobility, urban design and economic development when designing a bike route.

We Can’t Pave Our Way to Efficient Transit

SANDAG’s progress toward expanding bike lanes and bus transit didn’t fool Jack Shu, president of the Cleveland National Forest Foundation. He made the case in April that local leaders are continuing to push a freeways-first agenda, to the peril of future San Diegans.

… we don’t have to accept SANDAG’s publicity-minded cheering behind bus rapid transit and similar car-centric projects. We should be asking why they’re spending billions of dollars on freeway projects that don’t work to reduce congestion, hurt our economy, are bad for our health and are destroying our environment.

Why isn’t our region adopting a “transit first” policy when survey results show a majority of San Diegans want a working system?

We need our leaders to serve us like it is 2014, not 1965. We can’t pave our way to the future.

Why the Rebel Heart Naysayers Reveal More About Themselves Than the Kaufman Family

Remember this debacle? The Kaufman family was publicly shamed after they were rescued in April aboard their sailboat, the Rebel Heart, with a sick 1-year-old in need of medical attention.

“Why in God’s name did they take a baby on a sailing trip around the world?” people wondered. “Why are we paying for their California Air National Guard rescue?”

VOSD contributor Beau Lynott, a friend of the family’s, came to their defense.

It’s no revelation that people love to inflict their opinion on others, that the media can be a pack of vultures, and that the internet is quite often a cruel, heartless place. But for the Rebel Heart crew, fellow San Diegans, people I know and love in real life, this lack of empathy and basic human kindness has been laid bare. The media and online commenters have said much more about themselves than about the children and family for which they purported to have so much concern.

Unsurprisingly, the comments on this response to comments are not to be missed.

What a $13.09 Minimum Wage Would Do to Small Business

Before Todd Gloria shaved his minimum wage hike proposal down to $11.50, and after he’d floated $14.50 or higher, $13.09 was on the table, much to many small business-owners’ chagrin. Harry Schwartz, owner of Downtown Ace Hardware, gave voice to their general anxiety about the potential move.

And where are we supposed to get the money to pay these increases? Small businesses aren’t hoarding cash in off-shore accounts. The answer is price increases. My sister and I have already calculated that to go from the current $8 minimum wage to $13.09, we would have to raise our store’s prices by 20 percent. Wages would go up as buying power goes down. This seems counterproductive.

Running Schools Like Corporations Doesn’t Add Up

We saw a familiar face show up in a case being deliberated in Los Angeles County Superior Court, one that would blow up teacher tenure across the state. San Diego Unified trustee Richard Barrera testified against what he deemed corporate reform efforts.

Corporate reformers generally call for top-down, one-size-fits-all strategies based on their management theories. The basic notion is that if you can reduce a child’s education to easily quantifiable goals – achievement on standardized tests – you can collect data and manage everything with a rewards-and-punishment approach.

The rewards include financial bonuses for teachers whose students score well on standardized tests, and federal grants for school districts willing to subscribe to corporate management theory.

Punishments include firing individual principals and teachers whose students don’t score well on standardized tests, and mass school closures, particularly in high-poverty neighborhoods.

We need to ask one basic question: Where is the evidence that any of these ideas actually produce improvements in our kids?

Diapers and Tampons Help Men, Too

VOSD Managing Editor Sara Libby was pretty disgusted by the backlash against two proposals to help low-income women – especially since low-income women wouldn’t be the only ones benefiting from the efforts.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez had pushed to expand a CalWORKS program to cover diapers. And Guardian writer Jessica Valenti suggested governments worldwide subsidize feminine hygiene products. The response online was, for the most part, vitriolic.

It’s unavoidable that the reaction to Valenti is gender-specific – after all, women are the only ones who get a period. But the vitriol surrounding Gonzalez’s bill also zeroes in almost entirely on women, even though it takes a man and a woman to create a child, and all children – girls and boys – need diapers.

We are literally talking about making it easier to afford receptacles for blood and shit – items that meet the bare minimum of a woman or child’s physical needs – but they become fancy luxury items when they’re presented in the context of helping working women.

Those ‘Frustrating’ Labor Laws Are Protecting California Workers

During our quest digging into the myths and challenges of doing business in San Diego, we’ve heard more than a few business owners complain about the tough labor rules and regulations that harsh their mellow.

But Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez urged them to take a look at the big picture, and essentially, have a heart for the state’s workers.

When employers talk about the flexibility of employees working unpaid overtime or on unpredictable schedules, they’re often really talking about allowing employees to negotiate away their rights in the first place.

That’s a slippery slope. Establishing a standard in which workers can give away the rights afforded them under the law can quickly turn into an expectation that potential employees give away such rights as a prerequisite to hiring.

At that point, our basic rights at work aren’t rights at all anymore – they’re perks. That sets us back 100 years or more.

Catherine Green was formerly the deputy editor at Voice of San Diego. She handled daily operations while helping to plan new long-term projects.

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