Stephen Golub: Despite Its Problems, Benicians (Mostly) Really Like Benicia

Despite Its Problems, Benicians (Mostly) Really Like Benicia

Benicia’s Capitol State Historic Park. | Uncredited image.

By Stephen Golub, posted June 2, 2023

Benicia resident and author Stephen Golub, A Promised Land

If you’ve been following Benicia news and social media lately, you’d probably think that our city has a number of serious problems to contend with. And you’d be absolutely right. But there’s good news as well.

First, though, the bad news:

The Budget Challenge. It entails painful cuts and revenue-raising measures in order to balance our books. There have been City Council and other meetings on this in recent months. There doubtless will be more in the months to come.

The ‘La Migra’ Challenge. Named for a slang term applied to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, it’s a game that’s been played by Benicia high school students annually for years. But the very name has clear racist connotations. And while some students may play willingly, not all do so. Even worse, there have been reliable reports – including in the May 12 Benicia Herald and more recently on the Benicia Independent – of minority students being harassed and even subjected to attack. For a  discussion of the problem (including TV links), go to Sheri Leigh’s superb Benicia Independent post, which was also shared on Nextdoor. A couple of useful comments suggest that the “game” was somewhat limited this year due to police and school actions this year, but it remains a horrid pastime.

The Environmental Challenge. For one thing, there was the Thanksgiving release by the Martinez Refining Company of a toxic plume that drifted over parts of Benicia. The nature and danger of the residues in Martinez and here are now being tested. On a more regular basis, there are repeated violations by Valero, including but by no means limited to pouring toxic chemicals into our air for at least fifteen years without telling us. Valero has been compounding these actions, in a sense, by pouring many hundreds of thousands of dollars into our city council and mayoral elections in recent years (though unsuccessfully in 2020 and 2022), presumably to help elect Republican and Democratic candidates it finds favorable. Though we appreciate the jobs and donations Valero provides, being a good neighbor does not include polluting our skies, politics and perhaps even health.

So why the cheery title for this column, despite these challenges? Because Benicia has the community strength, resilience and pride to hopefully overcome or at least mitigate them, as suggested by a recent survey of Benicians’ attitudes and experiences, as part of the National Community Survey (NCS). Both Mayor Young and City Manager Giuliani have recently reported on the study. I’m here to supplement their efforts by summarizing some of its results.

For a link to the NCS methodology and findings, here’s Steve Young’s very useful Nextdoor post on the topic.

The survey focused on hundreds of communities across the country. It was conducted here in Benicia from January 20 to March 3 of this year.

Overall, the NCS found a good deal of satisfaction with our city’s “livability.” That all-purpose term includes survey results for numerous different categories of life here, including Economy; Mobility; Community Design; Parks and Recreation; Education, Arts and Culture; and Inclusivity and Engagement.

Benicia came out quite well, in many respects scoring at least 10 percent higher than the national “benchmarks” – basically the national average, though the study’s Methodology section does not make that clear.

For instance, “Over 9 in 10 residents favorably evaluated the overall quality of life in Benicia (95% excellent or good), Benicia as a place to live (96%), and Benicia as a place to raise children (94%); each of these ratings were higher than the national comparisons.” The same applies to the 95% who would recommend Benicia as a place to live. Eighty-eight percent plan to remain here for the next five years.

More from the report: “About 9 in 10 respondents were pleased with the city’s overall appearance, surpassing comparison communities around the country. In addition, 8 in 10 offered above-average reviews for both the preservation of the historical or cultural character of the community and Benicia’s public places where people want to spend time. Cleanliness (92%), water resources (80%), Benicia’s open space (87%), preservation of natural areas (86%), and the availability of paths and walking trails (84%) all received ratings that were higher than the national benchmarks.”

A smattering of other results:

  • In a result that obviously spans generations, Benicia scored at least 10% higher than the national benchmarks as a place to raise children (94% positive survey replies, ranking 51 out of 378 communities asked a similar question) and to retire (78% positive, ranking 59 out of 374).
  • Benicia is a happening, hopping place! (Well, at least in some ways.) We ranked at least 10 percent higher than the benchmarks regarding vibrancy of the downtown/commercial area (71% positive, ranking 65 out of 291), opportunities to participate in social events and activities (78% positive, ranking 37 out of 311), opportunities to attend special events and festivals (83% positive, ranking 18 out of 308) and community support for the arts (80% positive, ranking 22 out of 212).
  • For the many information-oriented folks among us, the library gets good ratings too (89% positive, ranking 109 out of 332). Though it’s interesting that only 24% of us share our opinions online (ranking 173 out of 211).
  • Benicia is a great place to drive! (At least according to the survey.) Traffic flow on major streets had an 83 percent positive response, ranking 6 (!) out of 341.
  • It’s fair to note that for the majority of the approximately 150 categories, Benicia was rated similarly to other cities. Still, the categories for which it was rated 10 percent higher than other communities greatly outnumbered the six categories for which it was rated 10 percent lower.
  • The leading negative category? You guessed it: street repair (26% positive, ranking 311 out of 357 -ouch!). Also, air quality (60% positive, ranking 271 out of 302 – wheeze! – which brings us back to the environmental challenge).
  • The other four negative categories? Utility billing, garbage collection and (for results that probably don’t reflect on Benicia itself) health care costs and preventive health services.

Finally, I should note that while I’m providing comparisons to national results here, Benicia scores similarly well when compared to other Western states’ cities with populations of 15,000 to 40,000.

Having said all this, I’m not saying that we’ll solve our problems simply by virtue of liking our city. And I’m certainly not saying that our financial, racial and environmental challenges become any less severe because, for many of us, Benicia is a fine place to live.

Quite the contrary: Cities inevitably change. We lose it if we don’t improve it. It’s up to us to address the problems that plague Benicia, precisely in order to make our catchphrase, “A Great Day by the Bay,” something to honor and preserve.

Benicia resident Stephen Golub offers excellent perspective on his blog, A Promised Land:  Politics. Policy. America as a Developing Country.

To access his other posts or subscribe, please go to his blog site, A Promised Land.