Alex Stillman: Arcata’s Cheerleader – October 5, 2010
Kevin L. Hoover
ARCATA – It’s a sunny fall morning, and as most people are heading out for the day, Alex Stillman is coming home. But she won’t be there long. Arcata’s mayor has already attended an early morning meeting, and there are several more to come this day, plus some work at City Hall. She won’t be back home again until late this night.
T’was ever thus. You can’t open a copy of the old Arcata Union published after 1972 without seeing Stillman smiling back at you from some long-forgotten new business ribbon cutting or cultural event, or participating in some function of City government.
The same holds true today. This week, for example, Stillman took part in further Forest Fund fundraising, judged a salsa contest and presided over the City Council meeting.
At 71, Stillman has the vigor of someone born 60 years after her. But then, she’s tapped into the ultimate energy source: Arcata. Humboldt’s most kooky-marvelous town empowers, motivates and animates Stillman, and she returns the energy watt for watt.
While her ubiquity makes it impossible not to be aware of Alexandra Stillman’s present-day activities, There’s a certain enigma to her – where did she come from and what life experience turned her into Arcata’s foremost cheerleader?
Early life and times
Born July 4, 1939 in Chicago, Ill., Stillman’s father was a student at Renssaler Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. She, her parents and sister Victoria lived there through World War II, when her father served in the Navy in the South Pacific.
On his return, the family moved to the warmer climate of Arizona, where she spent most of her childhood. At 16, Stillman flew the coop, attended college on the East Coast, earned an AA degree in Home Economics and then moved to San Francisco.
There, she took a retail sales job at the White House department store. Stillman was assigned to the “X Squad,” which is less glamorous than it sounds. The squad was a pool of employees assigned to different departments each day based on the exigencies of store staffing. “If it started to rain, they’d send you to rainwear,” Stillman recalls. “It varied.”
Her goal was to work in the Fashion Department, and eventually she was appointed assistant fashion coordinator, managing fashion shows.
Marriage followed, with a move to South Pasadena as the wife of an insurance adjuster. Stillman never stopped working in sales until forced to do so, back in the days when pregnancy was treated like a disease. “They said to me, ‘You’re showing too much. We can’t have you work here any more because it’s against the law. There were so many laws preventing women from being in the workforce at that time.”
Moving back to the Bay Area in Los Gatos, Stillman went back to work as an airline reservation agent, taking telephone orders in a Quonset hut in San Jose. Transferred to San Francisco, she maintained the reservation database on 3×5 cards.
If the early 1960s filing system seems primitive, so was the oppression of working women. Stillman’s biggest problem was not being able to work and earn as much as she could have due to the sex discrimination deeply embroidered into the law. “Women could only work 10 hours a day, max,” she recalls. “The women were saying, ‘This is so unfair,’ because the men were just able to rack up the money on overtime, and we couldn’t do it. It was so hard.”
With divorce came a shot at liberation through higher education. Wishing to earn her BA degree, she planned to attend San Francisco State University when fate struck – she met and married Ben Fairless, her second husband. A teacher at Humboldt College, Stillman followed Fairless to Arcata. “I thought, ‘You know, I could live up here as easily as San Francisco,’” she recalls. It was 1971.
Awaiting the start of classes, Stillman had time on her hands. Incapable of idling, she looked for something to do. “I noticed that the Open Door Clinic was just starting, so I said to the carpenter in the doorway, ‘What do they need here?’”
She went in and presented herself as an experienced suicide prevention volunteer, and was given the task of initiating the clinic’s crisis intervention hotline.
The path to the City Council
She entered politics, fighting demolition of the old City Hall at Ninth and G streets. Living at 11th and K streets in what is now attorney Cat Koshkin’s law office, Stillman hosted a party for some college professors. In talking to a political science prof, he told her, “You’re on the right side of all the issues that Arcata needs to really look at,” and encouraged Stillman (then Fairless) to take out candidacy papers.
The notion clicked for her. “I grew up in a volunteer family,” she says. “As soon we were of age, which was 15, we were Candy Stripers [hospital volunteers] and in the Junior League. Volunteerism was a responsibility of ours.” So she ran for City Council in 1972, took third place in a field of 13 vying for three seats, and became that body’s first female councilmember.
Stillman entered office just as the drive to limit the new freeway to four lanes was heating up with the “Stop At Four” campaign, something she supported. Her other platform planks were housing, recreation and historic preservation.
Her City duties not sufficient to keep her busy, Stillman opened a store called The Camel, located in Café Tomo’s present location. For fun and profit, she purchased, renovated and sold distressed houses. She now talks about these homes by address with the familiarity of old friends, “Sixth and J,” “634 G Street,” “D and 11th,” “1050 12th Street” and so on.
During her eight years on the 1970s council, she, Wes Chesbro and Dan Hauser formed a liberal majority which helped bring about some of Arcata’s most hallowed and enduring fixtures, including the Arcata/Mad River Transit System, Arcata Economic Development Corporation, the Redwood Lodge and the famed Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary.
Post-council, wishing to help Arcata realize its unrealized potential, Stillman co-wrote and shepherded through the system legislation to create downtown Mainstreet associations. She also founded the Arcata Downtown Business Community (ADBC) and co-founded the Garden Gate shop.
A big project to enliven downtown involved still another practice taken for granted today – having stores open on Sunday. Incredibly, most weren’t. “We used to fly blue flags and back page of the Journal ad and have all the businesses cooperate on that. We would talk about all the activities, and ‘why you should come to Arcata.’ If you saw a blue flag, you knew this business was open.”
As Arcata matured through the 1980s and 1990s, Stillman continued her historic preservation efforts, worked on her businesses, renovated more properties, served on AEDC and the State Water Board, built the Stillman Building at Ninth and H streets and pursued countless other civic initiatives, always moving and shaking for Arcata.
By 2006, she was ready to serve again, and ran for re-election after the 26-year hiatus. Her motivation was, in part, because of another candidate currently seeking re-election to the council after a pause, Dave Meserve.
“I wanted to get back to basics and start focusing on the City,” Stillman said. “Someone described Dave Meserve, when he was on the council, it was like he thought he was in Congress. The council is supposed to deal with local business. The City is a business and we need to put our house in order.”
Stillman is all for individual geopolitical activism, but not by a small town’s governing body. The return to basic governance, she says, has been successful. “We have a City that’s humming right along, working really hard and really well together. There are no factions; we’re a team and we work well with City staff… We’re a well-functioning council.”
An optimized council, Stillman says, is vital. Among the challenges Arcata faces is a Water Quality Control Board that still harbors an institutional grudge against Arcata. This for subverting the dominant waste treatment paradigm some 30-plus years ago, establishing the Marsh instead of building “big treatment plant” and “fighting to be different.”
Stillman’s tone of voice changes slightly but perceptibly when discussing the enduring bureaucratic pushback against the Marsh’s eco-friendly innovation. The usual genteel affect becomes slightly steely, the words articulated with precision and certainty.
“It doesn’t matter,” she says of the time interval. “They really supported us going into the big sewage treatment plant in Eureka. I don’t know how long it will take for people to get over the residue of people not liking Arcata for what we’ve done. We have regulators watching for us all the time to make mistakes.”
She wants a legislative exemption for Arcata, to end the threat of the Marsh being subverted.
Stillman is gratified with the transitional housing project at 250 E Street, and for the continuing success of Arcata House. The chronically troubled North Coast Resource Center, she says, became overextended by restoring the hot lunch program. But she supports it as an engagement facility.
Stillman thought Prop 215 was a good idea, and, like most of the Compassionate Use Initiative’s supporters, didn’t foresee the consequences. “I thought 215 wasn’t going to cause any problems,” she said. “I was so naive. I thought, you’re sick, you can grow your own medical marijuana, you’re gonna be fine. I didn’t know we would have all these clinics, places that are growing in Arcata.”
She refuses to directly state whether she supports cannabis legalization via Prop 19, but thinks it will cause “drastic change.”
Stillman likes traffic calming, bike lanes and trails, but Arcata still isn’t as bike-friendly as it should be, she says. “We have to remember that we’re not Portland,” she says. “But for a City of 17,000 people, we’re doing extremely well.”
Another success for Arcata is its close working relationship with HSU, especially compared to the bad old days. “Everything is so cooperative. It just gives me glee and joy.”
“I work hard,” she says. “All the things I do have to do with bettering Arcata through economic development. This new Ridge Trail will be a part of it.” So, she says, will be the numerous upgrades in store for Valley West.
She’s unabashed about having means, having earned her way all her life and turned it back on the community via property restoration and public service. She wasn’t always well-to-do. “I’m just like everybody else,” she says. “I feel that I’ve used my money well, for the benefit of the citizens of Arcata.”
It’s the combination of ideals and pragmatism that Stillman likes as a formula for success in Arcata. It’s worked for her, and it is effective as an operating ethos for the town.
“We are big thinkers,” Stillman says. “We like to do big things. But we always have to remember, we have to pay for them. Some things we just can’t afford to do. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have them on our dream list, because eventually they will happen.”