Dorothy in the Emerald City of Dublin, California
By Mike McGrath
A high school teacher named Henry Littlefield once wrote an essay in the American Quarterly called “The Wizard of Oz: A Parable on Populism.” According Littlefield’s interpretation, L. Frank Baum’s immortal children’s book was full of thinly disguised allusions to the reform politics of the late nineteenth century. The Tin Man (whose joints needed constant oiling to function) represented the industrial worker. The intellectually insecure Scarecrow embodied the American farmer. The Cowardly Lion represented, the Populist-Democratic presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan, an avowed pacifist. The yellow brick road symbolized the gold standard, and Dorothy’s magic shoes, which silver in the book, not ruby red as in the Hollywood film version, stood for the free coinage of silver, the main demand of the Populists. Others have added new interpretations over time. “Oz,” after all, was the abbreviation for ounces, the measure of silver and gold. Dorothy’s dog, Toto, represented the temperance movement, and so on.
Sadly, Littlefield’s theory has been thoroughly debunked by a succession of academic killjoys, professional historians who note that, among other things, author Baum was not in fact a Bryan Democrat, as Littlefield suggested, but rather a supporter of boring old William McKinley. One historian of consumer culture interpreted the Wizard of Oz, not as a critique of the Gilded Age but a celebration of consumer capitalism. Noting that Baum was a Theosophist who had once worked as window-dresser, this historian found the book to be an “optimistic, therapeutic text.” The Emerald City, in this interpretation did not represent Washington, but the 1894 Chicago World Exposition with its dazzling and Oz-like array of new products and inventions.
With its flying monkeys, witches and munchkins, the book and even more famous movie are clearly rich subjects for a variety of interpretations. Last summer, I witnessed an entirely new re-imagining of the Wizard of Oz, Dublin, California’s presentation at the All-America City Awards competition in Kansas City. (To be clear, it was KC, Missouri, not Kansas, but close enough). In this 10 minute tour of the city, Dorothy—who sang a mean version of Over the Rainbow, was taken on a tour of the Emerald City of Dublin. In this version, the Scarecrow represented the wisdom of city officials in implementing one of the most progressive and inclusionary housing policies in the state of California. Dublin being a mostly affluent Bay Area community, housing prices are intimidating to say the least.
Concerned that local teachers, firefighters, police and others wouldn’t be able to afford housing in the city where they worked, city council members enacted a comprehensive affordable housing policy. Over the last 10 years, the city’s programs have created nearly 1000 “below market” rental and owner occupied housing units, about seven percent of the city’s overall housing stock. Programs include Dublin’s Below Market Rate Home Program, which provides a supply of deed-restricted below market rate units, and a First Time Homebuyer Loan Program with down payment assistance and financial advice. Developers who cannot build the number of below market rate units required by ordinance can contribute to the Inclusionary In-Lieu Fee Fund, which the city uses to support non-profit developers in the construction of below market rate senior and multi-family rental developments.
Heart: The Tin Man represented the city’s heart in providing a home for the School of Imagination, an innovative and inclusive school readiness/early intervention program that partners typically developing kids with those afflicted with developmental disabilities. More than 300 children weekly participate in the programs they offer and they have served more than 3,000 children with speech delays, developmental delays and autism from throughout the region.
Courage: The Cowardly Lion represented the city’s courage in making efforts to preserve its past and secure its future with environmental programs. The city formed a partnership to develop a historic park to be a living monument to the community’s agricultural past. To increase sustainability education, the city hosts a community volunteer event called Dublin Pride Week. As part of Dublin Pride Week, the city sponsors a Volunteer Day where residents engage the community in a variety of projects, including school beautification projects, clean water projects, and environmental program outreach.
In his essay, Henry Littlefield said he’d developed his Oz theory to make the forgotten world of the 1890s comprehensible to his students. “Consider the fun,” he wrote, “in picturing turn-of-the-century American, a difficult time at best, using ready-made symbols provided by Baum.” It furnished a teaching mechanism, he suggested, “guaranteed to reach any level of student.”
The same could be said of the Dublin presentation, which was corny, but also effective. Heart, head and courage—contemporary communities need of all those qualities they can get. It’s worth taking a look at thee archived video of Dublin’s Presentation. (link here.)
Granted, this unique approach might not work for all communities in addressing critical needs for its members, but it certainly accomplished its goal. There are a multitude of city, towns and parishes in need of bringing attention to an issue greatly affecting the community. Do you know of additional ways in which a community has brought awareness to a critical problem resulting in change? What was that change and how did it impact the community? We would love to know, so, please, fill the box below with your community’s story of success.
Mike McGrath is senior editor and chief information officer for the National Civic League. A former newspaper reporter and magazine writer, he is editor of the quarterly National Civic Review, which will be beginning its centennial year of publishing this spring.
Mike’s posts will appear every Thursday on the State of the Re:Union website.