It's 8:30 on a nippy Wednesday night in this northern California coastal town, and it's standing room only down at city hall.
A debate over the future of the community's waste-recycling center has filled the meeting chamber, but the turnout is hardly unusual. City council meetings regularly draw a boisterous band of citizens eager to offer their views on anything from human rights in Burma to the need for a new teen center.
"It's the best sitcom on Wednesday nights," says city council member Connie Stewart.
Since November, Arcata's City Council offers an added attraction: the only government in the US controlled by the fledgling Green Party.
After a vote to fill three vacancies on the five-member body catapulted the Greens to power, Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader trumpeted this as a portent of things to come. Mr. Nader himself came in second in the presidential balloting in Arcata, outpolling Republican Bob Dole.
The political novelty has drawn media to this small community (pop. 16,000) from as far away as Japan and Germany, where Greens are a political fixture. "I had no idea that people would come to us and want to write articles," says Green council member Bob Ornelas, a pony-tailed organic farmer and part-owner of a microbrewery.
But folks in this picturesque burg are quick to point out that the election results are not as earth-shaking as they might seem. Arcata is home to Humboldt State University, a stronghold of student activism, and the city has a long-standing reputation for progressive politics and ecological innovation. The two Democrats on the council include a self-described "mellowed-out old leftist" and Ms. Stewart, a young black environmental activist. If there is a struggle for power here, it is between graying liberals and a new generation of twenty-something activists.
Even the Greens admit that the city council election was a nonpartisan affair in which candidates ran as individuals, not on a party ticket.
Melanie Williams, the local Green Party chairwoman and a political scientist at the university, acknowledges the somewhat accidental nature of their victory. But the fact that "Greens can get elected is pretty exciting," says Ms. Williams.
Certainly, if the Green Party is going to grab a foothold in American politics, this is a logical place to start. The region has been polarized for decades by the "redwood wars" and other struggles between environmentalists and the timber industry.
Until the 1960s, Arcata was no different from the other mill towns that dot Humboldt County, its air heavy with the smoke of burning wood-waste and its neat, wood frame homes occupied by hard-working, conservative folk. The university was mostly known for its forestry school, training people to work in the timber industry.
But the '60s brought student activism and Arcata became a headquarters for the region's antilogging movement. And as the timber industry shrank, the university, with its faculty and 7,000 students, came to dominate the town's economy, as well as its politics. Arcata earned the moniker "the Berkeley of the North."
"If it wasn't for the university, this would be just another redneck town along Highway 101," says Don Banducci, a prominent local businessman.
Arcata's reputation lured an influx of refugees from the San Francisco Bay area, some 300 miles to the south. They came seeking a remote place to keep the counterculture alive. Some were returnees like Mr. Banducci, who attended the university in the '60s and came back in 1979 to start what became the town's largest company, Yakima Products, makers of car roof racks.
In the 1970s, Arcata became famous as a laboratory for environmental ideas, starting one of the first recycling centers and restoring a marsh that serves as both wildlife habitat and a filtration system for the city's sewage treatment plant. Arcata also moved to limit growth, protecting surrounding farmland and blocking malls and fast-food franchises that would destroy its small-town character.
But Arcata's political conservatives haven't disappeared entirely.
"This place used to be a soda fountain," laments forester Bob McMullen, gesturing at an espresso shop. "There weren't a lot of crumbums on the plaza," he says, noting the followers of the the Grateful Dead and other flotsam of the counterculture camped out in the central plaza.
Across Humboldt Bay in Eureka, loggers still reign supreme and they sneeringly refer to "the Peoples Republic of Arcata" and its "Red Square."
The town's beleaguered old-timers got their opportunity to strike back in 1991 after the city council declared Arcata a sanctuary for military resisters to the Gulf war. Mr. McMullen and others led a protest that forced the council to rescind its action, and they got two conservative council members elected the next year.
The pendulum swings
But the election of the Greens to the city council - one voted in two years ago and two more elected in November - has swung the political pendulum back to the left.
The conservatives describe themselves as mostly dormant, though not all of them happily so.
"These [Green city council members] are three people who haven't got a clue," grumbles former mayor Carl Pellatz, who lost his reelection bid. Mr. Pellatz predicts the Greens will fumble when it comes to the mundane tasks of filling potholes and balancing the budget. "I represented a voice in the city of more moderate persons and business people that is currently not represented in the council," he says.
The Greens deny having any grand agenda to remake Arcata. Their emphasis is more on the process of open government than its substance. One of the new council's meetings ran until 3 a.m. with talk that ranged from banning multinational corporations in Arcata to seceding from California to create a new state.
Presiding over this experiment in participatory democracy is Mayor Jim Test, the genial owner of a small printing company. Time has turned his long curly hair gray and softened his leftist views. But Mr. Test espouses patience with his new colleagues. "When I look at the newer members of the council, I can see myself 25 years ago," he says without a hint of condescension. "I didn't turn out all that bad. They'll improve with age."