When something of value has been lost, it’s instinctual to try your hardest to find it once again. For newly elected Saratoga Springs Mayor John Safford, that thing is civility. As we sit down at KaffeHouse, where he is a regular, he asks an important question: “Can we bring it back?”
The question was the beating heart of Safford’s mayoral campaign. With 20-plus years’ experience managing homeowners associations and condo boards in the community, and previous careers in the computer industry and military service, Safford cites the desire to be useful to others as his “driving force.”
Now, that same force propels him to find the answer to his campaign’s question. For Safford, how our modern culture of discontent can be alchemized into one of civility and care can be found by looking to the past, when words weren’t as sharp and networks were narrower. And he believes that there is no community better positioned to bring such values back to public life than Saratoga—and just in time for the city to hit the worldwide stage as part of the Triple Crown. “We have this international reputation as being a great place to visit, and we’re going to have the Belmont, which is going to do even more for us,” he says. “So the challenge is to bring in conversations about what old-fashioned civility means—not by law, not by edict, not by guilt, but by being good to one another.”
Safford and the town’s new Commissioner of Public Safety Commissioner, Tim Coll, have joined incumbents Jason Golub (Public Works), Dillon Moran (Accounts), and Minita Sanghvi (Finance) just in time to whip Saratoga into shape for the biggest event to hit town in recent memory—or maybe ever. But instead of stressing out, Safford stays true to his values and campaign, recalling growing up blue-collar in the Kensington section of Buffalo where front porches were welcoming hubs of community life. With tenderness, he describes boyhood summers spent playing on the street with neighborhood kids while the parents sat out, talking and socializing, building connections one dusk-lit porch conversation at a time. Languages and religions weren’t necessarily shared, but respect and time together always were.
“This is one of the things I like about Saratoga,” he says with a smile. “We have porches.”
Our modern front lawns, however, have some telling differences. “It’s so odd when you see people who feel obligated to put up signs that say ‘Be civil to one another,’” he says.
While it may be odd indeed, such displays reflect just how—even in isolating and polarizing times—the yearning for human kindness does not go away. As Safford looks ahead to what is going to be an octane-fueled 2024, he already has ideas about what a kinder Saratoga will project when the world is watching: “We could be a bright light.”