Rainbow opposition: Some critical of city’s plan to repaint crosswalk on Main Street

Last modified: Monday, April 28, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — Not everyone is “over the rainbow” about changes coming to a Main Street crosswalk.

A fair amount of objection to the plan that would replace the existing black and white crosswalk between Thornes Marketplace, 150 Main St., and TD Bank at 175 Main with “rainbow” colored stripes has surfaced in recent weeks.

City Council President William Dwight and Ward 3 City Councilor Ryan O’Donnell both said Friday night they’ve received a lot of comments on the plan, positive and negative, through email, social media, public comment at the two most recent City Council meetings and being stopped on the street by residents.

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Dwight said he’s had more conversations with people on the crosswalk issue in a shorter period of time than on almost any other topic, including the city’s storm-water fee hikes.

While opinions are split, Dwight said, typically, if people are satisfied with something the city is doing, they simply don’t voice their opinion.

Dwight said most of the objections aren’t about the crosswalk design itself, but about larger issues behind the process.

Dwight said he’s heard criticisms that the crosswalk will set a poor precedent for the city, and that it’s unvetted public art that wasn’t approved by the city’s Arts Council.

Dwight, who supports the project, said one objection he’s heard is that changing the crosswalk from black and white to the rainbow pattern would create the impression that a special interest group is being disproportionately represented on city property.

O’Donnell, who also supports the project, said, “I think the fact this is proposed for the center of our city, by virtue of its visibility, some debate is bound to get sparked on both sides.”

“Part of living in a diverse city is there’s a diversity of opinion as well,” O’Donnell said.

“Some people just don’t like it, and that’s it,” he said. “Other people are just happy we’re painting crosswalks.”

The people who are in favor just think it’s a neat idea, said Dwight, while the opposition seems to be objecting for a few different reasons.

Marc Warner, of Northampton, said his objection to the crosswalk is largely procedural.

Warner said the rainbow pattern is not a “benign symbol” but one of the gay community and the city is “casting it in stone” in the most prominent place possible downtown.

“I don’t think absence of the (rainbow) crosswalk would indicate Northampton isn’t tolerant,” he said. “Obviously, that’s not the case.”

Dwight disagrees with the notion that the rainbow pattern represents only the LGBTQ community.

Dwight said it represents “inclusion and unity.”

“Honestly, how could somebody be against that?” he said.

Claudia Lefko, who lives in Ward 3-B, is frustrated, not because of the project itself, but because other, similar projects were not approved by the Board of Public Works, she said.

Lefko said about three years ago, her neighborhood was granted money for “traffic-calming” projects and one proposal was to colorfully paint a crosswalk in order to encourage drivers to slow down.

That proposal was rejected by the BPW, Lefko said.

In August 2012, Arts Night Out Northampton requested approval to commission artists to repaint three city crosswalks.

That proposal was also rejected, Lefko said.

Lefko said there are other, more dangerous crosswalks in the city that could have benefited more from a vibrant repainted crosswalk than the Main Street location.

Lefko said there should have been more public input on the project to decide where it would go, who would create it and what it should look like.

Warner said he was frustrated that the approval process moved quickly through the Board of Public Works and the Parking and Transportation Commission. Throughout the approval process, he said, no one asked, “Is this a good idea for Northampton?”

“Don’t just wave this through as a fait accompli,” he said.

Warner said the crosswalk should be considered a piece of public art and, as such, should have received approval from the Arts Council rather than the BPW.

The project was approved in March by the BPW and the Transportation and Parking Commission. The BPW agreed to donate the labor to install the crosswalk, while Melinda Shaw, a former organizer of Northampton’s gay pride march, raised the $1,700 needed to buy the materials and pay for other costs.

O’Donnell said, “Maybe there are different expectations of how much the City Council has been or should have been involved.”

“I don’t know what debates there were when they painted shamrocks on the streets of Holyoke,” he said.

Warner said the question was raised in his mind whether it’s an appropriate symbol for the broader Northampton community.

“It’s an important enough question that it should be discussed,” he said.

Warner said he found the lack of discussion troubling. He reviewed meeting minutes from the Parking and Transportation Commission and saw there was some discussion about the crosswalk, but not what he felt was a substantive one. The discussion covered topics like the types of colors and in which order they should run and what type of paint should be used, he said.

“It’s a political decision that doesn’t just belong with the Board of Public Works and the Transportation and Parking Commission,” Warner said.

He also said the crosswalk should have required a permit from the Arts Council because it is a decoration occupying a city street and falls under the section of the city’s Code of Ordinances requiring permits for structures on streets and sidewalks.

O’Donnell said determining if the Arts Council should have had approval of the project opens up a larger debate on what is and what is not art.

“I haven’t had a serious debate about what art is since college,” O’Donnell said.

Work on the crosswalk began Thursday night and by Friday afternoon some of the original white markings had been ground down, but no new colors had been installed.

The city plans to have the new crosswalk finished in time for the annual LGBT Parade and Pride event on May 3.

Justin Jackson, 34, of Northampton said Friday afternoon he was in favor of anything that made crosswalks more visible.

Jackson said he’s had close calls with drivers while crossing New South Street and on the Main Street crosswalk that will be refurbished.

“In favor of anything to increase public safety,” Jackson said.

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@gazettenet.com.