Pandora's box: First there was Northampton's rainbow sidewalk, now BPW facing a request for red, white and blue

Thursday, July 03, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — After hearing a request to paint a red, white and blue crosswalk downtown, several members of the Board of Public Works conceded Wednesday that they opened Pandora’s box when they approved a rainbow crosswalk in May.

Katherine Osborne of 14 Washington Place suggested adding the patriotic palette to the Main Street crosswalk between Pulaski Park and the corner of Masonic Street as a way to honor veterans, especially since Memorial Hall and war memorials are nearby.

She said she had supporters willing to pay for the paint and just wanted to know what the approval process was.

It was a good question, board Chairman Terry Culhane said.

“The first decision was made very ad hoc,” Culhane said. “There is precedent, but there’s no procedure, there’s no process. We have no methodology for this.”

The board in March approved a request from Melinda Shaw, a former organizer of Northampton’s gay pride march, for a rainbow crosswalk to be painted across Main Street between Thornes Marketplace and TD Bank. Shaw raised the $1,700 for the paint.

The decision sparked debate. Supporters said it looks beautiful, improves visibility and stands for inclusion and diversity, while opponents said it was hastily approved with limited public input and stands for the interests of a single group, not the whole community. Some worried that the change would mean the crosswalk would no longer legally qualify as a crosswalk, but city officials say the regulations only require white bars in between the colors.

During the public comment period at the beginning of Wednesday’s meeting, Richard Guzowski of 64 Nonotuck St. in Florence warned the board of the Pandora’s box effect and said crosswalks are no place for “street art.”

Several Gazette letter writers this spring suggested that a red, white and blue crosswalk would be too controversial to get any support in Northampton.

Osborne said she and her husband, veteran Benjamin Osborne, started talking about raising funds for a red, white and blue crosswalk after seeing the rainbow crosswalk painted in May.

“We really like it and think it improves visibility and safety,” she said at the meeting. “We thought it would be really nice to honor veterans.”

Several board members said they were uncomfortable being responsible for what could be politically charged crosswalk projects and suggested a different body — possibly the City Council or the Arts Council — should be part of the decision-making process in the future.

Culhane suggested the City Council-Board of Public Works conference committee should lay out the approval process. The issue will be on the agenda of that committee’s Aug. 4 meeting, he said.

Department of Public Works Director Edward S. Huntley said an ordinance passed a few months ago requires any public art display that will be up for more than 90 days to be approved by the Arts Council. Huntley said he does not know why the rainbow crosswalk never came before that committee.

During the discussion, board member Michael Parsons said he thought the board was well equipped to handle the technical part of such projects, such as choosing the paint.

“But then there’s this artistic, political aspect to it, and I question if this board should be making these decisions on behalf of the city,” he said. If someone suggests a crosswalk makeover that does not have broad support, for instance, “is it up to this board to say, ‘we don’t like your cause?’”

“We’re the Department of Public Works, not the department of public statements,” Parsons said.

Board member Rosemary Schmidt said the board also needs to consider if it is creating a financial barrier by asking people who propose decorative crosswalks to raise the money for the paint. “I’m not comfortable with the idea that because people have the money, they can do something like this,” she said.

Culhane added that the joint committee needs to work out who will be responsible for buying the supplies to repaint any colorful crosswalk. Huntley said the downtown crosswalks are usually repainted twice a year.

Board member M.J. Adams said she likes the idea of the patriotic crosswalk. “We have a long history of honoring veterans,” she said. Ward 6 City Councilor Marianne LaBarge also said she supported the idea.

Osborne, who said she understood the need to set up a process, told the board she hopes it will be decided in time for the crosswalk to be painted by Veterans Day.

“That seems like a reasonable goal,” Culhane said.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.