Editorial: City streets offer feast for cops and poets alike

Last modified: Wednesday, July 23, 2014
From the shopkeeper unlocking her door in the day’s new light to the young women outside panhandling for cash, from the old guy enjoying a sidewalk cigarette to the Smithies laughing their way to the clubs, from the boy tossing a Frisbee to his dad in Pulaski Park to a couple trading angry barbs on Pleasant Street — every day and deep into the night, the streets of Northampton pulse with the full range of human experience.

We were reminded of this richness while reading two recent stories in the pages and website of the Gazette. While their topics seemed at first glance disparate — cops walking the beat and a poet guiding a literary walk — they were in fact bound by a common thread. They were about paying attention to this small city’s big details.

As part of a new focus on community policing, the Northampton Police Department tries to have at least one foot officer patrolling downtown at all times. In an article and photo essay chronicling that effort, reporter Bob Dunn and photographers Carol Lollis, Jerrey Roberts and Yoshitaka Hamada unfolded a story of chance encounters, fraught conversations and the deft interventions that can keep little conflicts from exploding into major conflagrations.

As he strolls his beat, officer Adam Van Buskirk finds himself walking the delicate line between allowing a broad range of residents, businesspeople, tourists and transients to enjoy their freedom and stepping in when one person’s liberty becomes another person’s intrusion. At one point, the officer told a young man who had taken refuge from a thunderstorm in a residential doorway on Main Street to find another place to stay dry.

“Do I feel badly for him?” said Van Buskirk. “Of course. But it’s not his doorstep.”

Some of what Van Buskirk and others do involves enforcing city laws and regulations, breaking up fights, checking for performance permits and the like. But some of it is subtler, the slow work of building the relationships that will turn up evidence of some crimes and — ideally — keep other crimes from occurring. A cop in a cruiser with flashing lights and a caged back seat doesn’t invite conversation and trust; one roaming the streets just might.

“You’re not bothering us,” Van Buskirk and his colleagues tell people who approach them with a question or a tip. “It’s our job.”

Roaming these same streets recently were poet Betsy Wheeler and a group of literary minded folks participating in the first of a series of “flâneur walks” organized by the Greenfield-based Shape & Nature Press. As Steve Pfarrer explained in his article, the walks draw on the experience of 19th century figures who wandered the streets of Paris drinking in the sights, smells and sounds.

In the mid-1800s, poet Charles Baudelaire wrote of the flâneur: “The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd.”

While the lilting notes of French aren’t often overheard on Main, Masonic and Market streets, Northampton has more than a little in common with the City of Light. Around most every corner rises a building with an intriguing architectural feature or containing a lively bookstore or café. And with its spirit of tolerance for people of all shapes and sorts, Northampton offers no shortage of the characters a writer could use to populate a poem, novel or play.

To help tap into that muse, Shape & Nature Press has begun to issue of series of pamphlets offering would-be flâneurs a walking guide to the main streets and back alleys. The first was written by Wheeler, who lives in Florence, is author of “Loud Dreaming in a Quiet Room” and works as managing director of the Juniper Summer Writing Institute at UMass. Her “Mental Detours” pamphlet invites 21st century flâneurs to amble from The Roost café at the corner of Bridge and Market Streets, across the bike path bridge and down to Pleasant Street — inviting frequent stops to observe, reflect and scratch out musings along the way.

Wheeler said she was initially worried about her ability to pull this off. “I’m always rushing from one thing to another. I’m always late — I’m not really a flâneur at all,” she confesses. But the exercise of writing the pamphlet got her to step out of the usual routine — scrabbling for parking meter change, racing off to her next cup of coffee —to pay attention to the city’s unique rhythms. To breathe it all in.

Poet or cop, flâneur or ordinary Joe, those of us who roam the streets of Northampton will find plenty of material to feed our imaginations or — just for a moment — enrich our days. All we have to do is listen and look.