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The People’s Park: Pulaski belongs to everyone

  • Garrett Stone, a landscape architect with Stephen Stimson Associates Landscape Architects, talks about the renovation of Pulaski Park after the Pulaski Park Phase 2 grand opening. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Benjamin Hannon, 3, of Florence, makes his way up the stairs to Pulaski Park with is mother Pam Hannon after the Pulaski Park Phase 2 grand opening. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • From left: Jacob Martin, Camilo Quintar-Parilla, and Justyn Rankins, all 14, play wall ball in Pulaski Park. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mayor David Narkewicz in Pulaski Park. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jane Hardy, recently retired, enjoying her shady spot. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rick Fantasia, a sociology professor at Smith College, takes a lunch break. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • From left: Nick Marston, Hollie Marston and their daughter Mary Elizabeth Marston, 3, all of Melrose, MA, visiting the area for the day. The other two children, Eleanor, 8, and Alistair, 5, were off playing. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Taz Okolo with her dog, Bigfoot, and banjo. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Taz Okolo with her dog, Bigfoot, and banjo. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Entrance to Pulaski Park.

  • Zaniel Reyes, 3, of Amherst, watches a butterfly move through the gardens at Pulaski Park in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Zaniel Reyes, 3, and his grandmother Maria Matos, both of Amherst, watch a butterfly move through the gardens at Pulaski Park in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • William Rathbun, 5, of Shutesbury, left, and Zaniel Reyes, 3, of Amherst, play in the natural rock fountain at Pulaski Park in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Zaniel Reyes, 3, and his grandmother Maria Matos, both of Amherst, watch a butterfly move through the gardens at Pulaski Park in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Zaniel Reyes, 3, of Amherst, plays in the natural rock fountain at Pulaski Park in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Zaniel Reyes, 3, of Amherst, plays in the natural rock fountain at Pulaski Park in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY



@RebeccaMMullen
Friday, August 11, 2017

Main Street — where 19th-century brownstones house cool cafés, art galleries and bespoke-furniture makers. Sure, there’s the odd dive bar or pizza joint for the price-conscious, but for those who have no material need or expendable cash, what is there to do downtown? Nestled between Memorial Hall and the Academy of Music, Pulaski Park, the city’s one-acre burst of emerald green, belongs to everyone.

Visitors can watch the hubbub from tables near the bus stop or take a quiet repose under one of the many shade trees. At Pulaski Park, one feels included in the city mosaic without having to purchase a green juice for the privilege of a seat.

After a redesign that closed the park for eight months in 2016 and cost around $3 million, the park — which was last updated in 1976 — has become not only the city’s geographic center but also its heart.

“Pulaski Park is free, and that’s very important,” said Rick Fantasia, a professor of sociology at Smith College and one of the people we encountered during a recent afternoon trip to the park. “There haven’t been many public spaces in Northampton where a wide range of citizens feel like it’s theirs.”

The park’s entrance has no gates and no locks, only an unassuming archway. The transformed park also has a playspace, green and moveable cafe-style tables and chairs as well as a new wheelchair ramp connecting the back of the park to the Roundhouse parking lot and the Norwottuck Rail Trail just beyond. It also has a stage that, depending on the day, might be used as a sunbathing platform or a protestors’ pulpit.

We stopped by the park during lunchtime on a slow and sweaty July afternoon, and in just a few hours, we met a musician, a retiree, a professor, a family of Bostonians, a trio of rising high-school athletes, some picnickers and even the mayor himself — each using the park in a unique way.

 

Taz Okolo, Northampton

We encountered Taz at the park’s entrance. Relaxed and affable, she wore a banjo case slung across her chest. An orange-strapped headlamp hung around her throat like a necklace. Right now, she said that she sleeps “wherever,” sometimes in a one of the city’s tent encampments. Taz visits the park almost every day, she said, to play her banjo and see friends.

“I just like playing how I feel,” she said, strumming as we talked. She broke into the chords of a new melody she was working on.  

“My music speaks louder than I actually do,” she said with a smile.

Sometimes she busks. But if there are too many onlookers, it takes the joy out of playing, she said: “I get all shy when there’s a big crowd.”

Her dog, Bigfoot, a lab-pitbull mix, sniffed around the bushes as she talked, attached to Taz via a leash stuffed into a back pocket of her jeans. When Bigfoot has trouble falling asleep, she plays her banjo to wind him down. He knows her songs and even yelps when she plays a wrong note.

She gazed down at her four-footed companion. “We’ve got a connection,” she said.  

 

Jane Hardy, Florence

As Taz and Bigfoot wandered off to catch up with a friend, we caught Jane creaming her coffee at a nearby table. She’s trying out a new daily ritual, after recently retiring from her job as a school counselor and therapist, driving from her home in Florence to sip coffee in the park.

“It was tiring, that’s why I’m re-tired now,” she quipped.

With a jeweled barrette in her silver hair and a designer bag perched on the chair next to her, she made her coffee-and-muffin break into an occasion.

From where she sat under a young maple tree, she could see the midday bustle of Main Street. People flowed in and out of Mama Iguana’s, Café Viva, Broadside Books and Green Bean. At the PVTA stop near her table, passengers got on and off the bus. On the sidewalk in front of her, office workers walked by, lunch takeout in hand.

She does not miss the pattern of the 9-5, but she does miss her colleagues, she said: “People tell me that you miss the friends, not the structure… It’s nice to be able to sit outside.”

 

Rick Fantasia, Northampton

A few tables away, Rick Fantasia was unwrapping his lunch — a foil-covered falafel sandwich from the Pita Pocket. He had “a million errands” to run, he said, but the Smith professor still found the time to wax philosophic about the purpose of city parks — and the increasing gentrification of Northampton.

“I think it would be sad if Northampton eliminates those slightly seedy parts of downtown,” said Rick, who adds that high commercial rents for storefronts drove many essential services out of Main Street. “Cities can be delicate things… Northampton became a city that was relentlessly cute.”

Last semester, in his Urban Sociology class, he had his students observe the park in shifts to get a sense of how people were using it at all hours of the day. What emerged, he said, is that a “fairly wide cross section of Northampton seems to use Pulaski Park.”

“That has been encouraging to me,” he said. In his view, the park has had a positive impact on the city. He said it “offers a sliver of promise that a wide range of Northampton residents will feel at home downtown.”

“We all like to look at others walking by,” added the professor, who also likes to people-watch on the steps of City Hall. “It’s a pretty human need to observe others.”

 

Hollie and Nick Marston, Melrose, MA

At the far end of the park, out-of-towners Hollie and Nick Marston relaxed in the shade, watching their three children climb on the park’s new playground — a jungle-gym made of painted locust logs, a simple merry-go-round and a slab of Goshen stone.

From their bench, the Marstons could see the peaks of the Holyoke Range in the distance.

They were in the Valley for the day to visit Hollie’s old stomping grounds. She studied at UMass Amherst and lived in Northampton for a year after graduation.  

The family had just finished a picnic lunch and were relieved to be able to unwind after a busy day. Earlier, they visited Holyoke’s famed dinosaur footprints.

“Man, I’m 42, these are my first dinosaur footprints,” Nick said excitedly. “It’s two minutes off the road — it’s crazy.”

Hollie works in consulting while Nick takes care of the kids — Mary Elizabeth, three, Alistair, five, and Eleanor, eight. The summer can drag on, Nick said, with a lack of affordable activities for families in the Boston suburb where they live. The couple asked us for advice on what to do with their afternoon. We recommended Look Park (see our interview with a Look Park train operator, page 5.)

 

David Narkewicz, Northampton

We happened to catch David as he was striding across the park from City Hall to the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the newly-completed overlook section of the park.

“The thing that always amazes me when I come in here is how much space there is,” he said, standing in front of Memorial Hall wearing a white button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up.

David has been mayor since 2012 and was a key proponent of the park’s rehabilitation. Since the park reopened, he said, he has seen people salsa dancing at night under the white string lights and practicing tai chi and yoga on the green.

“It’s a place where people can do what they want to do,” he said.

His favorite way to use the park?

“Sometimes I’ll come out here and have a sandwich.”

 

Jacob Martin, Florence; Justyn Rankins and Camilo Quintar-Parilla, Northampton

Across the green, rising high-school freshmen, Jacob, Justyn and Camilo were bouncing a rubber ball off of the brick facade of the Academy of Music and kicking it around the park’s main lawn.

“We’ve run out of things to do — and money,” Camilo said with a shrug. “This is like the meet-up spot.”

Fidgeting with his T-shirt, Jacob said he remembers that the old Pulaski Park was “a bit trashed.” Where there is now a fresh green lawn, there were wide cement walkways and patches of dirt covered with dead leaves. The boys would not play there.

“I thought the playground was burned,” he said. “I don’t think it represented Northampton as much as it should have.”

 

Morey Phippen and Brian Adams, Northampton

Morey and Brian sat on a shady bench by the playground noshing on peanuts and bananas and drinking cans of seltzer. The couple came to the park to see the ribbon-cutting ceremony and made a day of it with an al fresco meal.

Like its previous incarnation, the new Pulaski Park has continued its role as a sort of town forum, hosting political rallies such as the March for Truth, Interdependence Day and more. Brian recalled staging a healthcare die-in this past June at the park to protest President Trump’s proposed repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

But on this day, he and Morey were just there to relax.

“We’ve been wanting to have a picnic in Pulaski Park,” Morey said, from under a wide straw hat. She offered us some of their nuts as we talked. “I’m a picnic person.”