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Editorial: What makes a downtown?

Chris Barcomb, of Easthampton, sits where a bench used to be in front of Hay Market Cafe on Main Street Northampton Tuesday afternoon.

Chris Barcomb, of Easthampton, sits where a bench used to be in front of Hay Market Cafe on Main Street Northampton Tuesday afternoon. Purchase photo reprints »

In response to long-standing problems reported by downtown shopkeepers, Mayor David J. Narkewicz took decisive action last week when he authorized the removal of six benches that had long been stationed along Northampton’s wide, tree-lined Main Street sidewalks.

The benches did what benches do — they invited passersby to have a seat and rest a while. But in some respects, they were a little too successful.

Merchants and others who spend most of their time downtown said the benches have been abused in ways that hurt their businesses. Some people practically moved in, monopolizing seating that is meant to be shared.

On some benches, people set up shop to panhandle. Storekeepers reported that customers felt intimidated, and they worried they were losing business.

After discussions with business owners, the Business Improvement District and Chamber of Commerce leadership, Narkewicz ordered six out of 16 benches removed in a test run to see if their absence would solve the problem of people hunkering down for too long on particular benches.

While the mayor is right to listen to the concerns of downtown business owners and to try to address them, we question whether removing the benches accomplishes anything other than to inconvenience older and infirm people who rely on these perches for respite.

While official explanations suggest the bench removal aims to stop loitering and misuse of public property, it seems as though homeless people and panhandlers are the true targets.

To be fair to those who support the bench removal, one shopkeeper said she has many times been bothered by drunk people hanging out on the benches at night — not a good atmosphere to foster downtown. To the extent that the benches drew people who acted in uncivil ways, they might indeed be a problem — and one that can be addressed by simply removing them. As one business owner noted, it is only six benches — and it is a trial. They can be put back.

But if the goal was to reduce the number of panhandlers, it seems to us that the bench removal was an immediate failure. In the days after they were taken out, panhandlers set up shop on the sidewalk, right where the benches had been. Shopkeepers who feel threatened by anyone on the sidewalks should notify police. It is wrong to lump the few people who may actually pose threats in with others who mean no harm to anyone.

The mayor and other city leaders are right to be concerned about the health of the downtown. There is no question that a city’s main commercial area is an ecosystem that needs care and attention.

But at the same time, a downtown — with its public streets, public sidewalks and parks — is not a mall that can be stage-managed by commercial interests. A downtown is not private property and it should not seek to favor certain people over others. A healthy downtown depends on successful commerce, but it also needs life — and for that reason, we think taking away an amenity that’s meant to build community and foster camaraderie is a misstep. People come downtown to shop and do errands, but they also come to see friends and appreciate community.

Since the bench removal is being called a trial, it is time to decide what that test is meant to measure. Perhaps it’s time to ask: What kind of city does Northampton want to be?

We think the words open, vibrant, welcoming and fair should be in that answer.

Legacy Comments4

What makes a 'downtown?' A sense of Welcome. A sense of Community: as in, COMMON + UNITY. I've live in this area for 25 years, and for 25 years I've been observing how Northampton prides itself on being an oasis of consciousness concerning concepts such as Unity, Diversity, Equality, Tolerance, and so on ('and so on, and shoobee doobee doo-bee')... all of which helped convince me to move here in the first place, as these values are of primary importance to me. I sadly fear it may be time to move on. Gentrification marks the beginning of the death of community. If the City of Northampton were interested in walking its own talk, a community-based solution could be sought through open forum discussions which would include comments and concerns from all parties involved - shoppers, tourists, town residents, homeless and otherwise economically disadvantaged people, who still may BE town residents - with the goal of achieving a win-win scenario which addresses everyone's concerns to the greatest possible degree. A 'solution' which relies on sweeping aside the concerns and contributing factors relating to a specific subset of the population (any population, in any 'developed' or 'underdeveloped' country) is like a fortress constructed of wet sand; things will settle back into their former condition before long, given that the same socioeconomic stress factors are still in play. A community that disowns those of its own members who are trying to survive despite misfortune is no community at all. Perhaps Northampton needs to be identified instead as an industry - enough of the self-promotional, profit-motivated earmarks are there to warrant the comparison. Besides -- most of the panhandlers in Northampton have been sitting on the pavement all along.

Thanks for this thoughtful editorial reminder that our downtown is our commons! The actions of the city officials and the reactions of the people including one of our city councilors reflect the vibrancy that exists in our downtown. As someone who walks downtown, sometimes in protest attire, I appreciate the diversity and the sheer number of people I often encounter. This conversation, in person, online and in social media, sheds light for us all to see both problems and community willing to deal with the complexities of our city's life.

Just a thought, but what if the city has an ordinance that limits the amount of time an individual can occupy a bench, just like they make ordinances that limits the amount of time an individual can occupy a parking space.

Put the benches back and the non-panhandlers should take them over. Sit down next to the bums and ask them to move their debris. The benches are for people, not shopping bags and cardboard signs. Also, perhaps they are already installed, but could the police and Mayor install security cameras? They work elsewhere and case law shows they are legal. Let's make the police's job easier and the public safer.

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