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. 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.