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Editorial: What the benches mean in Northampton

People occupy benches in Pulaski Park, left, and also those adjacent to the park Monday on Main Street in Northampton. Some of the downtown benches have been removed.

People occupy benches in Pulaski Park, left, and also those adjacent to the park Monday on Main Street in Northampton. Some of the downtown benches have been removed. JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

Mayor David J. Narkewicz was right to rethink and then reverse his decision to remove six benches from downtown Northampton as a way to deal with problematic loitering.

After a two-week experiment to see if the removal of the most heavily used — some might say misused — benches on Main Street would fix a long-standing problem for downtown merchants, Narkewicz changed course last week.

Narkewicz has proven to be a mayor who, when he sees a problem in the city he leads, moves to fix it, even when possible solutions might be unpopular.

In the case of the benches, the problem, as identified by merchants, shopkeepers and store managers who spend most of their time downtown, is that some people occupy a community resource for too long, essentially taking them off line for others to use for a quick sit or a visit with friends. Other troublesome behavior is aggressive panhandling that makes some feel uncomfortable downtown.

Merchants have said in no uncertain terms that people camping out on benches downtown is bad for trade, and by extension bad for the downtown ecology.

It is good to have a mayor who wants to fix a problem, especially one that has vexed mayors and business leaders for years. However, there are some problems that can’t be “fixed” by one swift, decisive action.

Fretting about the mix of people who share our downtown falls into this category, we think.

The feisty community conversation the bench removal generated on our pages, on Facebook and at dinner tables around the city has been valuable.

We learned from these conversations that people value downtown as a place to build community — as well as to sustain our city economy. We learned they love the benches on tree-lined Main Street sidewalks — and they want them available for use by the majority, not monopolized by a minority.

We learned that people want downtown Northampton to be a welcoming place. We learned there is not unanimity about what that means.

For some people, aggressive panhandling makes downtown feel intimidating and unwelcoming. Yet for others, trying to regulate how or where or when panhandlers can do what they do is itself unwelcoming behavior.

In removing the benches, Narkewicz ignited a debate that will go on for some time. That’s because the dispute is not really about benches, but about what they represent.

Now that the benches are back, the community can talk about the issues they stood in for: poverty, substance abuse, mental illness, homelessness and class divisions — all factors that contribute to the presence of panhandlers. How are people who experience these problems to be integrated into the community?

It’s one thing to have a discussion about social problems. It’s another to bump into them when you go downtown to have dinner, buy a dress, get a coffee or savor an ice cream cone.

These problems — and the impact they have on people — are often unpleasant and painful to witness. But these people are part of our community, too. They belong downtown just like everyone else.

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