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Editorial: Sidewalks have their limits, and sleeping on them ought to be one

This peacock-shaped bench opposite Skera Gallery invites passers-by Monday on Main Street in Northampton. Some of the downtown benches have been removed.
JERREY ROBERTS

This peacock-shaped bench opposite Skera Gallery invites passers-by Monday on Main Street in Northampton. Some of the downtown benches have been removed. JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

The Northampton City Council did the right thing this week in unanimously postponing a vote on its “vibrant sidewalks” resolution until after it hears from city residents and business owners.

The council approved the resolution at its June 20 meeting and had planned to take the second required vote Thursday, but its chief sponsor, Ward 1 City Councilor Maureen Carney, wisely suggested tabling the vote until the council has a chance to sponsor a community discussion, likely in September.

Questions about the proper role of sidewalks came to the fore in May after Mayor David J. Narkewicz ignited controversy by removing six benches from Main Street sidewalks in an experiment to resolve long-standing complaints from downtown shopkeepers about excessive loitering, aggressive panhandling and misuse of the benches. Narkewicz returned the benches after two weeks, but the issue remains a tender one.

City Councilors Carney, William H. Dwight, Jesse M. Adams and Marianne L. LaBarge crafted the Vibrant Sidewalks resolution, which seeks to articulate and broaden common understanding of the full purpose of sidewalks. Some points the resolution makes are spot-on: Sidewalks are for more than getting from one place to another. They are opportunities to create beauty with landscaping and street furniture, to build community and for community expression.

But in our view one aspect of the resolution goes too far. Under the heading “Survival,” the resolution states that “for some people, the sidewalk is ‘home,’ and the only place where they can carry out the ordinary activities of daily life (eating, sleeping) that the rest of us more commonly do indoors.”

If the removal of the benches was unwelcoming, we feel a declaration that sidewalks are for sleeping (and other activities that the rest of us “more commonly do indoors”) borders on the absurd.

Do we want people camping out on Northampton sidewalks, rolling out sleeping bags, setting up makeshift kitchens? We think not.

Sidewalks, like the rest of downtown, are common ground. If people sleep on them, that infringes on other people’s ability to freely use them.

The resolution says “more people are likely to walk in areas that host a diversity of uses.” That is true to a point. But if people are sleeping and eating and engaging in other activities most of us do indoors, we believe that would hinder the diversity the resolution wants to see on city sidewalks.

Ward 5 City Councilor David Murphy on June 20 said that while he appreciates the spirit of the resolution, he objects to the view that sidewalks are places for survival. He suggested removing those parts of the resolution, a call that prompted its chief sponsor to say it is the “very contrast of enjoyable and disruptive activity that creates the vibrancy.” The City Council should foster discussion about the nature and purpose of sidewalks. We hope councilors will invite comments from residents who spend time downtown, visitors who shop and eat here and the merchants who operate businesses. We hope what the council adopts takes a sensible and realistic view of what sidewalks can — and cannot — offer. It’s one thing to seek to be welcoming, but another to have absolutely no boundaries.

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