Men on stilts, free giveaways slow pace of traffic on Union Street in Easthampton during ArtWalk

Last modified: Wednesday, August 19, 2015
EASTHAMPTON — Motorists passing through Cottage Street during ArtWalk on Saturday were rewarded with gifts such as a free comic book, discounted flowers or a gratis barbecue dinner — but only if they stopped for pedestrians.

The giveaways were part of a project called “Easthampton’s Welcoming Committee” by StarHeart (Suz Evans). The performance aimed to draw attention to the space shared by pedestrians and motor vehicles while also giving well-behaved drivers an incentive to return to the city, rather than just pass though the busy Route 141 corridor, which includes Cottage Street.

Evans’ project was one of two traffic-calming measure employed during ArtWalk. Farther down Cottage Street, a parade of stilt walkers interrupted the flow of traffic while displaying quilts while others who were knitting, sewing and drawing looked on at the street spectacle.

Evans, dressed in a spray-painted jumpsuit and armed with a giant green sign bearing the words “Welcome to ETown,” served as a crossing guard of sorts by heading to the center of the crosswalk to allow pedestrians safe passage. Meantime, someone else attempted to offer motorists who stopped a gift certificate through their window using a 10-foot pole.

“It’s interesting to see how people react to spectacle,” Evans said during a break from helping pedestrians pass. “Some people are like ‘Great, thanks for welcoming me.’ ”

Others, Evans said, were not so receptive. On several occasions, motorists abruptly accelerated around Evans after letting pedestrians cross.

Evans’ friend Phoebe Reader Zax served as a gift certificate-deliverer for a portion of the evening and said she received mixed reactions.

“A lot of people had attitudes,” she said. She figured some people discounted the piece of paper as an unwanted flyer, so she changed her methods and began asking “Do you want a free thing?”

Reader Zax said she appreciated the practical implications of the performance.

She owns Comics n’ More on Union Street “which is the main place we need people to stop, because for so long there was nothing there,” she said of the business district’s formerly run-down state.

City Councilor Tamara Smith, a friend of Evans, was positioned on the other side of Union Street handing out gift certificates. “I also really support the arts community in Easthampton, so I’d do anything I can to increase visibility of it,” Smith said.

Evans said there was another layer of social messaging in the performance about the sometimes tense relationship between residents whose families have lived in Easthampton for generations and artists and other contributing to the newly established creative economy.

“The demographics of the town are changing really rapidly,” Evans said. The Welcoming Committee project was an “absurd representation of change” and a physical invasion of space.

Evans used the space of Easthampton’s streets which for years were dominated not by performance art, but often people traveling to and from their jobs at the now-shuttered mills.

Stilt walkers

At the intersection of Cottage and Railroad Streets, traffic-calming looked like a circus.

Stilt walkers Scott Tunderman, of Easthampton, and Ryan Freeze, of Southampton, paraded on the sidewalks and crosswalks while holding one of dozens of quilts that were brought to the gathering.

Meantime, dozens of onlookers in beach chairs and blankets showed what it was like to enjoy a slower pace of life as they quilted, knitted, whittled or drew.

Marie Armentano of Amherst said she was enjoying the mild evening weather while knitting. She got word of the gathering through a knitting group that meets monthly at Esselon Cafe in Hadley.

“It just sounded kind of interesting,” Armentano said as she made yarn loops. “The idea of doing something social that’s just a little bit different.”

The spectacle of 9-foot-high men bearing quilts indeed slowed traffic, as drivers frequently let pedestrians — including the stilt walkers — cross the street.

Doug Grant of Leeds benefited from the traffic calming while roller blading on the Manhan Rail Trail. As he took a break on a bench nearby the action, he offered insight into his experience as a user of alternate transportation.

“As a former resident of Easthampton, I’ve always liked the spirit of the community,” he said. Though he had not heard about the traffic-calming project before encountering it Saturday night, he said it was a good thing.

He said drivers passing through Easthampton’s downtown on Route 141 do not seem to give the same consideration to pedestrians as in Northampton on Route 9.

“There’s just less recognition for people in a crosswalk,” he said. He said drivers should be aware of the many alternative modes of transportations that occupy the same streets as their motor vehicles.

Chris Lindahl can be reached at clindahl@gazettenet.com.