Robert Weir: Northampton and the boiled frog

  • Downtown Northampton in March of 2018. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 10/21/2019 8:00:12 PM

Remember the tale of the frog placed in a pot with tepid water on such a slow simmer that it sits contently as it boils to death? Such a scenario might be factually dodgy, but it’s the moral that counts: Pay attention to danger signs.

Welcome to Northampton, where city officials, civic boosters, the occasional Gazette editorialist and the tragically optimistic are so many frogs oblivious to downtown boiling away. They bathe in lukewarm thinking — panhandlers aren’t a problem, empty storefronts are part of the normal business cycle, downtown is safe, and two recent additions: ex-countercultural Baby Boomers simply want to turn back the clock, and all Northampton really has is “an identity problem.” Talk about fables!

I’ve lived here since 1986 and have embraced downtown Northampton in all its iterations — from when three floors of the Sullivan School had retail shops to the café culture of the present. I’ve spent so much time on Main Street I’ve been asked in which store I work.

Yet even I have curtailed trips downtown. A recent tipping point came when I walked into town 75 minutes before most stores opened and observed six panhandlers already in place and a guy snorting cocaine on the steps of City Hall.

After years of handing out money on the street, I’ve stopped and it’s not because I’ve become callous. It’s the realization that if begging were the way out of poverty, faces I’ve known for years would have moved out of it. I’ve also witnessed too many smashed windows, vandalized statues, ripped out flower displays, vomiting drunks, acts of public urination and fisticuffs to concur that everything is just fine.

Does the Chamber of Commerce hear the voices of residents that say they never go downtown anymore? Does City Hall notice that female college students travel in packs?

The following could be done immediately:

■Get more cops out of their cars and onto the street. Police should be a constant presence downtown, especially in the wee hours.

■ Allow shopkeepers to install security cameras to identify those who destroy or degrade property. The angle of view can be restricted to the front of the store to allay fears that recordings will aid ICE raids.

■Enhance traffic flow by making double parkers move their vehicles immediately. Enforce jaywalking laws and ticket bicyclists who disregard traffic laws.·

■Improve pedestrian safety by enforcing right turn on red after a complete stop at the corner of Main and South streets. Reprogram the light. No more lame excuses.

<sbull value="sbull"><text xmlns="urn:schemas-teradp-com:gn4tera"></text></sbull>Adopt a fair-rent standard for retail space. This would encourage an end to gouging, especially if coupled with a derelict building excise tax that penalizes property owners for keeping spaces empty for more than two years.

As for the poor:

■Create a consolidated cluster of now-scattered social agencies that deal with housing, job counseling, food security, addiction recovery and public health. Build a café lounge in one of the spaces so street people can socialize, be warm, access job banks, get up-to-the-moment shelter information, enroll in vocational training and access needed services.

There’s lots of empty space on Pleasant Street and in now-empty churches. Imagine how much more efficient agencies would become if personnel actually had to rub elbows with clients.

■ The city should do all it can to get the state employment office out of its Industrial Drive cloister and downtown where jobless people can actually get to it.

■Buskers need permits to play on Northampton streets. Permits should be required of anyone asking for money, including religious groups and school fundraisers. These could be given away to the indigent, but they should be restricted to those who are residents — even if it’s a tent or shelter.

Is there anything more cynical than surrounding towns busing their poor to Northampton? Springfield and Holyoke need to find solutions of their own rather than straining Northampton’s resources.

■Give money to helping agencies instead of perpetuating poverty by handing it out on the street.

Our increasingly distant and distracted city government should focus on what can be done instead of what can’t. There’s another applicable fable — the one about killing the goose that laid golden eggs.

Robert Weir is a freelance writer and longtime resident of Florence.


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