Guest columnist Valerie Reiss: A river of welcome

  • People come from all over to swim in the Mill River in Leeds. Residents complain about the noise and garbage left behind. Gazette file photo

Published: 7/28/2020 5:06:29 PM

For years, an especially idyllic stretch of the Mill River by Leeds was relatively unpopulated, a paradise in which you could skinny-dip and blueberry hunt undisturbed.

But it is now a spot that hums with humans during the summer. They bring what humans bring — family and friends and food and music. And they leave what humans leave when a place is not set up to accommodate them — trash. This has made many residents around the river angry, frustrated and at a loss for how to handle the river’s popularity, which has grown steadily in the last 10 years or so.

As a group of concerned Leeds residents, we get it. We empathize with the frustration at seeing this stunning place full of discarded waste. We understand the sadness that comes from realizing that something you thought was only yours to enjoy is not — and is not being treated as you would like. We relate to the awful sensation of helplessness, especially in a chaotic time when so much feels beyond our control.

But we don’t like how we’re seeing this handled by some neighbors. A handful are calling the police; taking videos of visitors, including children, without their permission and emailing them as evidence of a disturbance; and are limiting parking and curtailing river access in other ways.

Some facts about why this is a problem: 1) Leeds residents, like the rest of Northampton, are mostly white. 2) Many people visiting the river are largely Latino and Black. 3) In our culture, when white people call the cops on people of color, it is an act of aggression — one that reinforces systemic racism by potentially setting in motion the brutalization, murder and incarceration of people of color. 4) Severely limiting parking excludes people from accessing a public space that should be open to all, regardless of where they live or who they are.

We do not want to reinforce institutionalized racism or classism. Whether white neighbors intend it or not, whether they think it’s “just about the trash and the noise” and has nothing to do with race — this does not matter. The impact of white people engaging inherently racist systems, such as the police, to exclude people of color for harming “their space” rests on a history of white supremacy. We do not support that.

Our search for solutions should be an effort of inclusion. Let’s fund seasonal dumpsters, trash cans with regular removal, portable toilets, friendly signs and enhanced parking. It would also be helpful to assess the situation with a land-use study to learn the best ways to support the space and the people using it. The Leeds Civic Association recently distributed a survey to solicit feedback and ideas. Let’s look at those answers and combine all of our ingenuity. Let’s see how other communities in similar situations have worked out equitable solutions.

We want to remind Leeds neighbors that the river and its land are not ours. In a practical sense this area belongs to the city, Chartpak and a yet-to-be-identified owner. But in a historical sense, the Nonotuck people and possibly other native groups, who lived in Northampton for hundreds of years before being pushed away and wiped out by English colonists, were perhaps the first to know this stretch of water.

We can only imagine how idyllic it must have been before Europeans moved in and mowed forests for homes and the factories that once lined the river and then polluted it. They also created a faulty dam that eventually flooded several towns, killing dozens. Later, more lots were cleared to expand the suburban neighborhoods that now abut the water. If anyone is a visitor from somewhere else, it’s us, the people who live here now.

Let’s figure out how to use this space together — without asking police to arrest, ticket, or shoo away families cooling off on a hot day. We would like to see real community energy go into implementing productive, non-punitive, community-based solutions that welcome guests to this area while stewarding the land’s peace, beauty and ecology for many to enjoy.

This column is signed by Leeds residents Lauren Duffy, Elizabeth Mullin, Meghan Steed, Kristin Pisano, Liza Harrington, Dale West, Ray Sylvester, Kristen Elde, Jessica Wheeler, Jesse Ladner, Eliza Daniels, Al McKusick, Alisa Klein, Joshua Birk, Sheryl Stoodley, Robin Doty, Norma Adler, Em Beauchamp, Liz Burnworth, Karen Carter, Jenna and Tim Recuber and Kelly Silliman.

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