Guest columnists Kathryne Young and Elizabeth Gaudet: Put brakes on Warfield project

  • Blooming cherry trees on Warfield Place. The city of Northampton is planning to take the trees down in order to widen and fix potholes in the road. Gazette file photo

Published: 5/3/2021 4:32:35 PM

A few weeks ago, two pieces of paper were taped onto every house door lining Warfield Place, the tiny L-shaped street tucked between Finn and Prospect streets. We discovered ours in the early evening, emerging from several hours of Zoom-induced work stupor.

One paper was a letter from the Northampton Department of Public Works, saying that the street was going to be “improved” (although not why, nor precisely when). The other was a map of Warfield that proved useless to discerning even the most basic details about the plan (for example, which trees would be cut down, where new ones would go, which sidewalks would be widened and how).

Much texting ensued among the neighbors. We are a civic-minded little group, from many walks of life, and we relish living in a town that values diversity, creativity and plain old weirdness. We tried to give the DPW the benefit of the doubt, but every time one of us called, we were told things like, “It’s city property and we can technically do whatever we want.” Many of us wrote letters filled with questions: which plantings would remain? Could the city fill the potholes without repaving the whole street and triggering the law about 5-foot-wide sidewalks? What law was this, anyway? Would we have to rip out our existing median gardens? Was this “disease” afflicting the 50-year-old cherry trees treatable?

Instead of answering our questions, the DPW scheduled a Zoom meeting. The gist of the meeting was: You have no say; this is all city property; we are correct in doing whatever we want.

Of course, the DPW is correct that Warfield’s residents do not own the street or the sidewalk. We do not “own” the strip of garden between the sidewalk and street that we have lovingly planted and tended with hibiscus, baptisia, penstemon, and a rare red-barked sango kaku maple. Adam and Cecilia, who live on the north side of us, and whose children are the sixth generation to live on Warfield Place, do not “own” the cherry trees that make their house so radiant every spring. Ruth and Oliver, who live next door, do not “own” the yuccas or the purple smoke bush or the sedums we picked out together at local nurseries.

Instead of planting and beautifying, we all could have said, “Oh, that land? The city owns that. Let’s just let it fill with weeds.” And we would have been “correct,” if “correct” means statutorily justified — if we thought about ownership the way the DPW does: “Our land, not your land.”

But community is about more than individuals technocratically coexisting without infringing on one another’s legal entitlements. Community is when Sharon and Paul, the couple on the corner, gifted us a calorie pear tree our first spring here. Community is Ruth and Oliver shoveling Lois’ walk in the winter, Cecilia texting to see if we are OK after a storm, younger neighbors doing grocery runs for older ones in the early days of the pandemic. How cold and cruel the world would be if we all thought in terms of turf and rights and ownership and efficiency instead of needs, capacities, and small kindnesses.

In short, the DPW’s approach to the street “improvement” is antithetical to everything we value. We were never asked how busy our street is, or where people tend to walk. We were given no options for street beautification. Our idiosyncratic questions about plantings and parking were ignored. No one even asked if we are too completely and utterly exhausted to handle months of deafening construction noise all summer long.

The circles and lines on an inscrutable map may represent “progress” and “efficiency” to the DPW, but to us, they represent disrespect for Warfield Place and the people who love it. We are being given very little information, no meaningful opportunity for feedback, and no chance to collaborate on what kind of plan might make the most sense from the perspective of the engaged, smart, lovely, diverse people who live here. Sure, the DPW can technically proceed with the plan even though every Warfield resident opposes at least some significant part of it. But that is not the kind of city we want to live in, and it is not the kind of community we aspire to build.

At minimum, the DPW needs to put the brakes on this plan and create a way to collaborate with Warfield, rather than steamrolling — quite literally — over our concerns.

Kathryne Young is a sociology professor at UMass Amherst; she and Elizabeth Gaudet live in Northampton.
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