Guest columnist Cherrie Latuner: Cherry trees, and the human in city government

Published: 9/20/2021 7:56:36 AM

When I read the Rev. Andrea Ayvazian’s column on Aug. 21 (“What does it mean to be human in Northampton?”), in which she decries the “tone of negativity and hyper-criticism that seems to be present in our civic discourse lately,” I thought immediately of the public outcry and city response in the controversy surrounding the cherry trees on Warfield Place.

For me, that outcry was justified, as the city failed to be civil in its handling of the whole controversy and nowhere did it show itself to embrace that human element that Rev. Ayvazian speaks of.

To my fellow readers, who may be “fed up with the cherry tree conversation,” I’m sorry, but the cherry trees will stand in our imagination, as they no longer stand physically, as an iconic reminder of what is fundamentally wrong in government writ large, and that is unconscionable in small local government: the refusal to take the human into account, to be human in its dealing with its citizens.

Following closely all the columns by the Warfield residents who fought for their trees, all the details of the ways in which humanity was missing from these municipal decisions made with respect to those trees, I had to think: if the city wants to take such an unfeeling stand, it should be ready for the outcry it will generate.

For my part, I was especially chilled by the residents’ reporting of Mayor David Narkewicz’s dismissive attitude and response when the residents appealed to him directly, in person. And the crass and disrespectful and surreptitious way the Department of Public Works descended on the street in utter lack of transparency to eradicate the trees, to shut down any more flack from the residents.

To be sure, there are other points of view from other residents of Warfield Place, but what is absolutely certain to me is that a well-meaning city government would have filtered all the different points of view and found a solution that worked for all — rather than turning the issue into a polemic. Is this the hill the DPW wanted to die on? Was it so important for it to throw its weight around at the expense of people who simply loved and cared about their trees?

In writing this, I wanted to add my voice to amplify David Ball’s column on Aug. 27, “Warfield Place and the coming elections,” in which he details the injustices in the Warfield Place incident and stresses how important our next mayoral election is. Do we have any hope of getting the human back into our city government? If we can’t do it in Northampton, then it can’t be done.

We have one of the rarest of opportunities here to be a model municipality — to show the rest of the country how city government can be effective and human.

The cherry trees will remain as a reminder that we have recently failed. In our future, after the mayoral elections, we are faced with so many important municipal policy decisions regarding potential reorganization of the police department and establishment of the Department of Community Care, questions over public housing, the redesign of Main Street, and all the other economic and social justice issues. Are we going to go forward with humanity at the center of our municipal decisions? Or not?

A week or so ago, Shanna Fishel, one of the four current mayoral candidates, knocked on my door and we spoke for a while. Not an experienced municipal servant, they are, rather, someone who has experienced the effect of municipal decisions in their life and the lives of others they have served in their social work. I hope that Fishel will emerge in the Sept. 28 primary as one of the two mayoral candidates going forward into the general election, so that we might have a real debate about the role of humanity in the way the city government comes to its decisions and policy.

If we lose our humanity, we are just a municipal machine.

Cherrie Latuner lives in Florence.

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