Divided on downtown: City study finds dueling perspectives 

  • Sticky notes on the former Faces storefront respond to a prompt, “I wish this was a,” on Main Street in Northampton last month. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer 
Published: 11/1/2019 6:00:57 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The Mayor’s Work Group on Panhandling delved into people’s perceptions of panhandling, and with it came a detailed exploration of what they generally think of downtown.

Over 5,000 people, the majority of whom said they live in the city, responded to the work group’s Downtown Northampton Community Survey, along with around 2,000 people from outside the area. The results summarized that respondents could be placed in two camps: Those who are unhappy with the direction of the city were generally longer-term residents who are older and more traditionally conservative, while newer, younger and more liberal people “are considerably more optimistic” about its future.

Respondents “generally conformed” to the racial makeup of the city and chose to take the survey on their own volition instead of being reached randomly, according to the report released Friday by the mayor’s office. 

Survey respondents identified panhandling as “the single biggest issue facing downtown Northampton,” though many made their voices heard on other issues they believe affect downtown, along with ideas about how they think downtown could improve.

The survey report details that 25 percent of respondents visited downtown daily, with 38 percent saying they visited several times a week. In response to what draws them downtown, 88 percent of respondents cited dining/fast food, 77 percent said shopping, 58 percent said entertainment, 51 percent said to “hang out” and 38 percent said the nightlife and bars, while the rest referenced a mix of “personal care,” banking, galleries and art, and other reasons such as legal services, civic events or spiritual worship.

People coming to “hang out” are overwhelmingly younger, the survey report reads, with 65 percent of those respondents under the age of 45. In a similar vein, people coming downtown for nightlife are younger, with 49 percent of those respondents under the age of 45, the report says. Longtime residents surveyed are less likely to “people watch” or “hang out,” with 22 percent of people who have lived in the city longer than 35 years saying they engage in these activities, in contrast with 62 percent of those who have lived in the city for five years or less.

Concerns about the health of businesses downtown have been a subject of discussion for years, and the survey report touches on this extensively. 

Seven in 10 respondents believe there is “a good mix” of businesses downtown, according to the report, while the remaining 30 percent disagree. The majority of transgender people and those who identify as “other” tend to disagree that there’s a good mix of businesses downtown, while 77 percent of respondents aged 18-24 are more likely to believe there’s a good mix, compared to the 63 percent of people aged 75 and older who are less sure. 

“To some degree, familiarity seems to breed contempt on the mix of businesses,” the survey report reads. 

“Across the board, nearly every other town and location appreciate the variety of the city’s downtown offerings more than Northampton’s own residents,” the report states.

Respondents who do not believe there is a good mix of businesses downtown were asked what they thought was missing. People wrote down ideas such as a “24-hour diner,” “a community center,” “ a gay bar,” “a good deli,” “a night club” and “a free-market for real-estate that isn’t controlled by a couple of oligarchs,” to name a few.

Besides panhandling, people said the biggest issues facing downtown are “affordability, gentrification, cost of living or rent,” “addiction, drugs,” “empty storefronts,” “Amazon, threats to retail,” “classism,” “death of nightlife,” “elitism” and “income inequality.”

As for what they liked about downtown, many respondents attempted to describe a quality rather than a specific event or attraction, according to the survey. One in five said they like the “overall feel” or “vibe” of downtown. Seventeen percent said they enjoyed the “eclectic mix” of shops, restaurants, nightlife, the arts and music.

Finally, the survey found that 36 percent of respondents believe that “things in Northampton are headed in the right direction,” 29 percent believe the city is on the wrong track and 35 percent are unsure. 

“The picture that develops from this difference of outlook is one well documented in the public consciousness — the natural tension between Northampton’s traditional character and the one to which it is transitioning,” the report states.  

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com. 


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