Editorial: Sticky notes and street art: Public displays enliven conversation around downtown

  • Sticky notes on the former Faces window respond to a prompt, “I wish this was a,” on Main Street in Northampton, Monday, Oct. 14, 2019. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • The late, legendary Frances Crowe. Illustration by Sophie Willard Van Sistine

Published: 10/17/2019 1:08:15 PM

A lot of businesses have suggestion boxes — but have you ever wondered if the people who put them out actually read the contents? For all we know, those suggestions scrawled on scraps of paper could be gathering dust, unseen.

We know that’s not the case with a recent call for ideas that appeared at 175 Main St., the building that housed Faces before it shuttered its downtown location in April. Earlier this week, knots of passers-by gathered on the sidewalk to read a prompt posted on the display windows, “I wish this was a,” near sticky notes and markers for those inclined to respond.

The result was an ephemeral display that served as part “suggestion window” and part found-poetry exhibit, with ideas encompassing the practical, playful and political. There were multiple requests for thrift stores, repair shops, community centers, homeless shelters/lockers, and music/dance/LGBTQ-friendly clubs. “Silent disco or cat café (or both),” read one note. “12 new good jobs with good pay,” read another.

Rachael Gibney, one of two people behind the project, had some thoughts of her own to share. She envisions a wellness/community center and cafe called Tree of Dreams, which would offer services like acupuncture, reiki, massage, and art therapy, she told reporter Greta Jochem. The basement could feature an oxygen bar.

Understandably, Gibney was put off by the price tag on the building, which still houses TD Bank. According to the website for Colebrook Realty Services, the asking price for the 33,228-square-foot property is $4,150,000.

But hey, as long as we’re all still dreaming — earlier this week, our editorial board had an impromptu pitch session about what we’d like to see in the space. One among us wanted more practical options downtown, asking in annoyance, “Where do I go downtown to buy a pair of socks?” Another board member wondered whether a Trader Joe’s would be a welcome addition on Main Street. (“No! No! It’s a chain,” someone else chimed in.) In the end, we couldn’t agree on one specific idea to endorse, though most of us would like to see more of an experiential element downtown.

Some ideas that stuck:

■An indoor park, like Mill 180 in Easthampton. We need more communal spaces downtown where people can socialize, hang out, run around (especially in cold weather) and get a drink or a bite to eat. It could double as a space for special events, both public and private.  

■A food hall with a bunch of interesting, affordable options from smaller restaurateurs. Like a gathering of food trucks, but without the wheels, the space could give hip upstarts a place to hone their craft and get exposure, while adding variety to the eating options downtown. Complete with comfortable seating to nosh and maybe a small stage for local bands to play, a food hall could bring together foodies of all flavors downtown.

■A European-style beer hall with a limited menu of good food. Common tables and no televisions, a long bar, a dozen beers on tap, no more.

■A permanent public market as the heart of a mixed-use downtown entertainment district. This would require a larger-scale economic development plan to incorporate a pedestrian walking mall, downtown streetcar line, housing and, potentially, a satellite college campus.

■A health club; bottom floor an indoor play space for kids that also includes a child watch space (with a small corner for men’s socks). 

■A public space combining fun family activities like a roller rink, arcade games, a fountain to sit around, with places to eat and drink and an art-house movie theater.

■An art-house movie theater. Downtown Northampton has been missing a place to see movies since Pleasant Street Theater closed, and having that space could help be the anchor that has been missing since Faces abruptly left. Would love to see the space incorporate itself into Arts Night Out on Second Fridays.

We want to hear your ideas, too — about downtown in general. Please join the Gazette Wednesday, Oct. 23, 5:30-7 p.m., for a forum on the future of downtown at Click Workspace, 9½ Market St. in Northampton. We’ll provide light fare and refreshments. RSVP via the Facebook event: Future of Downtown Northampton.

***

Like many of you, we appreciated the apparent homage to the late activist Frances Crowe that recently appeared on sidewalks downtown. A mystery artist painted a series of black crows, with “Frances” written in silver lettering. The birds were in plain view on the corner of Main and Gothic streets and on the sidewalk outside the Hampshire Council of Governments building. But the artist remains unknown, and many people like it that way. A few Facebook commenters asked the Gazette to not reveal the artist’s identity — one reader quoted songwriter Iris DeMent, who sings, “no one knows for certain/ and so it’s all the same to me/ I think I’ll just let the mystery be.”

We hear you. We’ll let the mystery be.

***

Rather than out a street artist, let us introduce you to a talented, young comics artist whose work will be featured on this page once a month going forward. Originally from Claremont, California, Sophie Willard Van Sistine is a junior at Smith College majoring in studio art and creative writing. We met Willard Van Sistine when she visited the newsroom with her classmates in the seminar “Writing About Women and Gender,” taught by journalist and author Susan Faludi (“In the Darkroom,” “Backlash”). Faludi later shared the young artist’s work with the Gazette, and now we want to share it with you.

Over the coming months, Willard Van Sistine will be illustrating a range of local issues for us on the Opinion page. We asked her to start with a portrait of Crowe.

“I was inspired to learn about Frances Crowe’s creativity as an activist,” said Willard Van Sistine. “For example, she poured her own blood over a nuclear submarine in protest of nuclear war. I can’t say I would use that particular method of protest, but I like that she thought outside of the box. She was persistent.

“I was also inspired by her work to bring Democracy Now! to airwaves in the Pioneer Valley,” Willard Van Sistine continued. “She believed that ‘getting information out was a means of liberation,’ and I agree with that. That’s what I’m trying to do through comics … I see art as a tool for social change.”

When she’s not writing or drawing, Willard Van Sistine can likely be found “doing yoga, attempting to learn contortion,” she says, “or chilling out in my room, eating brownies and listening to music.”




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