"Not eating chard. That's what all those weirdos eat at their stupid picnics on the Hungry Ghost lawn." -Nina

September 04, 2007

Main St. Sidewalks In State Of Disrepair.

This is the first in a series about downtown Northampton's streetscape. In this post, we look at the condition of beautiful brick work on Main St. put down between the concrete sidewalk and the street, and why it's important to have it maintained, aside from the esthetic value.

Everywhere we look, we see the streetscape and sidewalks on Main St. are falling apart. Literally.

Sitting on the steps of the Edwards church one evening, Northamptonist witnessed two people trip on the section of sidewalk in front of the church where the concrete meets the brick. The two materials meet in a very uneven and rough way, creating different levels in the sidewalk. When the first person tripped, we noted it, but were not too concerned, as the tripee was a young man who would take a fall well. When the second person tripped, it wasn't as easy to dismiss. She was an elderly lady who came very, very close to suffering a bad fall. We wondered to ourselves how often this section of sidewalk is tripped over by people. We wondered if people call the DPW or City Hall to alert them to this. We wondered if the City of Northampton was placing itself on the costly side of a lawsuit. (Northamptonist would rather they spend money on a digital projector to show films for free in Pulaski Park on the wall of the Academy) We wondered who's purview the maintenance of these streets are. We wondered how the City of Northampton allocates their monies, and how we might have an effect on that.

Walking on Main St. it is now impossible for us to ignore the sorry state of our beloved sidewalks. The brickwork, holding it's form strongly for years, has now been extensively damaged by heavy pedestrian traffic, the elements, and the changing movements of the soil underneath. One brick loosens, and the then the next one. Over time, whole sections of brick have been displaced, displaying the black pavement of projects past. When winter arrives soon, and then leaves again in the spring, exposing these bricks to a tough bout of freeze and thaw, and the heavy hand of shoveling, they will no doubt be in major need of repair.

Northamptonist called the DPW to inquire as to what could be done about this. Told a work order needed to be initiated, and that we could do that, we did just that. They asked us for locations of deteriorating brick work, and we noted this for them. We gave our phone number, and our address, and a work order was placed. I was informed that the DPW is and has been aware of the deteriorating condition of the brick work downtown. The work order will catalogued and prioritized. When they have a crew to spare, they will set about the repair. "It won't happen overnight. But you can call back in a few weeks to check on the status."

Northamptonist understands that the repair to the brickwork downtown will not happen over night. In this particular instance, we would understand if it did not happen until after winter. Although having to payout a claim in a lawsuit -when someone trips and breaks their neck- is a serious possibility. And we wonder if it might be good preventative maintenance to do the work this fall, in a way that would prevent even further destruction of already large swaths of the brick.

The deteriorating brick work downtown illuminates a larger issue with public space downtown Northampton. Often, unless private business take initiative or make complaints, changes are not made. We respect a private business's right to agitate for change, and can appreciate the changes they can accomplish when they bring their influence to bear. We also believe that it is important for individual members of the public to respectfully request the same level of consideration. When the DPW repairs the brick work downtown, they are repairing our brick, and reaffirming our ownership of it.

The sidewalks and streetscape downtown, taken as whole, and the legislation governing it, need a new direction that considers all aspects of the issues. One that is responsive to and conforms with the needs of the whole community, and is considerate of the larger public interest that is often missed when dealing with the minutiae of city regulations. City officials have moved to accommodate all manner of special interest requests under all manner of rubric. The newspaper boxes are an "impediment to pedestrian traffic, and a safety hazard." The restaurant sidewalk tables dotting Main St. were given even more access to the rights and obstruction of public space to create "a more vibrant and healthy downtown." Consideration of public safety by city officials often seem to be used in conflicting manner to fit the argument.

Piecemeal legislation such as the examples above lend themselves to being too easily modified and altered by influential individuals and businesses who have their own agendas, often misguided, that create negative value for the public at large. Newspaper boxes, sidewalk tables, infrastructure, Pulaski Park...the City of Northampton, in bits and pieces, by action or lack thereof, is changing the format of our public space downtown, and it appears they are doing so without a comprehensive overview, and solely in response to private business. Although, as if to offer a rebuttal to my own argument, the DPW recently created a permitting process that allows members of the public to sell and perform art on public property, which was an accommodating policy change that is beneficial to the public at large. Nonetheless, vigilance is required to see that a creeping privatisation of public space does not, one day without notice, become be de rigueur. Roped off sidewalk tables, cafes in Pulaski Park, police shooing away individuals from private business. In this light, it is important that the DPW maintain the sidewalks, and other public areas downtown. It helps maintain the right to public ownership of public space, preventing a precedent setting move from private concerns who might for instance, offer to maintain them, in return for restrictive access.

Drafting these regulations, when done with the intent of creating exemplary public space -that is responsive to and conforms to the needs of the whole community- is an effort to applaud. Done simply because private business request it, is dangerous and offensive to community spirit. It's a fine line, and one which must be approached with caution.

Police Captain Michael Wall is on record as opposing the permitting process for street musicians, worried about the "strain" it will cause on his department. He also noted that businesses have complained about the talent, or lack thereof, of people who are performing on the street. "Who will determine who is a good juggler or dancer? Can a 12-year-old get a juggling permit?" he asked. I would respond with a resounding yes. It's absurd to think that use of public space be subjected to a litmus test of talent, while motorcycles with illegal pipes that emit a deafening and frightful roar ride without penalty up and down Main St.

The opposition from Northampton's Police Chief to allowing the public a regulated right to enjoy their public space reminded me of a quote I read when reading about the recently enacted law in nyc restricting photography without a permit. In response, a member of a group fighting to overturn the law, said, "I already have a permit. It's called the Constitution of the United States." City Hall in nyc quickly agreed to rewrite law under pressure from residents, and threats of lawsuits from civil liberty groups.

LABELS: downtown public space infrastructure