The meeting was chaired by Bob Reckman, Chair of the Board of Public Works, Chair of the Pulaski Park Redesign Committee, and sole candidate for Ward Three City Councilor, who encouraged public participation and allowed everyone to voice their concerns. Jim Dostal, At-Large City Councilor and member of the BPW, and Chris Kennedy of the Historic Committee, two voting members of the Redesign Committee, were not present for undisclosed reasons.
Despite an apparent lack of community outreach on the part of the Committee to encourage effective attendance at the meeting, quite a few residents did attend and attendees spilled outside of the room. Quite a few residents informed me that they read about it on MySpace, saw the fliers downtown, or saw a posting on the Paradise City Forum Yahoo Group. [Disclosure: I posted the fliers in town, and created the MySpace page]
Bob Reckman started the meeting a few minutes after 5, allowing a moment for those committee members who arrived late. Bob stated how the process for the committee developed, which immediately drew a response from Carolyn Toll Oppenheim, a member of the audience, who objected to the lack of public input in the formation of the committee, and with the make-up of the committee, which she felt sorely lacked a diverse and representative body of the numerous groups and demographics that call Northampton their home. After a give and take with Bob on the topic, with Bob defending the process and make-up of the Committee, Carolyn stated that "she respectfully disagrees, and it's conceivable that there was a perfectly understandable oversight on your part."
With 20 members on the committee, and city officials and business owners having an overwhelming presence on the committee, one could reasonably argue that the committee is indeed woefully unrepresentative of the whole community. I should point out here, that at the joint meeting of the BPW and City Council that took place the evening before and which I attended, Paul Spector, Ward Two City Councilor, made a request via the Youth Commission, who have another voting spot on the committee, that they be allowed to have one more voting member on the committee. Bob respectfully declined to allow that, and encouraged any members of the Youth Commision to attend the meetings and voice their concerns, but noted, "I don't want to give the youth two votes." There was an implication in his tone that giving one group two votes would be unfair. I feel compelled to point out that there are two downtown business owners on the Committee, in addition to Andrew Crystal, President of the Board of Trustees of the Academy of Music, and Shardool Parmar, of the Pioneer Valley Hotel Group, who will be building the hotel on the east end of the park. A concern about giving one group two votes seems reasonable on it's face, though their are four representatives on the Committee who were chosen because of their affiliation with business concerns downtown.
Nancy Dening commented that "showing up is 99%, we don't want to rely on votes." She continued, "No one has missed anything, this is the first meeting." Without wanting to cause further delays in the meeting, I remained silent, though I wanted to observe that making a declaration that you don't want to rely on votes -when you are the one that has the votes- and that no one has missed anything, might ring hollow to those members of the public who continually feel excluded from the democratic process, and who's input was not requested during any of the groundwork leading up to this committee.
Bob moved the discussion along, declaring the five sources of funding he has identified for financing the redesign. They were:
A woman from the audience voiced her concern that these meeting might be all for naught, as she wondered aloud what the chances were that after everyone gave their time and energy, the City would decide to not make any improvements at all, or only very minimal ones. She asked Bob what the chances are that this might happen. A committee member rolled their eyes. Bob responded to the question, "As long as I'm involved, their is a 2% chance that will happen."
Another audience member pointed out that Bob missed one source of funding, Community Development Block Grants. He added that to the list. I'd like to note one more source of funding. The community. History shows in communities across the world that if the community feels heard, listened to, encouraged, respected, and given the right tools to do so, they can be relied upon for economic and physical funding, and would be glad to offer such. That source must not be overlooked, and it is imperative in an any democracy that values equality, social capital, and community building, that the community be allowed to give their time and money. If I had my choice between a bench with a plaque that declared it was donated by "ABC Insurance Company" or a bench built by a of group of residents, I would prefer a bench that the community built and placed there, and it is clear that members of the public desire the same opportunity to do such a thing in Pulaski Park, land legally owned by the residents of Northampton.
Nancy Dening continued the meeting, getting up from her seat to use a schematic design of Pulaski Park as a visual tool where she discussed where the Hotel would be situated, and asked everyone in the room to note what they like about the park, and then, what they do not like about the park.
People noted a variety of things they like about the park. The exclusion from the bustle on Main St. you experience while in the park. The grass, the raised area behind the concrete steps. The play structure, the flowers, the bus stop, free Wi-Fi access, the blank wall on the Academy. The tree in the middle of the pathway. The stairwell that leads to the parking lot below. How it feels as if the park has separate areas within the whole, and how you notice that while in certain areas. Many things people liked were mentioned, and I know I missed a few. Please leave comments below with what you like about the park.
Next up was a request to name what you did not like about the park. It was too dark at night, some people felt unsafe there in the evening, it was not inviting, it was closed off from the rest of the community on Main St., there was no public drinking water supply. There were not enough flowers, not enough grass, too much pavement. The drainage hole behind the play structure was an obstruction. Again, I missed so much in my notes. Please leave your own comments below.
After lively discussion about what people did and did not like about the park, Nancy asked everyone there to speak about what features they would like to see in the park. This proved the most lively, and everyone had great ideas.
A community bulletin board. Public water supply. Recycling containers. A bus stop that was integrated and connected with the park. A StoryBooth installed to record the oral history of Northampton residents, to help facilitate a better understanding of all those who live here. [listen to the feature on NPR about StoryBooth] Some noted they would like a cafe in Pulaski Park, a performance stage, electrical outlets that were pay as you go to prevent abuse. An area for free films to be shown on the wall of the Academy. Sculptures, art benches and a variety of seating options. Tables, food carts, and permission from the DPW to allow Food Not Bombs to use the park, as current DPW rules do not allow the vending of food in Pulaski Park. Everyone was given three stickers, and invited to place one next to each idea or feature they favored, ideas and features that Nancy diligently noted on large pieces of paper. Do you have more ideas or features you would like to see? Ones I missed? Please leave them in the comments.
The meeting ran from 5-6.30pm at which time another scheduled group was using the room. People seemed cautiously hopeful that the Redesign of Pulaski Park might yet still be used a vehicle for community building in Northampton. It is my opinion that this is the greatest opportunity presented here. My concern is not so much with what does or doesn't happen structurally with the redesign. My concern is that a redesign of Pulaski Park presents an opportunity for community building in Northampton that I have not witnessed in the 32 years I've lived here. There is an opportunity here for people who feel marginalized and excluded from the City to feel a part of. To feel a part of the community in ways that would serve to inspire them for the foreseeable future. The energy and community that would develop around the redesign could be harnessed and applied in a wide variety of community affairs. A working group of residents could be inspired to plant flowers around the trees downtown, taking care of the gardening themselves. A renters organization might spring up to help with issues faced by people who rent property from unscruplous landlords. Inspiration might strike some to create an illicit and underground group of people who show digital films around town for free, and in secret locations every month. A community group of parents who buy groceries for their children in bulk, using their collective power as a bargaining chip for lower prices, as is common in Japan. The potential for community building here is great. It's not necessary to pinpoint specific ways the power could be harnessed. It's only necessary to recognize the opportunity, and to make a decision to seize it. The power of that collective community effort would be limited only by our own reservations. If harnessed and then let loose, it could change the face of Northampton for decades, inspiring communities across the globe. That is the real opportunity here, and it is clear to me that it is an opportunity the people of Northampton will have to take themselves, as I'm not sure that the power structure now involved in this process can or want to see that.
(Photo of the Willie15 Bike Parade, June 12th, 2006. Willie15 was a community organized, non-permited bike parade that happened the last monday of every month during the summer of 2006.)
LABELS: pulaski park redesign, community building