The beautiful, though empty, Court Square.
Boutique cities can be idealistic. Northampton has been in the throes of a debate about the removal of benches from their Main Street. The benches were removed because they had become less an amenity for visitors, and more a home to the homeless. After a little political wrangling and some activism the benches were returned and Northampton was able to get back to the business of being a faux urban environment.
As I have written here before, Northampton is undeniably a spectacular place (now), and it isn’t “the fault” of that community or its residents that the demise of downtown Springfield as a walkable retail center in the 70s and 80s led to Northampton becoming the closest viable alternative. That doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be acknowledge that it is, in the end, a Potemkin Village and it isn’t a model in any meaningful way for cities like Springfield, or Worcester, or Hartford, in the same way that those cities could never be templates for Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles. The scale is different.
It is precisely that difference in scale, along with the ratio of minorities and the poor to the middle class, which makes Northampton inviting and Springfield intimidating. For just that reason homeless folks panhandling and even charging rent for benches all along Main Street in Northampton is a gauntlet which actually makes the the experience more pleasurable in that it gives the suburban shopper a feeling of greater street cred. Leaving aside the fact that there isn’t much of a retail experience to be had on Main Street in Springfield, the average out-of-town visitor to the City of Homes arrives already with a skeptical attitude about their safety and security, beyond that, they find themselves in a situation where there simply are more minorities than whites, and where much of the resident population is poor.
In Northampton panhandlers have, in many cases, perfected their craft. They get a lot of “walk-in” business. They play drums, or guitars, or harmonicas. They sit with cardboard signs and know that a certain percentage of shoppers will drop a coin or two in their hat. In Springfield the panhandler isn’t waiting for business to come to him, and isn’t even acting as a panhandler until he sees a mark. He sees me, a typical goofy looking middle class middle aged white guy, and assumes I’m a stranger in strange land. He’s walked by 15 other people without saying a word. He’s on his way from “point A” to “point B”. He assumes that, unlike those other people, I both have extra cash (doubtful!), and I can be either intimidated or bullshitted into giving up a few DOLLARS. I am usually either the only white person, or the only obvious member of the middle class in sight when this happens. For me it is just a part of life in the city, and I know that if my perambulation takes me out of a particular area of the downtown, or if I am out and about at an unusual hour, then it is possible that I will have to deal with the aforementioned circumstances.
There is simply no comparison between the two experiences for the out-of-towner. One gives the visitor something analogous to a prostitute offering the girlfriend experience, the other is very much coming face to face with the realities of poverty and homelessness.
Springfield removed benches from Court Square years ago. The homeless which used to congregate there no longer do. Of course, no one else is there either, even though I would argue that it is as beautiful a public space as exists anywhere, full stop. I suppose one could make the case that the park is a nice vignette now, without creating the uncomfortable awareness that one is in a city where there are many poor people. On the other hand, fewer non-homeless people spend time there now as well. Is that success then, or failure? If you can’t have your cake and eat it too, is it better to just throw the cake in the trash so that you need no longer worry about the whole “cake situation”?
The city refuses to admit that it removed the benches to discourage the poor from congregating at Court Square, but makes that fact perfectly obvious when it claims that the benches will be restored to the plaza when one of the nearby buildings is renovated…clearly in the hope that the proximity of the newly refurbished building will create a critical mass of non-homeless making it less likely that the destitute will return to make the square their home. If we were talking about doing this for a month or two just prior to some sort of grand re opening, I could see the sense in it…maybe. But it has been YEARS now. It’s ridiculous. I want to sit on a bench in the park and read a book. The poor will always be among us, it isn’t their presence which destroys the urban experience, it’s the absence of everybody else.
Is there a contradiction between the two basic points made in this essay? Yes. Panhandlers and the homeless in cities struggling with bad reputations to begin with constitute a challenge. Their presence does discourage people of means from coming to the city. On the other hand, taking extreme measures like the complete removal of benches from a public park makes the city less enjoyable for the people, homeless or not, who are already there. The key is to not be monomaniacal. While the poor may seem to be the problem, the actual problem, not totally unrelated to be sure, is the absence of people of means. People will not choose homelessness, or even choose Springfield as a place to be homeless because one park has or doesn’t have benches. How great an impact the marginal presence (in the econometric sense) of the marginal homeless have on the marginal visitor to the downtown is an unknown. Doing what is possible to minimize the interactions between visitors and the homeless is necessary, making life any more difficult for the homeless apart from that, is not.