The handwritten sign at Christina Weibel’s feet reads: “Please help this stereotyped sober soul survivor with daily struggle.”
“People ask me what that means,” she says. “I tell them that drugs and alcohol tried to suck up my soul, and I managed to get it back.”
Weibel is 55 now, but she’s been living in the Northampton area since the age of 13, when she started doing drugs. She says that her conviction on a 2005 cocaine distribution charge prevents her from getting government assistance, and that in April she was charged with distributing marijuana. Now she stands on Main Street outside The Mercantile store, offering passersby a collection of crocheted headbands, gloves, and hand warmers arrayed on a blanket. She makes these herself, and offers them in exchange for donations.
“I ran around most of my life making dumb decisions,” says Weibel, who says she now sleeps in her car when she can’t afford a hotel room. “I have a reputation, and I’m trying to change that. I’ve been sober three years, and I’m out here almost every day just trying to put food on the table.”
Weibel is one of many women and men who regularly spend extended periods of time on Main Street seeking money from passersby. Some are homeless. Many struggle with some combination of drug problems, criminal records, family hardship, mental illness, and behavioral issues.
But they all get the benefit of the doubt in a “Resolution to Support Vibrant Sidewalks,” which was first taken up by the Northampton City Council in June 2013 and recently resurfaced for debate.
“Not every activity that takes place on a sidewalk is comfortable,” reads the resolution, referring to potentially disruptive activity ranging from political protests to panhandling. “Still, these activities should be accommodated on ‘democratic’ sidewalks.”
While some residents, visitors and merchants support the spirit of tolerance expressed in the resolution, others say that spirit can only go so far before it starts interfering with the rights of business owners and their customers to feel comfortable downtown.
“It could drive people away,” said Bud Stockwell, owner of Cornucopia and chairman of the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce’s downtown business committee. “It could drive small business away from Main Street so that bigger chains take their places, and then Northampton’s streets wouldn’t be so vibrant.”
On Friday, October 24, Advocate reporters and photographers spent 18 hours on Main Street, observing life on the sidewalk from dawn until midnight.
The goal: to paint a detailed picture of the complexities of a day in the life of the Main Street sidewalks. The result: Read on.
Northampton by Day
The rain has mostly let up by the time Main Street starts to glow with dawn light. The handful of early risers who emerge from Dunkin’ Donuts clutching steaming cups step onto wet, deserted pavement. Look up and down Main Street at 8 a.m. on a morning like this, and only a dozen people are visible at a time, walking quickly, bags tucked under raincoats.
Here and there, commercial vehicles pause outside storefronts. At the corner of Main and Old South Streets, a man jumps from a van with an industrial vacuum strapped to his back. He takes advantage of the empty sidewalk to run about thirty feet of power cable to his destination. A block up, perishables emerge from a truck and go gliding to a shopfront on a handcart, the worker unseen behind tall boxes.
Until 10 a.m., the benches are too wet to occupy. After that, they fill up quickly. A young girl wrapped in a thick coat sits outside The Mercantile, flicking through screens on her smartphone and bouncing her feet to keep warm. A young man looks at her for a long moment as he passes, carrying two large Starbucks cups. Half a minute later, he’s handing off one of the cups to another girl, who kisses him warmly and sits him down on a nearby bench to snuggle.
On the bench outside Edwards Church, Teo Iraola waits for the R42 bus. “I need to get up to Florence,” he says, gritting his teeth against the cold. “It’s for a medical appointment.”
As the pavement dries and the sun comes out, street musician Downtown Daniel sets up his milk crate seat outside of Bueno Y Sano and tunes his guitar. “Yesterday was rough, but today it’s supposed to be dry,” he says. A young woman rolls a stroller past, and Daniel widens his eyes at the silent baby inside. The woman flicks him the briefest of glances.
The clouds are clearing as city police officer Ryan Teller rests astride his bicycle outside of City Hall. It’s a calm day so far, he says, but as always he’s on the lookout for trouble, including potentially disruptive behavior among panhandlers and the homeless.
“When I worked for the Amherst PD, I was mostly keeping peace among the college crowd,” he says. “But Northampton has more of a homeless and transient population. I see people taking the bus in for the day, coming from Holyoke, Greenfield, Turners Falls. You start to learn their names, and they start to get to know you.
“I just want to make sure that things are flowing downtown and that people are happy,” he adds, explaining that anyone sitting on the sidewalk needs to sit on the brick pavers beside the road.
“If you’re on the concrete, you’re blocking the sidewalk. That’s a no-go. That’s how we regulate it,” he explains. “As long as you’re on the pavers, I just say good morning and ask them how they’re doing. I don’t really move people unless they’re being aggressive.”
That was happening more over the spring and summer, he says. “We were getting a lot of complaints. When the weather’s warmer, you tend to see more open [alcohol] containers, sleeping on the benches, things like that. So we had to crack down for a while.”
Raven Storm, 32, sits cross-legged outside of the Faces store, asking for change. She says she’s done her best to stay dry today. “Why do you think I’m sitting on this pile of newspaper?”
A young woman in a purple scarf walks by Storm, then pivots and comes back. “Would you like a sandwich?”
“Sure. Thank you.”
“Have a great day,” says the woman, and exits briskly. Storm pops open the paper box. “Breakfast. Yay!”
“Most people are pretty nice,” she says. “This town is pretty good for meals.”
She’s been homeless for four years, she explains. Finding a good place to sit on Main Street took a little effort, since many of the choice locations were taken. “It’s just seniority. If you’ve been out here a while, you find a place, and that’s where you sit.”
Storm has her sweater pulled down around her knees. Cold is not her friend. “But you actually make more money in the winter than during the summer. People are more likely to give to you around Christmas. People are more sympathetic during the holidays.”
By noon, more players have entered the mix and Main Street has begun to bustle. Lunchers and shoppers navigate between canvassers from Planned Parenthood and volunteers with Western Massachusetts Labor Action. Sidewalk bicyclers weave through the crowd, occasionally jerking out of the way of a toddling child or a dog on a leash.
Planted outside of Faces, musician Joe Bass grins a toothy grin as he strums and croons “The Weight,” and then “Desperado.” He looks up when that one’s over. “How about a little John Denver?” He starts up again, and a man in a blazer tosses him a dollar.
Brett Rowley, a street musician visiting for the day from Southampton, says he’ll be playing well into the afternoon, and possibly into the evening. He makes some good money here playing his mahogany red guitar.
“This is a good town for it, man. What can I say?” he says. “Artsy people.”
Darkness falls, a little early
Just as the light is beginning to drain from the afternoon sky, a squirrel finds its way inside a West Street electrical substation, and much of downtown Northampton—including the Thornes Marketplace side of Main Street—goes dark.
The four-way intersection at the center of town turns chaotic as pedestrians and drivers attempt to navigate their way through without traffic signals—one couple is nearly hit by a driver, who honks angrily as the couple throw up their arms in outrage.
As pedestrians flock to the sidewalk that has power—the stretch from Shop Therapy to Filos Greek Taverna—panhandlers and buskers on the opposite side decide to move along. Ben Boliver, a 35-year-old man who says he is homeless, carries a large garbage bag over one shoulder. Boliver, who often occupies the sidewalk in front of the CVS pharmacy on Main Street, explains that his blankets were drenched in the previous day’s rain and he is taking them to the laundromat.
Raven Storm, still sitting cross-legged outside Faces, says the power outage appears to be bringing more people to her side of the street and she may just get some more donations in the bargain.
As the sirens of emergency vehicles yip through downtown, slow-moving flashing lights appear. Sandwiched by two police cars, four Northampton High School homecoming floats coated with glittering artificial snow glide into view as the teens on board—and people watching them from the sidewalks—send up a cheer.
The last glimmer of sunlight disappears, and power is restored—just in time for the dinner hour.
As couples walk by hand-in-hand discussing their evening plans, a woman stands in the doorway of 52 Main Street—the empty space once occupied by Spoleto—appealing to passersby for food money for her and her son, who sits in a stroller beside her.
“Can you help me with anything, please,” she calls out repeatedly. No one stops or acknowledges her pleas. “Just trying to buy something to eat. Have a blessed one.” An elderly couple turns toward her, shaking their heads and smiling apologetically.
As the young child becomes increasingly fussy in the chilly evening air, a look of desperation comes across the woman’s face.
The woman, identifying herself as Celinda, says she and her two-year-old son Zachary live with her mother in Holyoke. She says the child’s father is in school and they have no source of income.
Celinda says she doesn’t beg on the streets every day and that the child’s father does not approve, but the aid they receive only goes so far. When the milk does run out, she says, people on the streets of Northampton are nicer to her than passersby in Holyoke.
“He won’t drink anything else but milk,” Celinda says. “I have to do what I have to do for my baby.”
A young couple walks by with a little boy who appears to be around the same age as Zachary. The child toddles, unsteady on his feet, while his smiling parents take a hand on either side. Celinda stops talking as her eyes follow them, and tears start streaming down her face.
“I wish my family could be like their family,” Celinda says. “I pray every night. People think it’s easy to stand there and ask for help … sometimes I feel like I want to give up.”
Celinda confesses that she’s had suicidal thoughts and she frequently wonders whether she should place Zachary for adoption.
“I keep pushing forward,” she says. “I wish I could be a better mom.”
Striking a chord
Corey Hudson, who lives in New Haven, Connecticut, says he has long noticed a disproportionately large population of panhandlers on his frequent trips to Northampton.
“It makes me aware that there’s an issue,” says Hudson, a photojournalist who comes to Northampton both for work and for pleasure. “It makes me wonder if there’s enough help for the mentally ill and homeless here.”
In front of Thornes, a twenty-something plays the accordion with a small crowd gathering around him. A kid comes running out of the front entrance, saying as he points to the musician, “Mommy, what is that?”
“It’s an accordion, honey,” she responds.
“You’re pretty dope,” says a guy with long red hair and a long scruffy beard as he walks by the accordion player. “Keep on spreadin’ the joy.”
The accordion player, Tim Desrosiers, says he typically plays in downtown Northampton on Friday evenings. People drop coins into a bucket propped in front of him atop a stool, as he plays “Across the Universe.”
Later in the evening, Storm is joined at her post by another woman and a man listening to headphones and singing loudly along to the music. At Storm’s request, the man removes his headphones and introduces himself.
“I’m Spyder. S-p-y-d-e-r. And these are my wives,” he says, gesturing to Storm and the other woman, whom he identifies as Shannon Thorn. According to Northampton police, Spyder’s given name is James Erwin.
Spyder says the song he was listening to was “The Devil and I” by Slipknot. “It really strikes a chord,” he says. “If I didn’t have the music I think I would be insane.”
Spyder says that he is schizophrenic and that he has multiple wives because he is a pagan. He says he shares a tent with Storm and Thorne, but doesn’t let people know where it is.
“Only the cops know where it is,” Spyder says.
Spyder says that he and his wives aren’t popular with the other panhandlers around town because they pride themselves on their sobriety.
Throughout the conversation, Storm, Thorn, and Spyder eat takeout food given to them by a passerby.
“Even if you’re not hungry, you don’t say no because then they won’t offer the next time,” Storm says.
An off-duty Greenfield police officer, Alex Meisner, approaches the group requesting parking information. After the group informs Meisner that fifteen-minute parking spaces aren’t monitored after 6 p.m., he tosses several dollars into their bucket. Storm says that happens often, that they are very familiar with the parking enforcement in town—parking department staff members often check on them, bringing them food and water.
Storm and Spyder explain that they are speaking openly because they find they “make more money when they are in the newspaper.” People walking by often believe their money will be wasted on booze or drugs, so press proclaiming the group’s sobriety benefits them.
“A lot of people misperceive people on the street,” Spyder says.
Marching to the beat
Around 10:30 p.m., percussionist David Duran joins accordion player Tim Dreisner. Duran, wearing foot tambourines, sits atop a hollowed, box-like instrument which he bangs to the beat with his hands while Dreisner plays the melody to “Nowhere Man.” Duran is a Spanish and French teacher and Dreisner is an English tutor applying to graduate schools.
“Music gives you a reason for waking up everyday,” Duran says.
It’s nearly midnight now, and Ben Boliver returns to his spot in front of CVS with freshly dried blankets. Boliver says this has been his spot for four years. His sign says that he is a “U.S. Army National Guard veteran” in need of “money for living expenses.”
Boliver said some people doubt that he is a true veteran because he was never deployed; however a representative at the Military Records Branch confirmed he served for two years.
For the most part, he says, everyone treats him well.
“There’s little misunderstandings occasionally, but we’re generally able to work things out,” says Boliver.
He says the manager at Bruegger’s Bagels wasn’t nice to him, that she told him he stank when he went in to use the bathroom, and then issued a no-trespass notice. He said he also got a no-trespass notice from Thornes for harassing one of the employees, but says it was a misunderstanding.
Boliver says that he accepts donations of cigarettes and “bud”—“Everything helps.”
Around 10 p.m., the Hartford Hot Several spill out of the Academy of Music, forming a musical mob in front of Sam’s Pizza. The mostly brass band—Meisner among them, playing the saxophone—had been part of a performance, and after refreshments at Sam’s, they decide to bring the action through town.
Leading the band is a tall, skinny man wearing an exaggerated Marilyn Monroe wig made of foam curls, a glittering angel smock complete with dovetails, high heels, and a purple boa. The band heads toward the Dirty Truth bistro, with the Marilyn imitator swinging a plastic sword as a baton.
About a dozen strong, they play into the midnight hour, with a well-soused band of revelers trailing behind.
Most of the city’s homeless and panhandlers appear to have retreated elsewhere for the night. But Boliver pushes his cart over to Bishop’s Lounge and sits on the sidewalk, listening to the music pouring out from the upstairs balcony, his eyelids drifting downward.•
A Vibrant Debate
Following September and October’s public hearings on the Resolution to Support Vibrant Sidewalks, Northampton City Council President Bill Dwight said he is happy with the results, though it has taken over a year to hash out the issues.
“The purpose of the resolution was to prompt a public discussion about what it means to have public spaces. Rather than having the same old circular discussion, we wanted to expand it,” said Dwight, who co-authored the original resolution with Councilor Maureen Carney.
Dwight said information compiled from recent meetings and hearings will inform the council’s considerations of changes to the resolution—slated to go to vote by the end of November.
Jody Doele, marketing manager of Thornes Marketplace, said that the eccentricity of Northampton’s sidewalks is “all part of the fabric of this place.”
Doele said that while locals are more used to seeing homeless and panhandlers in the streets, tourists are sometimes intimidated. She feels that the business must be aware of that aspect of the Northampton experience.
“It’s the minority of what we hear [from customers],” said Doele. “But we still have to address it.”
Judith Fine, owner of Gazebo, said the business community is actually in favor of more benches, not fewer.
Fine said the City Council put the business community in an awkward position when discussing the benches. As a result, she said, people spoke angrily about the city’s small business owners, perceiving them as anti-homeless. She said that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Fine, a former city councilor, said the Resolution on Vibrant Sidewalks was a waste of the council’s time. She said the council should be focusing on making “actual decisions.”
“I think [the resolution] is absolute bullshit,” said Fine. “I think it’s a little too precious for words.”
Northampton Police Captain Jody Kasper said her officers are often called to remove homeless people and panhandlers from private entryways and stoops, and that the police frequently moderate conflicts between panhandlers.
Kasper added that officers also try to take an active role in encouraging people on the street to improve their situation. “We’ve spoken with many people, trying to get them homes and other resources. We do that on a day-to-day basis.”
Peter Simpson, owner of Haymarket, said he has dealt with the city’s panhandlers for 23 years and that the issue has only gotten worse in recent years. Still, he likes to give them the benefit of the doubt.
“No one wants a sanitized environment,” said Simpson. “I try to keep it in check—the natural tendency to write them off.”
Opinions were mixed among local shoppers interviewed outside of Whole Foods Market in Hadley. Diana Stiles of South Amherst said that the panhandling in downtown Northampton doesn’t dissuade her from visiting. “I’m from New York,” she said. “It doesn’t phase me.”
“It makes me feel a bit uncomfortable,” conceded Shawn Charles of Northampton. He expressed concern about a woman in town who often shouts obscenities at him.
“I’ve heard stories of people being made to feel uncomfortable, but I’ve never felt that way,” said Jean Hobbi of Easthampton.
“Each time it’s kind of a decision,” said Karin Baker of Florence, while walking downtown. “Should I take out my wallet? But I never feel threatened.”