Noho sidewalk debate raging

NORTHAMPTON — While still in its infancy, an idea by a city resident to paint a downtown crosswalk red, white and blue as a way to honor veterans is stirring their emotions as they are divided over whether it’s a good idea or offensive.

Some veterans strongly oppose the idea because they believe it violates a federal code governing display of the U.S. flag, with some even vowing never to walk across or drive over such a crosswalk if it is painted downtown later this year.

But others do not take offense at the idea, arguing that the concept is an appropriate patriotic symbol.

Brad LeVay, president of the Veterans Council of Northampton, said a patriotic crosswalk is going to anger an “awfully lot” of veterans such as himself who will “not walk on my colors.” A Purple Heart recipient and Korean War veteran, LeVay said he shed blood and was wounded in the name of freedom and would not try to thwart the effort to paint the crosswalk on Main Street near Memorial Hall. But he also said he would not acknowledge the crosswalk’s existence.

“It’s the colors of our flag and our flag means an awful lot to me ... anybody in their right mind would know (the crosswalk is) a symbol of the flag,” LeVay said.

He said veterans discussed the issue at a recent council meeting and took a vote on whether to support the idea, with nearly everyone giving it a thumbs-down.

That was not the kind of reaction Katherine Osborne, of 14 Washington Place, anticipated when she approached the Board of Public Works in June with the idea of adding the patriotic palette to the crosswalk between Pulaski Park and the corner of Masonic Street.

Osborne said she envisioned the painted crosswalk in the general vicinity of Memorial Hall and war memorials in Pulaski Park as a tribute to veterans. She said the colors are intended to be patriotic but are not meant to be a flag.

“We’re very deliberately not making it a flag,” she said. “We know that would be wildly inappropriate.”

Osborne said she has support from many in the community, including veterans, and plans to spend the next few weeks surveying all of the organizations that represent veterans groups. She said the early response to the idea was only positive, but if her survey finds that a consensus dislikes or is offended by the idea, she will scrap it.

“If that’s what’s happening, then we’ll have to reconsider,” Osborne said. “I’m distressed that this idea might offend veterans. If they don’t feel honored by what we’re doing, then we’ve missed the mark completely.”

Steven Connor, director of the city’s Veterans Services Department, said he shares the reservations about the proposal expressed by many veterans, although he acknowledges that the intentions are good.

“The idea of putting the colors on the street as a crosswalk just sent veterans into orbit,” Connor said. “Technically, it’s not the flag, but it’s still the colors and the meaning is the same.”

Connor said news that the city cleared the way for the crosswalk proposal in July after initially delaying its decision in June is not going to go over well and could cause problems for the Veterans Day parade in November.

Unlike Connor, veteran Robert Cahillane does not view the idea of a crosswalk as a sign of disrespect.

“Red, white and blue is apple pie and Chevrolet,” said Cahillane, a Navy veteran and a past veterans services officer in Northampton. “As long as there aren’t 13 colonies or stars, I think it’s just a patriotic symbol. I don’t think it’s totally disrespecting the flag.”

Moratorium after two?

The crosswalk request is the second one this year to come before the BPW. The board in March approved a plan from Melinda Shaw for a rainbow crosswalk on Main Street between Thornes Marketplace and TD Bank.

BPW Chairman Terry Culhane said approval of the rainbow crosswalk was done without a process in place and in a short time frame so it could be painted before the gay pride march in May. The board, however, did not anticipate future requests and therefore did not move ahead with discussions about establishing a detailed protocol until after it received Osborne’s request in June.

The board was initially uncomfortable approving the patriotic crosswalk and delayed a decision then, but reversed course a month later and approved the idea out of fairness to Osborne, Culhane said. The board also established a moratorium on future road-painting requests until it can develop guidelines to govern the process.

“There was some concern that we weren’t treating her the same way we treated Shaw,” Culhane said. “We wanted to afford her the same arrangement, but as soon as we formalized that, we also declared a moratorium on future requests until we can develop guidelines.”

Osborne said it’s too early to determine whether the idea will come to fruition. “It’s nice the concept has been approved, but I haven’t really done an official proposal,” she said.

Culhane said the BPW-City Council conference committee is now discussing what the new crosswalk-painting guidelines might be, including whether there should be an official form to fill out and other questions about the costs involved in such requests in the future.

“We’re also talking about whether there should be a cost,” Culhane said. “Do we only want people with deep pockets to have a crosswalk?”

Shaw’s group raised the $1,700 for the paint to do the rainbow crosswalk, and DPW crews did the work. Culhane said the city is not planning to pay to repaint the crosswalk in those colors in the future, but questions regarding future maintenance are being ironed out during the discussion process. The city currently repaints downtown crosswalks twice a year.

Though some worried that it would no longer legally qualify as a crosswalk, city officials have said the regulations only require white bars in between the colors. Culhane, however, said Tuesday that the city is receiving “push back” from state Department of Transportation officials about the rainbow painting detracting from its usefulness as a clearly marked crosswalk.

He contended that the state wants the city to paint lines from curb-to-curb on both sides of the existing ladder-style crosswalk.

However, DOT spokeswoman Amanda Richard said the state agency does not have a position on the colorful crosswalks, which are under local jurisdiction.

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