Guest columnist John P DiBartolo Jr.: Don’t debate Main St. plan, diss detractors

The clock at First Churches of Northampton glows on a dreary afternoon as fog rolls in over Main Street.

The clock at First Churches of Northampton glows on a dreary afternoon as fog rolls in over Main Street. STAFF FILE PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By JOHN P. DIBARTOLO JR.

Published: 01-17-2024 8:08 AM

I have long resented and resembled the pejorative characterizations of liberals made by conservative news media pundits. I am a real-life Volvo-driving, oat milk latte-drinking, composting/recycling, vegan, atheist, feminist, Liz Warren-voting trial lawyer who lives in Northampton.

I am literally a card-carrying member of the ACLU. I have never understood the depiction of liberals as smug and dismissive, elitists who are so certain of our moral and intellectual superiority that we disregard the opinions of those outside of our in-group. And then, I became an outspoken critic of our city’s redesign plan for our little Main Street.

It seems that all political disagreement has been forced into a model that treats those with opposing views as having different values and ulterior motives.

When I mentioned the lack of democratic mandate in relying on the opinion of 833 people in an internet poll or the scant number of in-person meetings, I was accused of being uninvolved and of frustrating the democratic process. When I pointed out the findings in the safety studies on which proponents relied, I was accused of misinformation or of disregarding expert opinion.

When I advocated for changes different from the changes proposed, I was accused of being afraid of change. When I argued about traffic congestion, I was depicted as not caring about the environment. Everyone with concerns about the redesign with whom I have been affiliated has dealt with these issues; some have experienced worse than others. I have seen people with whom I am otherwise politically aligned mock elderly folks’ difficulty with parallel parking, or equate the careful reading of scientific studies as being against science.

In the pages of this publication and other public writings, in public speeches, and in radio and television interviews, I have spoken about my concerns for pedestrian and cyclist safety. I have repeatedly vowed that those of us with concerns about the current design of the project share the same ultimate goals for a more vibrant downtown that is safer and more accessible for cyclists and pedestrians.

Nevertheless, our concerns were repeatedly dismissed as disingenuous, and we were characterized as favoring cars over people or parking ease over safety, or business concerns over the environment. It is as though there always needs to be an “us” and a “them,” and that “they” are not being honest.

When I concluded a 25-minute presentation to City Council — wherein I presented an alternative design offered specifically and expressly to provide better and safer access for cyclists on Main Street — I was accused of suggesting the exact opposite. In a raised voice tinged with emotion, a city councilor intoned that I was advocating that we should have no cyclists on Main Street at all.

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That mischaracterization of all that I said was a microcosm of the entire issue. It seems not enough to have a disagreement about how to accomplish the same goals — we must also pretend that those with different ideas must have different values.

The proponents of the proposed version of the Main Street redesign are, in all other respects, my people. We are politically aligned and share the same values. They are my friends, neighbors, and social media connections. They are people for whom I voted, people who I like and respect. I do not assume their motives are impure or uninformed. However, this discord within my political and socioeconomic in-group has given me some insight into what it must feel like to be on the outside of my group.

I am hopeful that I can remember not to vilify folks who do not share my views. I hope we can all remember that.

John P. DiBartolo Jr. is a Florence resident with law offices in Northampton and Easthampton.