Thursday, February 04, 2010

City School Northampton: Week 2

I had another exciting week at City School, here in Northampton, Massachusetts. We meet one night a week, and usually in a mostly vacant city building. As you might guess, in the middle of winter they can be a little cold. Especially, if it's one of our two libraries that's not open on Wednesdays and so probably not heated very much. If you haven't heard, City School, is a home-grown program where regular citizens like me get to learn about how local government works.

This week we covered Arts, Culture, Libraries, Health, and Recreation.


Our town has everything you can name, and perhaps I'll see them all, but it has simply everything: bowling alley, movie theater, concert hall, hospital, college, town hall, court house, jail, you name it, we have it. As I say to my spouse, Northampton is just like the town on the model train set. (Yes, we have the real trains too, and we are about to regain an Amtrak stop with our stimulus funds - Woo hoo!)

Our town has two wonderful old Libraries (one quaint and family-style, one more scholarly and architecturally magnificent). Around the time that Andrew Carnegie started running around passing out libraries like they were cigars (he actually built over 1,600 in the United States), two wealthy patrons each built a library in our town. The Forbes Library near Smith College and downtown Northampton and the Lilly Library in Florence.

Janet Moulding, Director of the Forbes Library, told us a great deal about the Forbes, about the Lilly too, and about how Massachusetts libraries work, as well as information on our regional library system. Rick Hart, the head of Reference for Forbes, showed us some of the features of the library website and spoke about some of the collections that they have at Forbes - some are online. Later, we spoke with Kim Evans-Perez, The Lilly Children's Librarian.

Here's a smattering of information about the Forbes which is available for all ages and abilities, for residents and researchers. It has a great deal of information not located anywhere else. It has books and references. It subscribes to several research services. It has electronic books - and even book readers. It has banjos, laptops and DVDs. It has music and more. About 800 people visit the library every day and about half the town residents have active library cards. I take it that these are good statistics for library use. The Forbes also has the papers of Calvin Coolidge who lived on Massasoit Street.

But here are some curious things about our Libraries. The Forbes library was given to the city by Judge Charles E. Forbes. You can see his will from 1893 online which endowed the library. The money is used to buy books. The Forbes library has 5 elected trustees. The town owns the building, but not the books. The town Northampton does not own the Lilly library either. It is owned by the board of trustees which reappoints its 9 members. Weird, eh? A town with two Libraries that it doesn't own? Plus the two Libraries are separate. They don't share books, but they do share some things, since the town has to maintain the libraries and fund these libraries to maintain state certification. Certification requires that they are open at least 59 hours a week, have weekend and evening hours, and spend 13% of their budget on books and materials. Thus they are treated as one Library from the state point of view. They can split the days that they are open for instance and share some of the costs of being part of the C/W Mars Regional Library System which lets me reserve a book online which might be in Williamstown and have it show up at the Children's desk at the Lilly library - and send me an email when it is ready.

Each city resident pays about $45 per year to fund our Libraries. About $50K comes from the state. They have their endowments, grants, gifts, donations, and each have their Friends of the Library group which supports their work. Do you might feel bad when your books are late? The only person you are hurting is the people who are waiting for your book to come back. The benefit is revenue for the library - the Forbes Library takes in a whopping $40K in overdue fines! The smaller Lilly Library is the third busiest library for inter-library loan. Hey, we read a lot here in Northampton.

Board of Health

Ben Wood is the director of the Northampton The Board of Health and Health Department. There is actually a difference, but I'll let you look that up. He's been on the job for about 2 months. But he's young and has big ideas and lots of energy. He had plenty of information for us. (And here, I'll try to speed up a little.)

In 1799, err.... I guess going back 200 years doesn't speed things up. Anway, in 1799 Massachusetts was the first state to establish a Health Department. I will have to consult, my father-in-law's book on Massachusetts history which I received today to verify this. The first Chair was none other than Paul Revere. In 1859, the Health Department became a non-political entity separate from City government. There are 352 local health entities in the state. The Board of Health  has the authority to enforce state and local law. Local laws can only be more strict than state laws. The Health Department is the staff of the Board.

Our Health department deals with disease, sanitation and inspection of mostly food establishments and housing, nuisances, and issues permits. There's a dichotomy between following mandated regulation vs. the promotion of public health. The Department spends most of their time dealing with regulation and less of their time making sure that we live healthy lifestyles. Often they are listening to complaints and doing mediation. As I warned you last week, there is a whole lotta mediation going on in city Government. Ben Wood said he'd like to do more health advocacy if he can, but right now he's spending most of his time and budget dealing with complaints and regulations.

Arts Council

In 1982, during the Massachusetts Miracle, the state was flush, so it established 352 arts councils with funding based on population and originally from Lottery revenue. This is no longer the case. In 1988, the city came up with a cultural plan, and Bob Cilman was there. He's well-known and well-linked from his position as director of the Young @ Heart Chorus. If any of you know anything about Northampton, you will know it is an artsy place and a place where you too, young and old, rich and usually poor, can become or at least see or hear an artist - or the work of one. The Northampton Arts Council does a lot. It produces Transperformance, which is Woodstock-like day-long concert of local people making music. Usually there is a theme and costumes and bad puns. Usually they are doing covers of well known songs. Here it is described in their words:

TRANSPERFORMANCE creates the opportunity for local performers to assume the personas of well-known and well-loved musicians. The performers are chosen for their talents and for the creativity they bring to such role-playing, regardless of whether their gender, race, age, ethnicity or sexual preference/orientation matches that of the musicians they choose to imitate.
TRANSPERFORMANCE is a humorous musical celebration of the diversity of our population and an acknowledgment of the profound influences various artists have had on each other and on the rest of our society. The Northampton Arts Council, who also shared in the profits from the past Transperformances, has been able to use the money raised to provide a second round of funding for local artists. These rounds of funding support the work of many, many artists and performing groups.
The Arts Council does many other programs over the year. Coming up is 4 Sundays in February and a Kids film festival.

Department of Recreation

We got a quick run-through from Ann-Marie Moggio, the Director of the Northampton Department of Recreation. We unfortunately were running out of time, just as I am running out of my time to write this. (Here, I must confess, that I'm about a week behind in telling you about City School.)

The Department does a lot of obvious things, mostly programming. It is located at Smith Vocational High School, employs 7 staff members, and has a $150K budget. It handles the town pool, built 11 years ago at JFK Middle School. A few years ago, they opened a skate park (for skateboarding, not ice-skating) which was about 10 years in the making. They run programs, manage the city community gardens and are overseen by a 9 member commission. During a typical year, they also employee 100-120 part time staff (think lifeguards), receive 2,600 hours in volunteer labor, run 3,700 practices and games on our ball fields.

Of course this is Northampton, so due to some weird history, the Department Of Recreation does not run our two largest parks. These parks, Look Park and Childs Park, are not run by the city at all. In fact, I'm told that the Childs Park is by name an oxymoron, since you cannot play frisbee or barbeque there. Childs Park is worth a stroll or a quiet picnic, and Look Park is worth a visit for a number of reasons.

The Rec Department does much more than I can list here. It has many programs going on this month. And more still this summer.


In the middle of the evening, Ann-Marie led us in a round of Northampton Jeopardy, where the topics were related to the subjects you have just learned about and the answers were created by each of the presenters. Prizes were old Department of Recreation swag. I won two plastic cups and a Dept of Rec mug from an event a few years back. Fun.

Next time, we shall visit the Northampton Senior Center and learn about agencies within our city to deal with special populations.


  1. Anonymous5.2.10

    Hi David,
    Another great post! Wow, you're learning a lot!
    Actually, Childs Park was named for the family that donated the land to the city. The Childs family left the land to be a quiet oasis in the middle of the city, a place for meditative enjoyment and rejuvenation. Hence, the lack of frisbees, boomboxes, and the strict enforcement of dogs on leashes. And basket lunches *are* allowed; just grill the food before you arrive. :-)
    thanks so much for your enthusiasm!

  2. Anonymous5.2.10

    I liked this one even more than the first one. I've been here 40+ years and never knew some of this stuff. Looking forward to the next one.

  3. I'm going to make a few edits to the post now. I will correct my Childs Park mention and add our game of Jeopardy.