Crime Is Killing Springfield

Tim Brennan was talking about the bike path that winds its way along the east bank of the Connecticut River. But he might as well have been talking about the city of Springfield as a whole.

Brennan, director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, which coordinated construction of the 3.7-mile Connecticut River Walk and Bikeway, told the local press recently that the path is considered underutilized — roughly 150 users on weekdays and just over half that number on weekends — because of doubts about safety.

And there will certainly be more of those now following the stabbing death of one the path’s few users earlier this month, the city’s sixth homicide of the year, which is slightly below the record pace (18 for the year) set in 2005.

Like the bike path, many of Springfield’s neighborhoods, institutions, and, yes, businesses, are being hurt (or underutilized) because of crime and, equally important, the perception of it. The city has other issues, to be sure, including its fiscal woes and overall image problem, but crime has taken center stage.

It is a factor impacting everything from where people live, work, shop, eat, and go to college, to whether they use the bike path along the river. And in many ways, it is stifling economic development in the area, because, as much as anything else, Springfield is now synonymous with crime.

Some local officials would like to blame the press and its ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ operating strategy for this phenomenon, but when a city this size has five shootings in one night, as was recorded early in May, the problem is not the press.

Rather, it’s the apparent inability to gain any sense of momentum in the fight against crime. Some officials would have you believe there is some, and use easily pliable statistics to back up those claims. But the real measure of progress is public opinion (and traffic counts on the bikeway), and at the moment the public remains skeptical — and, in many ways, afraid.

Recently named Police Commissioner Edward Flynn has taken the fight to the neighborhoods and the city’s housing projects. He is imploring residents to get involved and be part of the solution, not part of the problem by protecting criminals. He’s been very visible — one can see him on the streets and hear him on the radio — and he’s made the word ‘snitch’ part of the local lexicon.

We can only hope that increased patrols and the appointment of area commanders to oversee neighborhood coverage will succeed not only in bringing the crime rate down, but in making people feel better about Springfield in the same way that many residents of Holyoke feel better about their community.

Overall, we believe the city needs additional resources, and that Gov. Mitt Romney should make a stronger commitment to keeping the streets safe in the state’s third-largest city.

When the bike path was put on the drawing board more than a decade ago, it was envisioned as a way to make the city’s riverfront vibrant and more relevant. It was viewed as a way to bring people back into the city for recreation, to create images like those we’ve seen of people walking, running, biking, and roller-blading in Washington, D.C., Cambridge, San Diego, and other cities.

Very little of that has happened, and safety is the reason. And so many other things aren’t happening in Springfield for the very same reason.

The bike path is not just the scene of a fatal stabbing; it’s a symbol of what could be, and isn’t, in Springfield, largely because of public safety concerns. Maybe it can serve as additional motivation in the effort to make this the City of Homes, not the City of Crime, once again.-