A community conversation about needs, wants and neighborhoods in action

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A meeting Thursday night at Beech Street Elementary School centered around community safety issues. Photo/Carol Robidoux

MANCHESTER, NH – Vanessa Blais said it came to her after seeing a work crew between Hanover and Beech streets set up big orange “caution” signs.

“Just the visual effect of those signs was that people slowed down, and I started to think about what if we could have a visual element to slow the cars down all the time,” said Blais.  She was the first of many to speak up during a 90-minute session at Beech Street School in which the community was invited to come together to talk safety and quality of life. 

Blais added that the area where she lives near Central High School can be so busy with traffic that it’s hard to back out of her driveway at  Lowell and Maple streets. 

“It’s also an area where buses are pulling out, kids are driving and parking. It’s an area of the city that needs some kind of mechanism, or some safer way to maneuver,” Blais said. She suggested taking the little bit of green space near Domino’s Pizza and making it into a mini-park.

“It would be nice to have that grass become more of a parklet and a space people can sit, maybe a bench. We could make that part of Maple Street another visual that might slow people down,” Blais said.

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Mary Georges, a longtime resident and founder of Victory Women of Vision, spoke about her impression of one-way versus two-way traffic patterns. Photo/Carol Robidoux

Another idea floated was mechanized crosswalks for pedestrians due to the heavy foot traffic, especially when school is in session.

Although it was billed as a meeting focused on center city traffic safety on Maple, Beech, Chestnut and Pine Streets, the subject matter ended up more far-reaching. Some 50-60 people came out who were treated to pizza and chicken tenders in exchange for their feedback.

Among those there to take mental and actual notes included Mayor Joyce Craig, Ward 2 Alderman Will Stewart, Ward 4 Aldermen Christine Fajardo, Ward 5 Alderman Tony Sapienza, Ward 6 Alderman Mary Heath, At-Large Alderman June Trisciani, Police Chief Allen Aldenberg, a half-dozen community police officers, the city’s chief Highway Engineer Owen Friend-Gray, Arnold Mikolo from Conservation Law Foundation, and James Vayo of Southern NH Planning Commission.

Before the meeting Heath mentioned that the public can expect more such community-based meetings, a way of involving people who live in certain areas about the specific needs they have, particularly when it comes to safety. Stewart noted that concerns around traffic safety and speeding has been a long-running complaint among Ward 2 neighbors, a concern he fielded often while out campaigning for the first time in 2017.

While issues aren’t usually solved overnight, it’s important to start somewhere.

“Residents are tired of people driving so fast and recklessly, they told me they felt scared to let their kids play in the front yard, nervous about their safety,” Stewart said. “We want to hear your concerns, and we’ll take all this information and make some proposals and come up with some ideas.”

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Amanda Scanlon fills out a survey after the meeting. Photo/Carol Robidoux

Jen Drociak stood to speak, noting that she is from Ward 3 but drives throughout the city, and wanted a clarification before she shared her thoughts.

“I’d like to know what people think the problems are in order to talk about solutions. It would have been helpful to know that in advance,” Drociak said.

She asked if the city had gathered statistics on the amount of traffic south of Bridge Street, and whether creating another one-way street would even be feasible.

“If it is, perhaps we can have better lighting with more attractive lighting as in center city, and plant trees,” adding that she would like to see beautification south of Bridge Street, to rival that of the North End.

Fajardo said all questions and ideas from all residents are welcome.

“That’s the purpose of this discussion, to try to ask questions about what is feasible and desirable – this is everybody’s city. A lot of people use these streets every day, so there’s ownership by all of us,” Fajardo said.

Amanda Scanlon raised her hand to speak.

She said she lives on Maple Street, near Valley, and has witnessed an “outrageous amount of accidents.”

I don’t think one lane is feasible, there is a lot of traffic. The problem I find we have for some strange reason is you cannot turn left from the right lane but this is where a lot of accidents come from, and while it is helpful to have the other lane, it’s not enough,” Scanlon said.

She also said there is a chronic problem with wrong-way drivers on Maple.

“Turn it back into a two-way. People drive the wrong way up my street every day and it’s terrifying for them –and for me and my kids. There was an accident and pieces of the car landed right where the children play by my house. I’m not sure what the best solution is – even with the police station so close, you’d think people would drive better, but no,” Scanlon said.

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Florian Tschurtschenthaler, a bicycle commuter, spoke about the comfort zone bike lanes provide. Photo/Carol Robidoux

Florian Tschurtschenthaler doesn’t own a car. He is strictly a bicycle commuter and moved to Manchester at the end of 2020. A native of Switzerland who came to New Hampshire to study at Rivier University, he made the move after making friends from the Queen City, a place he wanted to call home.

My thought behind that is yes, there are a ton of cars on the southern side of Maple. If you change to one lane, there is less space for cars, but even with two lanes, I see people driving too fast and more traffic than the street can handle in a responsible and safe way. So one lane might give drivers more direct incentive to go to Elm Street or disperse traffic away from the area,” Tschurtschenthaler said.

He appreciates the bike lanes and would like to see more of them.

“Getting to a bike lane feels like getting to a safe haven,” he said. “They’re valuable to me and other cyclists.”

Owen Kizak, a Central High School Student, stood to say that he’s found some of the cross-walk mechanisms haven’t been working.

“I walk home on Maple every day, and the crosswalk [by the Rite Aid at Webster Street] do not work at all,” Kizak said, as Friend-Gray from the Highway Department could be seen jotted notes on his phone for follow-up with the city.

Amber Nicole Cannan, a teacher who operates a business called Unchartered Tutoring and also teaches at afterschool programs across the city and state, said she had spent some time navigating in a wheelchair last year and counted numerous times she was almost hit by vehicles while wheeling around the city. People dealing with physical challenges, like a wheelchair, are unable to get around, she said.

“You can’t get up on sidewalks, or in businesses; you can’t spend money downtown because you can’t get into businesses,” she said.

Cannan is also a recumbent bicyclist and said she often rides from the north to the south end of the city with her students.

“It’s not particularly safe,” she said. “It’s terrifying to come through here on a bicycle.”

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Pete Escalera commended police for cleaning up crime in the neighborhood. Photo/Carol Robidoux

She mentioned a new initiative by Manchester Moves, a “bike bus” organized by members in which they escort students to and from school on bicycles. She said it’s an initiative that the group, which she is part of, would like to expand and one that supports the call for more bike lanes around the city for safer alternative transportation options.

Vayo noted that based on recent data, one-third to one-half of residents of the inner-city neighborhoods don’t own vehicles.

From a teacher’s perspective, Cannan said the benefit to students was beyond helping parents save on filling up their gas tanks.

“The kids from the bike bus are paying attention better in the classroom, and are more engaged. I can tell which days they biked and which days they didn’t,” Cannan said.

Queen City Bike Collective Executive Director Tracey Hutton, who was standing in the back of the room, spoke up to say that it’s helpful for them to hear where bike lanes are needed and how user-friendly those who regularly bike around the city find the streets to be.

Vayo and Mikolo both talked about the importance of making sure all city residents have access to equitable resources. From an environmental justice perspective, there are gaps in need of bridging.

“Quality of life matters,” Mikolo said. “When you bicycle north of Bridge Street you can see the inequities, one being the bike lanes, and also the quality of the air is much different,” due to the lack of trees and grass south of Bridge Street. “As we got north of Bridge Street my breathing changed. When you don’t have trees, it’s difficult to have that pride in where you live.”

Others mentioned an interest in general neighborhood improvement projects, like replicating the Rimmon Heights arches on the West Side, adding more and better lighting, providing more trash cans, and planting more trees.

This discussion prompted Craig to make a pitch for the American Rescue Plan Act grant opportunities, available to anyone with an idea for improving their neighborhood. Announced in February,  the city’s Community Event and Activation Grant (CEAG) program provides up to $10,000 to support and increase the number of community-based projects and events. Examples of eligible projects include things like public art installations, outdoor seating or bike racks, events and concerts in the park, a neighborhood block party or sporting event.

Even trees.

“What you’re talking about are ways you think you can make your neighborhood better, and that’s exactly what we want to do, empower you to do things like what you’re all talking about,” Craig said.

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Sandra Almonte, a business owner and board member of NeighborWorks Southern NH, spoke about the need for community improvement in the neighborhood. Photo/Carol Robidoux

Sandra Almonte, who owns and operates Don Quixote restaurant in that neighborhood on Union Street. She said she’s worked hard to build her business and also addressed Aldenberg in asking for more police presence for the safety of her customers and employees. She also said trash and garbage is an issue in that area and suggested education efforts for new residents, or a community clean-up.

Aldenberg ticked off several successful projects, including expanded bike patrols and clean-ups that have taken place, as well as crime reduction and recent arrests.

Almonte also said she’s working with members of the community in financial coaching classes through NeighborWorks Southern New Hampshire to help turn renters into homeowners, one solution to getting more people to care about improving the quality of life in the city. Almonte serves as board chair for Neighborworks.

Pete Escalera rose to address Chief Aldenberg about what he’s witnessed in the area of Spruce and Cedar streets.

“I saw [police] bike patrols last week in that area,” Escalera said, to which Aldenberg quipped, “You better have,” eliciting some chuckles from the room.

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Chief Allen Aldenberg addressed concerns – and even fielded a compliment – during Thursday’s community meeting. Photo/Carol Robidoux

“You know over the past five or six years I’ve seen a lot there, people doing nothing but hanging out talking, drinking, doing drugs. I’ve seen a lot of crime in that alley – overdoses, domestics, homicides. It’s been bad,” Escalera said. “Police came … and they saw what was going on there in that area, and they took appropriate action and cleaned it up. Today you don’t see that mess by that barbershop. And as of last summer, that area between Spruce and Cedar is very much under control. We don’t have that massive amount of people hanging out. I want to give a job well done to the police department.”

He said he hopes to see even more police out there this summer.

“Hopefully we’ll get some more on foot coming into the stores, talking to the people. Let the people of the community know who the cops are –that’s the way we used to do it in Brooklyn,” Escalera said. 

After the meeting, Sabrina Kadariya and Mia Taranko, both students at UNH Durham with a goal of earning their master’s in public health, said they came because they’re interested in improving Manchester from the inside out.

Coming together as a community to address issues like reducing potholes, increasing bike lanes, improving the quality of life environmentally with green space and safer roads and accessible sidewalks appeals to her sense of how to build a healthy community.

“I grew up here, so my goal is to look at ways the community can take care of their own,” Kadariya said.


 

About this Author

Carol Robidoux

PublisherManchester Ink Link

Longtime NH journalist and publisher of ManchesterInkLink.com. Loves R&B, German beer, and the Queen City!