O P I N I O N
Stand up. Speak up. It’s your turn.
Shootings nearly every night, human waste and overdoses littering our city’s parks, and panhandlers harassing downtown business patrons incessantly. Couple these signs of decline with a police force whose hands are often tied, a failed bail system that lets violent offenders back on the streets in mere hours, skyrocketing housing costs, and a struggling business climate caused by an unforeseen global pandemic, and you have the new “normal” for Downtown Manchester.
As a lifelong resident of the City, I have seen Manchester endure the ebbs and flows of any growing metropolis. As our local economy has gradually transitioned from manufacturing and production to service and small business, Manchester has faced the predictable challenges of any developing city — crime, drugs, gang violence, homelessness, and poverty. Too often, however, Manchester’s steady population growth and with it, expansion of infrastructure and services, have been used as an excuse for the City’s visible signs of decay. Don’t get me wrong; any city is sure to face its share of challenges. Manchester’s, however, are entirely preventable.
I have long been a cheerleader for the Queen City. I am proud of how far we have come since our industrial days. I am proud of the steady revitalization of the Millyard. I am proud of our lively arts, music, and culture scene. I am proud of our downtown, and of the small business owners that have invested in making Manchester a safe and enjoyable place to call home. I am proud of our committed law enforcement officers and our excellent police force. We must now, more than ever, provide them with the tools and the resources they need to do their jobs.
For our police and our residents alike, any given evening in our City’s downtown can feel like walking into a warzone. Our dedicated law enforcement officers risk their safety to keep our community safe. Too often, however, organizations like the ACLU thwart the progress of the Queen City.
Enough is enough. It’s high time we take Manchester back.
So how, you ask, does Manchester confront the challenges it faces — predominantly drugs, crime, and homelessness? Here are my thoughts:
- Make Downtown Manchester an Official Historic District and Rigorously Regulate Activities There. Manchester desperately needs homelessness, mental health, and addiction treatment services and these assistances are vital to a healthy, thriving community. Such facilities needn’t be located in the City’s most desirable areas, however. Moving services out of the Downtown will promote a better sense of public safety and walkability. Couples enjoying lunch on an outdoor patio should not have to endure the pestering of passersby on their way to a methadone clinic.
In the Historic District, solicitation of all forms (including panhandling) would not be permitted without a city permit. Those wishing to sell Girl Scout cookies, or engage in other community-based activities requiring the exchange of money, would be asked to procure a proper permit as well.
Parking on Elm Street, Hanover Street and the surrounding areas should be free of charge, and small businesses should have fewer restrictions on outdoor seating. Installing historic markers and better signage throughout the downtown area and an audio walking tour app could also make this area a more valuable attraction to visitors, school groups, and community members. Continuing to invest in public art projects and other beautification efforts will enhance these efforts as well. We need to promote a safe, walkable, business-friendly downtown.
- “Crack” down on landlords (no pun intended). If you’re operating an income property and earning rent money from a known drug house, you are actively contributing to Manchester’s crime problem. State and local officials need to crack down on our City’s landlords, seizing properties when necessary, to reduce crime and violence in the City. The message needs to be sent that if you are a criminal or a drug dealer, Manchester is not the place to be. A quick scan of the headlines shows that much of the crime in the Queen City is committed by nonresidents – Lawrence, MA, Lowell, MA, Boston. The pipeline of heroin, fentanyl, and methamphetamine from the Boston suburbs is destroying our community because we have sent a message, through inaction, that it’s safe to be a criminal here. By punishing landlords who are harboring crime and incentivizing, even giving tax breaks, to those who are not, Manchester can ensure more affordable housing for law abiding citizens, particularly families and young professionals.
- Take on the ACLU. Recently, on Elm St., I witnessed a MPD officer politely talking to a group of people sleeping on the street. One of the loungers quickly produced an index card from his pocket and read a printed statement to the officer, asserting his rights.
Now let me be clear here – I am all in favor of individual rights and liberties. They are a necessary, fundamental part of what makes us Americans. But what about my right to walk down Elm Street without being accosted? What about the rights of families who want to take their kids to a show at the Palace without witnessing a drug deal or an overdose? What about the rights of business owners to not have people sleeping on their furniture, stealing their tip jars, and destroying their property? Are these not rights too?
Manchester must be willing to take on the ACLU with regard to its homelessness and vagrancy issue. Yes, you have a right to be homeless and to feel safe and secure in this city. No, you do not have the right to commit crimes, defecate in public areas, or to harass families walking down the street. While the City is sure to face public backlash and legal proceedings by confronting these concerns, we must not let these threats get in the way of keeping our streets safe. Seize the City’s bank accounts, take us to court, we’re not paying!
- Support the police and give them the resources they need to be successful. Our City’s police officers should not live in fear of going into certain neighborhoods or buildings. They are on the front lines in the fight (and yes, it is a fight) to keep our City safe. We must support their efforts and provide them with the funding they need to hire more officers and to promote the general welfare. This includes enhancing year-round community policing efforts, hiring more law enforcement for walking beats, and stationing police in all downtown parks.
Another major headache for our police is that they often find themselves locking up the same violent offenders night after night. If you read the news as routinely as I do, you will likely recognize many of the faces you see in the crime logs. We must institute harsher penalties for violent crime in the City and refrain from releasing criminals on bail within hours of arrest. While there is a relatively low number of offenders per capita, when we continue to release the same criminals again and again, we increase the City’s crime rate substantially.
- Clean up. I recently drove down Nutfield Lane and watched as two graffiti “artists” tagged everything they could before I emerged from my vehicle and began photographing them. “Broken Windows Theory,” a criminology theory originating in the 1980s, suggests that eliminating small, visible signs of disorder in communities (i.e. graffiti), reduces crime and improves citizens’ perceptions of their locales. We must tackle the “broken windows” in our own downtown. Those who are convicted of destroying, tagging, or vandalizing property in the City should be required to perform extensive community service and to clean up the downtown.
- Support Small Business. Small business owners have invested in Manchester and in improving the downtown area. They add an element of richness to our community and support our City’s wide variety of cultural and artistic events and programs. They serve on boards. They look out for one another and for our community. The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically impacted the livelihoods of Manchester’s small business owners. We, the Greater Manchester Community, must support these businesses in their time of need.
- Say “Enough is Enough.” Here in New Hampshire, we enjoy the privilege of living in one of the most representative democracies in the entire world. Get to know your state representatives and local officials. Write to them about problems in our community. Get involved. Read up on the issues. Go out and vote. Each of us must do our part to speak up and speak out.
Manchester stands on the threshold of being a truly great and vibrant city. We are among the most diverse communities in the state, have many architectural and artistic gems, possess world-class dining, great family-friendly events, and an influx of talented young professionals. We enjoy the beauty and richness of a wonderful location – small, proximate to nature, yet everything you need is just around the corner.
I have invested in this City and have decided to make it my home. I am proud to be a Manchester resident. I also believe we have the ability to make our community safer, happier, and healthier. The time is now. Enough is enough.
Beg to differ? Agree to disagree? Submissions are welcome on timely topics of general interest. Send to firstname.lastname@example.org, subject line: The Soapbox
Dr. Benjamin Horton is lifelong Manchester resident. He can be reached at email@example.com