While waiting for the city to put in a bus shelter so that people don’t clog the doorway to his office, Zack Beatty took matters into his own hands—he put out a bench for weary commuters take a load off. A cardboard bench. With graffiti encouraged.
The new cardboard couch is a quick crowd-sourced fix to two related problems at the corner of Chapel and State streets downtown.
The first problem is that the corner lacks a shelter or bench for people waiting for the bus.
As a result people sit, stand, and lean anywhere they can, which leads to the second problem: Beatty and his co-workers at SeeClickFix’s world headquarters at 746 Chapel often find their way into and out of work blocked by people sitting or standing on their stoop.
Beatty, who’s in charge of media partnerships at SeeClickFix, said he had a cup of hot coffee spilled on him in July while trying to enter the office amid a group of strap-hangers waiting for their bus.
He opened up a “ticket” on SeeClickFix—the website that allows neighbors to lodge complaints and suggest improvements around town—registering the need for a bus shelter. It was the second ticket this summer about the corner. SeeClickFix founder Ben Berkowitz put up one on June 1: “Exit blocked by bus patrons.”
The city acknowledged both tickets and has budgeted money for a new shelter there in the current fiscal year, according to city spokeswoman Elizabeth Benton. She said she doesn’t know when it will be installed.
In the meantime, Berkowitz suggested buying a bench and putting it out for people to sit on. He set up a PayPal account for people to contribute.
Almost immediately, Beatty (pictured) and four others kicked in about $23 each, enough to buy a bench from Chairigami, the local cardboard-furniture startup that’s celebrating its first year of business.
After people from Chairigami walked the bench down from their new store at 976 Chapel St., Beatty and Berkowitz were faced with a number of dilemmas. Would the bench get stolen? Would it get tagged or vandalized? Would it hold up in the rain?
“Let’s just put it out there,” Beatty said they decided. The choice was to “err on the side of trusting the community.”
Figuring the carboard surface would be a magnet for taggers, Beatty and Berkowitz opted to guide the graffit rather than try to prevent it. They attached a red Sharpie marker to the bench and Beatty came up with a question they wrote in big letters on the benhc back: “What are you waiting for?”
It’s a question that’s literally appropriate for people waiting for a bus, but one that is also open to larger interpretation, Beatty said.
In the 15 days the bench has been out, people have written all sorts of stuff on the bench, Beatty said. He’s had to replace the Sharpie a couple of times.
Staffers at SeeClickFix have been taking the bench in at night and when it’s raining. The seat is coated with a kind of varnish; the rest of the bench is untreated cardboard that could easily soak up moisture.
On Wednesday morning, Beatty pulled out the bench and received what he said has become the normal reaction from people waiting for the bus: Can I sit on that? Beatty assured them they could.
Beatty pointed out the couple of dozen people standing on the sidewalk or leaning against the building. One woman was perched on a narrow brick windowsill outside the post office. “That can’t be comfortable,” Beatty said.
“It’s perfect,” said Larry Restrepo (pictured), who took a seat on the bench with Zulma Huerta and 3-year-old Jairo Restrepo. He said he was waiting for the D bus to take him to his job at Wendy’s in Guilford. He said he’s at the bus stop every day, on his feet. The bus stop is very heavily used, by “everyone in Fair Haven,” Restrepo said.
“It’s better than standing,” he said of the bench.
“That’s pretty neat,” said Bill Laden, also waiting for the D bus. “I’m homeless. I get tired of walking all day. ... The only thing is, is it going to stand up to the weather?”
“I think it’s nice, especially for the elderly,” said James Gore. He made his observations while standing in the doorway that leads to the SeeClickFix office, proving that the bench is not a total solution.
Beatty said the cardboard bench is more of a short-term fix while waiting for a permanent solution: a bus shelter.
“It is in violation of city ordinance,” Benton said of the bench. She said that while the city appreciates the spirit behind the addition of a cardboard bench for people waiting for the bus, municipal law forbids placing furniture in the city right-of-way, she said.
Benton said workers from the Department of Public Works would take a look at the bench on Thursday and see if it needs to be removed.
posted by: Janna on September 6, 2012 11:03am
I love this! Brilliant, citizen-driven response to a challenge. Reciprocal and creative, the bench solves a problem immediately while the City painstakingly works to solve it permanently. The City should celebrate and showcase these acts of citizen responsibility and generosity instead of reacting with such knee jerk, narrow, visionless and bureaucratic response. Bravo to Zach et al!
posted by: Long Time NH Resident on September 6, 2012 11:13am
Another great build it and worry later situation. The City spent time and energy on storefront rehab and promoted the 360 State project, but neglects to consider and/or provide where people can wait for buses. This is a City issue as they should have been the ones to push CT Transit to install the shelter.
They want to encourage Gateway students to use the bus system, but want them to wait in the rain ??
Mark yet another loss for DeStefano and his administration.
posted by: Charl on September 6, 2012 3:29pm
Yes! This is the type of community-minded, trail-blazing, creative-genius combined with hard-work and dirty-hands that made New Haven one of the most important cities in the colonial Republic.
Thanks to individuals and entities such as SeeClickFix, the Independent, and other non-mega-corporation outfits, New Haven still is a great place.
The citizens of New Haven will have to make the city a better place to live by themselves. The municipal government has burrowed itself so deep, its like an Alabama tick. The government in New Haven exists expressly for the benefit of the few in power, and those who “kiss the ring” so to speak.
Shame on Elizabeth Benton indeed.
I drive past Chapel & State daily, and there is always a large group of people milling about. 9th Square still needs major work and major help. The City of New Haven must help out!
Chapel & State is a major intersection in this city. There is no corner such as this in Stamford!
One final note: I read in a separate article decrying the traffic flow of the new Gateway CC parking garage, so I drove by to check it out personally.
Who designed the entrance and exit? Who approved it?! Because both the entrance and exit are on Crown Street (one-way street), the exit should be ahead of the entrance, so that cars can enter and exit at the same time. The current traffic flow has the entrance into the garage *after* the exit from the garage. It has to be an error…how could a designer/architect possibly be so narrow-sighted?!
The new GCC parking garage fits in right at home, here in bass-ackwards New Haven.
posted by: anonymous on September 6, 2012 4:50pm
“It is in violation of city ordinance,” Benton said of the bench. Municipal law forbids placing furniture in the city right-of-way, she said.”
In many parts of the world, cities are livable in many cases because citizens took direct action to improve the public space.
For example, as car engines grew significantly more powerful throughout the 1970s and 1980s, citizens in many European nations took the liberty of installing planters and raised beds at strategic locations along their residential streets. This allowed the streets to continue to be used by children, pedestrians, and cyclists, and limited the unbearable noise that is introduced when vehicles speed through a neighborhood.
They were doing this to protect their lives, their culture, and the value of their properties.
Obviously, we didn’t take that approach in most of the U.S. (with some exceptions, such as Court Street in New Haven, and many side streets in Minneapolis and elsewhere). As a result, we are left with neighborhoods and cities that have become unruly and highly unpleasant as places to live.
Over time, city regulations can be adjusted to reflect the public interest and clear demands for better public space.
Perhaps what New Haven needs is a staff person to work on regulatory changes and better urban design, instead of multiple spokespersons.
It’s time to get some leadership that cares about New Haven and is willing to stand up for the people who live here.
posted by: BenBerkowitz on September 6, 2012 7:20pm
First of all thank you for all the support. It keeps us and all involved inspired to do more.
To the City of New Haven’ credit they have been very supportive of these grassroots efforts. Their use of SCF as well as their perspective on its evolution has led the platform in a very positive direction. Its not Elizabeth’s fault that there are ordinances that might prohibit this type of civic intervention and its certainly our intent to make these conversations public so they can’t be ignored.
If liability is created through the City looking the other way on this type of tactical urbanism then hopefully it will raise a larger conversation about whether we should be changing ordinances to allow for these types of interventions. I bet everyone, including myself, would be surprised at how many folks in City Hall would be supportive of these types of initiatives.
posted by: streever on September 7, 2012 9:15am
ANY government job should have—as a top priority—to engage and encourage citizens. To give hope. To provide comfort. This is the role that government should have, not as a faceless, mean, strict authoritarian dictator of right and wrong.
I think it is hard to see in this story any form of positive encouragement from city officials to local residents.
I think that any city official properly doing their job would appreciate, applaud, and encourage private initiatives that improve public spaces, and there was certainly a better way to get that message across, while maintaining the legality or lack thereof of this action.
Further, I absolutely believe a spokesperson should have the know-how to deliver that message.