BRATTLEBORO — Earlier this week, I took a walk down Main Street with Greg Lesch, the executive director of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce.
We stopped in a number of shops and talked with business owners and customers, asking them if they felt safe downtown.
Ralph Ellis, the owner of the Shoe Tree, said most of his customers appear to feel safe while shopping downtown.
Nonetheless, he said in the last six or seven years, Brattleboro has changed and not for the better.
“Opioids,” is what he blamed the problem on. “It used to be you had your local people ... you saw them on the street, they take a nap on the bench. Whatever. I don’t care. It’s like Mayberry.”
But now, he said, there are people he doesn’t recognize, many of them screaming and yelling.
“It’s unpleasant, and it definitely has an effect on people and businesses,” said Ellis.
He also said a lack of police presence downtown has been another change he doesn’t like.
Several business owners and store clerks were reluctant to speak on the record with me and Greg, saying they didn’t want any attention brought to them.
They did share their observations with us on the condition I not identify them.
“I come and go a lot in the [Harmony] parking lot because I do a lot of the deliveries and things,” said one business owner. “I’ve seen some crazy things out there that I don’t think I would have seen 10 years ago in town.”
Several business owners said while they don’t hear it from their customers, they hear from folks around town that they don’t go downtown anymore because they feel unsafe.
“They all say it’s because of crime but they can’t really give me any specifics,” said one of them. “They’re very concerned about the crime.”
“I’ve seen people pass out on the steps out here, overdoses,” said a female clerk, who said she feels mostly safe walking around town, though she’s been screamed at “by the some of the people just walking around.”
“I think it’s a challenge right now for a lot of places in town and a lot of people in town,” said Greg Worden, who owns and operates Vermont Artisans with his wife, Suzy. He called crime in downtown Brattleboro sporadic. “It’s not something that makes anybody feel really good, when people knock over Dick’s [Degray] flowers or when they break in Evan James’ door.”
I’ve known Greg since I first started at the Reformer, about 17 years ago, when he was on the Select Board. He’s seen a lot from his perch on Main Street and he believes crime “goes up and down.”
“It goes in cycles,” said Worden. “We’ve had empty storefronts and full storefronts. We’ve had homeless people and we’ve had people who are just not feeling good or off their meds. We’ve had people who were just doing it for whatever ...”
A couple who were visiting from Brooklyn and were shopping in Vermont Artisans, said they thought downtown was delightful.
“It’s a gorgeous town,” said William Bowditch. “I don’t feel unsafe walking around here.”
“It feels very quaint,” said Chelsea Rosenberg.
Another pair shopping in the store was Matthew Bakulski and his sister, Sarah, who were in Southern Vermont camping with their kids at Jamaica State Park when they decided to take a spin down to Brattleboro.
He said he’d been in town 20 years ago and it didn’t appear much had changed.
“It’s trendy and artsy,” said Bakulski.
Like everyone we talked with, Worden said the biggest issue he has with downtown is the parking garage and the lack of police presence on Main Street.
Worden mentioned a suggestion made by Nancy Braus, the owner of Everyone’s Books on Elliot Street, which has had it’s door kicked in a couple of times in the past few weeks.
“That would be for the police to patrol at least once a week without announcing it at night,” he said. “I’d love to see it. I think just sometimes just the presence of the uniform cop is enough for a deterrent.”
A female clerk in another store said she stays out of the downtown parking garage at the transportation center.
“Something fishy is always going down in the stairwell,” she said.
“The transportation center is such a joke,” agreed Ruth, a pharmacist at Hotel Pharmacy on Elliot Street.
While she feels safe in Brattleboro, “Going through the parking garage ... I wouldn’t walk there by myself.”
We stopped in to Everyone’s Books to talk with Braus, but she had just stepped out.
However, long-time clerks Clea Boone and Ann Zimmerman were in and just happened to be talking with Brattleboro Police Chief Norma Hardy, who moved from New York City a year ago to be the town’s top cop.
“I have not felt unsafe,” said Zimmerman. “But I don’t hang out in the parking garage.”
“It’s the parking garage, which doesn’t make me feel great,” agreed Boone.
Zimmerman also said more foot patrols would be nice in town.
“I think people feel a little bit overwhelmed,” said Hardy, who was doing like Greg and I, walking around and talking to people.
Hardy decided to walk with us back toward Main Street.
She said she knows folks want to see more foot patrols, but her department is stretched thin.
According to town records, Brattleboro has 27 slots for police officers, but only 15 on staff, though Hardy said she expects to see that number go up with some new recruits hitting the streets soon.
And in a town like Brattleboro, said Hardy, she has to balance a lot of factors when it comes to law enforcement.
“Who makes the decisions what’s too much? Who makes the decisions what’s enough and how do we find a place in the middle? How do we serve everybody fairly and equitably and how to we maintain some sort of order? It’s a balancing act in a town like Brattleboro, which wants to be open and welcoming. But they also want also law and order.”
We stopped in to Burrows Specialized Sports to talk with Bob “Woody” Woodworth, who was helping a customer tweak a setting on her bicycle.
“I’m a longtime customer, a local guy,” said Andy Rome, who was waiting at the counter. “I’ve seen a change in downtown Brattleboro. But I don’t feel unsafe, though I acknowledge that other people could feel unsafe.”
“The thing that’s really hard for me is the foul language,” said Woody.
“Do I like the swearing and screaming and yelling? No,” agreed Barbara, who helps Woody out in the shop. “Has anyone ever threatened me? No. But it is intimidating to allow people to hear and see that.”
Later, Greg and I dropped into Beadniks where Elijah Leclair was shopping.
“I definitely felt safer when I was younger,” he said. “I’ve had my house broken into. It’s definitely a different Brattleboro. It’s changed.”
He attributed the change to “unaddressed addiction.”
“It’s a really complicated issue,” said Leclair. “But I think the bigger issue is the lack of support that people who struggle with addiction have.”
Sisters Julia and Annelise Fedoruk were also shopping in Beadniks.
“I’m always cautious,” said Annelise, who said she still feels pretty safe in Brattleboro. “Maybe because I know where everything is and I know people.”
She said she was more wary of “creepy” men than of crime in town.
Later, I talked with Jon Potter, the executive director of Latchis Arts, who lives right in town and walks to work every day. He grew up in New York City and said he doesn’t feel less safe in Brattleboro, but he does worry about his employees and his clientele.
“We see it on the periphery,” said Potter. “On the bridge to the co-op, the parking lot and in the parking garage ... all the various problems. Brattleboro is lucky that it has a viable downtown, but it’s not a given that it always will be,” said Potter. “It can be a series of gut punches, like when I read about the incident at Epsilon Spires (which was broken into and vandalized last weekend). It feels like a pretty steady stream of gut punches and everyone has their breaking point.”
At a stop for coffee, I spoke with Richard French, the founder and CEO of the Works Bakery Cafe. He said since the coffee shop opened in 2010, it’s become a sort of community gathering space.
“I encountered some problems or some crime, but overall, this has been an incredibly successful location for us,” he said. “And we love seeing the faces of the community.”
A few years ago, the Works had an overdose in one of their bathrooms. Since then, there’s a combination lock on the bathroom doors and you have to ask for the code to use it. French said the worst thing that’s happened since then is on a number of occasions, people have stolen the tip jar. But he’s thankful for the regulars who come in every day and those just in town for a day or two.
“Brattleboro represents all walks of life,” he said. “And because of that, there’s good and bad, like everything in life.”
While I was visiting the Works, Patrick Moreland, interim town manager, stopped in for a cup of coffee and we got to talking.
“I do feel safe in Brattleboro,” he said. “It helps that I’m male and six foot four. But I absolutely understand that the behavior of some people causes folks to feel uncomfortable. There are social norms and when they’re not adhered to, it makes people very uncomfortable.”
He did say that Brattleboro is not unique, that many small towns across the country are dealing with similar problems. But he also said that Brattleboro may be better positioned to deal with the problems because people in the community are more engaged than they are in other communities.
“The trends that we’re experiencing, both positive and negative, are happening all around us. And we see it here, because this is where we live. This is our community.”
He said the Select Board and town staffers are discussing whether to increase surveillance downtown and in the parking garage, but it’s a process that takes time and can be quite expensive.
“Whether or not it’s a right fit for the community will be determined by the Select Board and the public,” said Moreland.
He also said the town is working as hard as it can to fill its police ranks, but a shortage of officers is a nationwide problem.
The town also hopes to open a satellite office for police downtown, but it has to find the right place and it has to be designed to meet the needs of both the police and the public.
Me? Personally, I’ve felt mostly safe walking around Brattleboro, even at night. But I am a big, grumpy guy that people tend to cross the street for when they see me coming. Nonetheless, there are certain parts of town that put me on alert, like the transportation center. I guess it makes sense to pay attention to those feelings, but we can’t let them overwhelm us. There is a concern that things have gotten a little rougher in a town treasured for its gritty nature. But walking around town I realized that Brattleboro does have a lot of things going for it.
Downtown is chock full of charming stores and wonderful eateries and the streets are always active with people coming and going. It has a brilliant museum, a downtown co-op and a wonderful library.
But most importantly, it’s full of people who really care about their community and are working hard in whatever capacity to insure it stays vibrant and vital. Yes. Crime is a problem. It’s everywhere. But by sticking together as a community, we can overcome this challenge, too.