Saturday, March 10, 2007

Sleds, Bridges and Steeples: Thoughts in Traffic

Driving down North Elm street in Westfield the other day, I noticed that the little hardware store at number 53 is closed, its facade taking on that dusty, dingy look that old buildings get not long after the bells stop jingling on their doors. Stopped at the light there, I drifted back 31 years. I bought my first brand-new sled at that store, with money I had gotten for Christmas. A double-runner American Racer for twelve-dollars and fifty cents. Plus tax. It was short and fast and great for belly-whompers, where you would run with your sled, throwing it ahead of you and flopping down on your belly on top of it in one fluid motion, maintaining your velocity for the utmost speed down whatever hill you happened to be king of that day. I still have the sled. I'm a little past the belly-whomper stage, though. I guess I hang on to it just in case.

Progress is the seed of nostalgia. Small stores of all kinds have begun disappearing in recent years because of the preference of consumers to shop the chains and the larger box outlets. Shops behind main-drag storefronts that were shiny and new at the dawn of the 20th century can't compete with them in selection or price. It is debatable whether that is a good or bad development in consumer trends, with proponents on both sides of the issue. It's hard to argue against saving a buck, but it was nice back in the day when the stores you patronized in town were the same ones your parents went to, and their parents before them. And the proprietors knew them all by name.

Unless you did something wrong. Then you longed for anonymity.

A city can't stand still, though. Unless you're in Westfield during rush hour trying to get across the Great River Bridge.

Traffic has notoriously backed up at this infamous bottle-neck for years. Almost as long as grand plans to resolve the issue have been floated in the air and come to naught. The $55 million Great River Bridge project, which is presumably on the verge of commencement, will help to alleviate this problem somewhat, with the proposed construction of a sister bridge downstream of the existing structure, which will carry three-lanes of traffic northward along Rtes 10 & 202. The original bridge will be gussied up and converted to three-lanes of southbound traffic. The new bridge will be built in truss structure style to match and complement the 1939-built Great River Bridge. In the 'it's a small world' category, the company my father-in-law worked for before he retired, J. F. White, out of Framingham, has been contracted to lead the project.

Chances are slim that anticipation of decreased profits due to disruptions in traffic during the bridge project prompted the owners of the hardware store to close it, but the project is not without casualties caused already. Blessed Sacrament church's empty steeple , its bell removed months ago, is a constant and stark reminder in passing of things to come. For parishioners and neighbors it may more likely evoke thoughts of what has been. Christenings and confirmations, weddings and funerals, folks will have only their memories and photographs of these special days as they pass by the spot where the church once stood, when it is finally razed for the roadway as planned. For now the steeple, barren and forlorn, draws the passers'-by eye, its emptiness out of place atop a House of God.

As the project progresses, two other buildings are slated to come down, along the north bank of the Westfield river between the Great River Bridge and it's future counterpart. A nice greenspace is planned for the spot, complementing the Women's Temperance Park on the west side of the Great River Bridge. A pedestrian and bicycle trail, the Columbia Greenway, is planned for the old train tracks cutting through the downtown and heading down into Southwick. As kid, I used those tracks to get around town just about as much as I used sidewalks. I can't wait to use them again. Sometimes progress gives us a nudge down memory lane. Or maybe just an excuse for sentimental fools like me to mark the time passing, and our lives changing as the world continues forward oblivious to what we've been or done. Our stories seperate treasures shared too infrequently, ever so sparingly, until we are gone, like buildings moved aside for the future's tread, our histories in snippets re-told.

The old hardware store and the block of buildings it is part of, some more than 100-years old, will stay put. In fact, the Valley Hardware building is for sale, or according to the website advertising the property, "aggressively offered at only $595,000." Who knows? Maybe the traffic enhancements will lead to a renaissance for the Depot Square area, which is home to some of the most beautiful buildings in the city. The store could become a gold mine with the right venue.

Despite all of the aggravation the estimated 4 - 5 years of construction will cause, I think this project will ultimately be a good start to resolving Westfield's 'suffocation by traffic', especially on the North side. An on-ramp to the Pike directly from the northbound lanes of 10 & 202 is an idea recently raised for the 'powers that be' to ponder, as well.

One group of folks that will undoubtedly be happy with the Great River Bridge Project is the 'distracted truck driver bloc,' the ones who manage to stuff their tractor trailers under the 11'5" railroad overpass despite signs posted well ahead of the trouble spot directing them to a detour and warning of the danger. The railroad viaduct will be raised to a height of 14'5" as part of the project, plenty of room for the average 13'6" trailer to slide under.

All of these improvements beg the question: What are Westfield folks going to do with all of the time they save once traffic starts flowing smoothly?

As always, thanks for stopping by and take care.


Bill Dusty said...

They could come and visit Springfield!!

I remember years ago a truck driver tried to drive his tactor trailer through the underpass in downtown Springfield (Amtrak station) - I believe Main Street. I knew the guy because he picked up loads from where I work. I think he was canned. :-\

MTA said...

Working in the trucking industry for 20 years now, I've heard and seen lots of odd stuff.

One time a service truck was following a trash packer down I-91. The service truck driver didn't know the exactly where they were going to drop the packer off to be worked on, so the packer driver told him "follow me."

The packer driver ended up losing his steering and drifted off the road into the woods. What did the service truck driver do? Well, he followed him, of course. Right into the woods.