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Biweekly Column
Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Town Snow Job

Dennis Fox

Deember 18, 2003

The first pre-winter snowstorm was a wonder of calm, enveloping whiteness, followed by sleds and hot chocolate and good-natured shovelers not yet worn down. I wandered out to take photos the Sunday before last, to talk with neighbors, including some I'd never before met, and to look at things and people from new angles.

Monday, with schools closed, still felt like a holiday. By Tuesday, though, walking anywhere meant maneuvering around and over and through unshoveled snow and slush.

Wednesday afternoon, avoiding snowbanks, I mostly walked in the street, dodging traffic. A young mother pushing her stroller looked around confused when the narrowly cleared sidewalk on Park Street dead-ended in a hard wet embankment. Elderly walkers inched over poorly shoveled or completely unshoveled walks. Pedestrians in Coolidge Corner back-tracked to avoid slushy mounds and spreading puddles.

I saw no wheelchairs; I suppose their owners knew better.

When I got home, my wife told me she had, for the third time, shoveled the snowplow-created snowbank blocking our parking spot.

By then I was wondering why movement was still so difficult three warm days after the storm. Sure, a lot of snow fell, and removal crews worked hard with the resources and instructions they were given. But I remember in the New York of my childhood that plows pushed snow into huge mounds to keep most streets cleared. Sometimes they trucked snow away, instead of just moving it from one driveway to the next. Why not Brookline?

Thursday, the town sent out an email:

"The Board of Selectmen voted Tuesday evening to undertake a three night snow removal operation in the commercial areas and at major intersections throughout town -- an unusual move decided because of the enormous height of the snowbanks in major pedestrian areas causing safety concerns, the early winter timing of this storm since we can expect icing conditions that would create more hazards during the rest of the winter and the fact that the storm has happened during the busiest shopping season where there are even more pedestrians and cars out than usual. This operation . . . will take place Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday evenings. So Brookline will continue to be 'open for business'!"

My concerns were alleviated.

But a couple of things nagged. For one, why is this decision "unusual"? Do we really need a Board of Selectmen meeting when pedestrians and drivers can't get where they need to go? Shouldn't clearing snow be standard Public Works procedure -- and shouldn't every year's budget take it into account?

For another thing, the memo's focus on town commercial areas grated. Harvard Street's problems were real, but not nearly as bad as those in my neighborhood. It makes sense to let shoppers walk easily from store to store, but doesn't it also make sense to let them walk to the stores from their homes? And what about non-shoppers who walk to work or school or the T? Shouldn't their streets, too, be "open for business"?

Does the memo mean the town won't bother so much in January, when gift-buying season is over?

That's when I noticed the emailed memo's sender: the Commercial Areas Coordinator in the town's Economic Development Office. No more surprise.

Yes, I do want commercial areas cleared. But I want residential streets and sidewalks cleared, too. Otherwise, paying for extra snow-clearing comes off as another sop to business interests rather than a concern for residents.

Reminding owners to follow town bylaws is a start -- especially large institutional owners. I called my own condo's management company when our sidewalk remained unshoveled for far too long. But the town needs a more effective institutional response than either ignoring or fining owners for whom shoveling is a physical or financial hardship.

Thursday's warm rain melted much of the problem away, but even on Saturday, six days after the snow, an hour's walk through residential streets revealed unshoveled walks in front of houses, apartment buildings, churches, and businesses. Even town-owned parks generally had at least some impeded sidewalks. Brookline should do better.

Late yesterday, another Sunday, the snow began again. Today I was glad to awaken to the sound of rain.

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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