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Citizens for Limited Taxation

Why are we so negative? Friday, September 2, 2005
D. Craig MacCormack 508-626-4429 Framingham Tab
More people need to look at the good parts of Framingham - whether that means a mix of nice homes and a strong commercial base, easy access to major highways or a plethora of natural resources.

That was the resounding sentiment among those who were asked for reaction on comments last week by Judith Barrett, a consultant working with a residents group and town officials to craft a townwide housing plan.

Barrett, from Community Opportunities Group of Boston, said during a monthly meeting that locals often look first at the things they don't like about their town rather than seeing its dynamic mix of housing and commerce.

"I've been saying that for a decade or more," said Planning Board member Sue Bernstein, who boasts more than 30 years in Framingham and almost as long a stint selling real estate in the town.

"There was a time when the mentality was to be grateful for anybody who wanted to do business in this town.  Given our location and what we offer, Framingham is a very desirable place," she said.

But Selectman Ginger Esty, who joins Bernstein on the four-member group of officials that will eventually recommend a housing plan to their boards and to Town Meeting, doesn't like the direction her hometown is headed.

"Those of us who have grown up here are very unhappy with the crime and other incidents," said Esty, whose family roots go back for generations.  "I'm not trying to create the Framingham I knew.  I'm just concerned about safety".

"We love Framingham for all the good things.  It's a wonderful place to be.  At the same time, right within, something's happening to our core.  We need to grab back our identity," said Esty.

That mentality is hurting the way outsiders look at Framingham, said Laura Medrano from the MetroWest Latin American Center during last week's meeting.  She pushed for more people to embrace folks from all backgrounds.

"People who were born here have a romantic perception of what Framingham was and they can't let go of that," she said.  "It's a sign of the times to see things change.  You can't be scared to go into downtown or come here."

Ruth Patterson of Framingham Downtown Renaissance, who has lived in town off and on for about 50 years, doesn't think it's bad for people to look critically at their surroundings.

"Because you say something that might not be positive, especially in a forum like that, I don't think that's a negative," she said.  "Don't other groups like ours do the same thing?"

Patterson is a big fan of the town's racial and ethnic diversity, saying her family traces back to Framingham's first Italian immigrants, Stephen Garbarino.

"I don't think it's good for your kids to raise them with all kinds of different people," said Patterson, who has lived on the West Coast and in New York City and Connecticut in addition to Framingham.

"We won't be a strong community if we don't incorporate more people into the mix.  We have a long way to go when it comes to incorporating new groups into our town," said Patterson.

Phil Ottaviani, chairman of the Zoning Board of Appeals, said at last week's meeting that some of the negative outlook can be pinned to the way many in town look at the Northside as compared to the Southside.

"Sometimes you really think there are two communities," he said.  "It feels like it's getting worse instead of better.  Still, a lot of people still want to come to Framingham.  If you build it, they will come."

School Committee member Cesar Monzon doesn't see anything wrong with talking about the things in town that need to be fixed as part of the yearlong look at the town's housing stock, which will be worked into a new master plan.

"In order to have a solution, you have to have a problem," said Monzon, who has lived in Framingham off and on since 1973.  "I don't think that's being negative.  The (people in town) feel there are things that could be done better and that's what we're talking about."

But Helen Lemoine, a longtime public official who is now at the helm of the MetroWest Leadership Academy, believes there something to Barrett's theory of an inferiority complex.

"So many people in this town dwell on the negative and forget about the positive," she said.  "It's always a puzzle to me.  We've got a town full of great assets.  We have the same growing pains as any other community.

"We have to work on the issues and problems that are going on here, but the people who talk like that are people who aren't thinking about moving.  They plan to stay here," said Lemoine.

The former Planning Board chairwoman enjoys the diversity that Framingham offers and said she came to town almost 30 years ago to start a family that would go through the town's public school system.

On top of that come things like weekly trash pickup.

"We get a lot of services for our taxes that many others around us don't get," said Lemoine.  "I don't want Framingham to be Wellesley or Sudbury.  If I did, I'd move there instead."

Steve Orr, who maintains a townwide e-mail group that focuses on politics, sees the focus on the so-called negative aspects is typical.

"When you turn on the news, they only talk about the bad stuff," said Orr, who is also a Conservation Commission member and part of the Framingham Taxpayers Association.

"People are going to focus on improving things.&nbap; The stuff that works well is not going to be of interest to people," he said.  Orr pointed to the annual summer concert series, a popular attraction that draws no criticism.

He also enjoys the town government, and easy access to malls, highways and Wittenborg Woods from his neighborhood.  That's part of what attracted Orr and his wife to Framingham from Roslindale a a decade or so ago, he said.

Selectmen Chairwoman Katie Murphy, who is also the leader of the liaison group of selectmen and Planning Board members, says the thoughts about what could be in Framingham are "pervasive" in her experience in town.

"It's struck me for years," she said, noting her work with the PTO and several elected boards during her 20-plus years. "We offer so much more academically, but other communities are considered better school systems."

Murphy, who calls herself "a cheerleader for the town," loves the mix of people that Framingham attracts.  Its proximity to Boston and the presence of an art museum and college are other perks of living in town.

"We have so much going for us, but the people in position to celebrate it don't usually do that," said Murphy.  "We've got people who are incredibly well-educated and well-traveled who come from so many backgrounds.

"I think that's why we're considered so progressive.  Unfortunately, instead of highlighting that, we talk about what a crummy place this is to live," she said.

Orr, a frequent critic of the glut of social service organizations in town, says it's all about creating a balance.

"We do supply a lot of services and that inherently is a good thing," he said.  "But we need to be aware of how many more we're going to create."

Monzon doesn't look longingly at what's going on in other communities, he said.

"I don't compare our town with other places," he said.  "I love my town."

Murphy, who is originally from New York City, noted the recent national certification of the Framingham Police Department as yet another feather in the town's cap that doesn't get noticed.

"We have so many benchmarks of quality," she said.  "I'll never understand why you'd want to paint your own community as a dangerous place to live."

Framingham's roots trace back to it being a safe haven for women who were being persecuted for alleged witchcraft.  Murphy calls the influx of Brazilians and Russians "the American dream all over again."

"This really is a community of immigrants," she said.  "Thank goodness we have the Italian heritage.  We have a long history of welcoming.  This is just one more chapter in the story."

The next meeting of the citizen advisory committee is Sept. 28 at 7:30 p.m. The focus will be on the government's responsibility in housing.  The public is invited.

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