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Citizens for Limited Taxation

A vision for downtown Framingham Sunday, June 19, 2005
Michael Sullivan Metrowest Daily News
FRAMINGHAM -- If officials and planners in the Memorial Building haven't spoken with Pat Coniglio about downtown's past, present and future they should take the 30-second walk across Union Avenue to his photo studio.

They also may wish to stop down the street and talk with Pablo Maia.

Coniglio is an outgoing Italian immigrant who set up shop just shy of 40 years ago.  This native son of Calabria will offer you a seat when you show up and stick a lollipop in your shirt pocket on the way out.

In between, take some time and listen.

"It was like a ghost town," he recalled following the closure of the General Motors plant and Dennison. "These were the big ones keeping the downtown."

More recent immigrants, Brazilians particularly, he notes, "are here to stay." And that's not a bad thing, he says.

"I enjoy the new community," he says. "A lot of people don't like the Brazilians, but I don't think that's right.  These people took the advantage."

Coniglio came here the old-fashioned way. His brother, who had become a U.S. citizen, sponsored him in the mid-'60s.  He's seen the shift of immigrant populations over the years.

"I wish they (Brazilians) all would be legal here," says Coniglio, "they're beautiful people."

Several recent visits downtown and a half-hour chat with Coniglio quickly point out what is clear to everyone.  It's not the "Leave it to Beaver" locale I recall from my childhood in the 1950s and '60s.

There's no focus.

A well-worn downtown Framingham today is in danger of becoming an increasingly isolated Brazilian enclave with little reason for an outsider to stop.  It will be just a few congested traffic lights of aggravation for drivers on routes 135 and 126.

A quick drive, if there's no train, through downtown is deceptive.  It looks fairly neat and tidy, uncongested, little tourist-type signs pointing to the post office, library, Memorial Building, etc.

A closer look, though, shows a tattered landscape -- the old Woolworth's vacant again, "Bell Shops" in the pavement a faded reminder of a previous owner at another store, the Salvation Army an anchor store by the tracks.

It's uncongested because there is so little to stop for.

Parking was a snap; the sidewalks pretty pedestrian free.

Between the Memorial Building and Burkis Square the mix of small shops had seemingly way too many dentists, hair and nail salons, travel agents, insurance offices, and storefronts with offers to send money back to South America.

Among the newcomers is Pablo Maia, who runs his realty office out of the Kendall Building.

He's getting ready to market one- and two-bedroom condos in the building. Overhauled by an investment company, the units will sell for $175,000 to $220,000, he said.

He agreed with Coniglio that the "Brazilian community revived the area...the best thing for Framingham is the immigrants."

But he acknowledged the newcomers have to work harder to make downtown more welcoming.

"Brazilians," Maia said during a chat in his office, "must give back...to show the respect to the city. "I haven't yet seen them giving the check to the Police Department" or other departments through fund-raisers or other civic-oriented events.

As to immigration status, Maia said, "it doesn't matter if they're legal or not, they're working." And, he insisted, most pay taxes.

That clearly is a divide pro and anti-immigration groups are unlikely to ever agree on.  "Immigrants," he said directly, "most of them are illegal."

Realistically, there isn't the will at the local, state or federal level to actually clear up the illegal immigration problem.

As Maia will quickly point out, "if you take all the illegal immigrants from here do you know how much will close," matter-of-factly ticking off landscapers, hotel and restaurant workers, "all of them."

Rather than a Brazilian population seeking to become American, downtown felt more like a South American enclave.

A number of stores with signs only in Portuguese said to me "we don't need or want your business."  Portuguese rivals English for the dominant language on the street.

While "foto e video" may be easy to figure out, how many non-Portuguese speaking folks are going to bother to decipher what a store offers if they cannot read the advertising.

That, to me, is not a real sign of new roots in a community.  It's not reaching out. It's not permanence.

Learning English, Maia agreed, is critical.

"The problem is most business, they don't speak English," said Maia, who put the figure at about 70 percent.  Some shops, he said, have no one who speaks English.

Traffic, of course, is a well-known nightmare, particularly the rail crossings.  Pretty much everyone has been stuck on Rte. 135 near Dennison long enough to read "War and Peace" waiting for a train to pass.

Any plan to "sink" Rte. 126 under the tracks or build a flyover just shows proponents are on drugs.  Neither Framingham nor the state has pockets deep enough for such design buffoonery. How many hundreds of thousands was spent to fix up that little Park Street Common?

How about investigating making Rte. 126 near the tracks one-way going over the rail line then right or left on Rte. 135 and straight through.

Rte. 135, in turn, would be primarily an east-west route. Entry to downtown would be via Bishop Street and Howard Street which would be a one-way.

Alec Vezina, CEO of Fabric Place, said their major problem is congested traffic jams caused by rail crossing backups.

A business 58 years in downtown, Fabric Place has an established clientele drawn from throughout the region.  "The Framingham store reminded me of an old dry good store," said Vezina, who has been with the company 11 years.

As to downtown's changes, he said open businesses are better than the empty storefronts of a few years ago and so far the mix has been OK.

"We're kinda excited about the Kendall Building becoming condos," he said.

Safety, Vezina said, also has improved from the days when they had a Framingham Police officer posted outside their Howard Street store.

Even the methadone clinic just down the street has worked out OK, he said.   "Quite surprised we haven't had any problems."

But a note to developers who want to put condos in the old Dennison buildings -- do something about the 15-minute walk to the commuter rail station.  I doubt after homeowners shell out $300K plus for a unit they will enjoy the stroll past the used-car lot, auto repair shops, cleaning supply store, methadone clinic and Salvation Army, especially in lousy winter weather.

Coniglio, near retirement and with none of five children likely to continue the business, fears his studio -- where he still mixes his own photo chemicals, restores old pictures and takes portraits -- will become just another empty storefront.

He's seen other businesses bail out for Rte. 9.  "The more stores you see empty, the more stores you will see Brazilian," he said.

"I would like to see more varieties of people opening stores," said Coniglio. "It feels all Brazilian."

Increasingly, residents can pay bills, do banking and insurance online.  Why hassle with downtown?

Officials, I know, cannot legislate that downtown have an Irish pub, a Greek restaurant or a Jewish deli.

"It's not that we don't want other people," insisted Maia, pointing out that many other communities have specific ethnic identities whether Jewish, Italian or Greek.

But downtown sports more Brazilian than American flags.

Somebody needs a vision.

Without the diversity and mix so touted in the school system, downtown Framingham will be an increasingly isolated enclave that others avoid altogether or continue to just pass through on their way to somewhere else that feels American.

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