CATSKILL — Village trustees decided Tuesday to permit a Black Lives Matter banner on Main Street instead of the mural that was originally proposed.
The Hudson/Catskill Housing Coalition first requested the mural on June 14. Additionally, the group has requested a mural on Second Street in Hudson. Hudson Mayor Kamal Johnson last week committed to the mural.
In Our Own Voices, a social justice organization in Albany, requested a mural on Lark Street on June 9 — the same day a mural was painted on 16th Street in Washington, D.C.
Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan approved the Lark Street mural.
Housing Coalition member and Staley B. Keith Social Justice Center Chairwoman Claire Cousin quoted Black Lives Matter Movement leader Alicia Garza in her response to the board’s decision.
“There is hope for humanity, but in order to get there we really have to interrogate not just what it takes to change laws, but what it takes to change culture that supports laws that uplift, and also support laws that serve to denigrate it,” Cousin said.
Cousin said the board’s calls for a conversation about policy changes was misleading.
“The village stating that they will not respond to demands but would rather be invited to a conversation is misleading,” she said. “We have had numerous conversations with Mr. (Village President Vincent) Seeley since the time of our start when tenants from Hop-O-Nose were seeking basic assistance from the leadership in Hop-O-Nose and, very simply, a better quality of life.”
We have reached out on numerous occasions before the mural was even born. Our organization offered to supply the paint and hire local artists. We never got to explain the plan much further because we weren’t OK’d by the village to move forward.”
Cousin criticized the compromise the board offered to move the mural to Water Street.
“They were OK with painting “Black Lives Matter” on Water Street adjacent to the low-income housing complex in Catskill,” she said. “I think it’s evident to that population that their lives matter. We are demanding at this point because many of our previous attempts at improving quality of life for the marginalized community that exists in Catskill have been met with opposition. Maybe it’s because this is the way things have always been, but it doesn’t make it right. My family lives in Hop, and they deserve better. They deserve more from their leadership and they will be heard.”
In its decision, the board of trustees laid out several reasons why it supported banners over the mural including that any mural or signage would need to go through an approval process by the planning board, the banner would be more visible and receive more exposure, the banner is mobile and more inclusive, the banner will be more durable than paint on the street which will fade, the mural would interfere “with the daily vitality of [the] town” and would “have a much more detrimental impact,” and the lettering could cause confusing for drivers.
“We feel this would be counterproductive and severely erode the enormous outpouring of goodwill and solidarity with the BLM movement shown by our community in the two marches,” according to the decision, referring to the protests held on June 4 and June 20.
One of the main arguments cited against the mural was the disruption it would cause to businesses for the two days the street would be closed.
Trustees had previously discussed closing Main Street to help support local businesses as the economy began to reopen but were met with resistance, Trustee Natasha Law said. “We had conversations discussing shutting down Main Street a few weeks back thinking it would help businesses flourish and all but four [businesses] wanted absolutely nothing to do with it. One business even went as far as stating he would close his doors permanently if we shut the street down at all after not being allowed to be open for three months due to COVID. Residents didn’t want the inconvenience, either.”
Seeley was a strong proponent of closing Main Street for the entire summer or until businesses could be fully operational.
“Completely closing the street is the only way to make a big splash, get noticed and set us up for a successful recovery,” Seeley said in May. “A watered down version... It is not worth it to invest our time into something that won’t be useful and will not make big enough splash.”
Other communities such as Saratoga Springs, the city of Albany and most recently, Hudson have closed down streets to allow restaurants and other businesses to increase their capacities due to social distancing requirements. Hudson’s Shared Summer Streets program, which began June 26, limits vehicular traffic and allows businesses and community groups to occupy parking spaces outside their buildings on Warren Street until 8:30 p.m. Friday to Sunday.
At last week’s meeting, Cousin said that the village’s willingness to tolerate some level of inconvenience to show its support was part of the symbolic value of the mural.
“A banner is beautiful and that would be great in addition,” she said. “The act itself, the demonstration, is that it’s not about inconvenience anymore. That’s what the problem has been for so long and that’s why its so profound when cities are saying we don’t care about [streets] being shut down or we’re willing to take the inconvenience because we want our people to know they matter.”
In different sections of the board’s statement, the board writes that it supports the movement but suggests that it does not support all aspects of the movement.
“The village of Catskill Board of Trustees is committed to take action to help address racial injustice and unequivocally believes that Black Lives Matter,” according to the statement. “Black Lives Matter has become a political movement and in certain examples is causing more of a divide than ever before. Some of the statements of this organization are not in line to how our community feels as a whole.”
In the statement, the board contended it had not received a detailed plan for the mural.
“We requested a detailed plan of the material to be used, artists, timeline, etc.,” according to the statement. “In that absence, it was difficult to support the street mural effort.”
Seeley asked Housing Coalition Program Coordinator Molly Stinchfield for a sketch and dimensions of the mural, as well as the precise location so the board could contact business owners in that section of Main Street during last week’s board meeting.
During the meeting, Seeley said the board would review an online petition to learn what Main Street businesses supported the mural. The petition was nearing 2,300 signatures Tuesday afternoon.
Julie Chase, owner of Open Studio, voiced her support for the mural at last week’s meeting.
“I am 100% for the mural being done on Main Street,” she said. “I think it’s important symbolically. If it ends up being put on a side street it doesn’t have the symbolic importance that it would have if it were on Main Street.”
Stinchfield created two graphics of placements for the mural: one where the mural would span the intersection of Main and Bridge Street near the Greene County Courthouse. The other option showed the mural starting by the town offices, centered in front of the Greene County Office Building and ending before the municipal lot on Willard Alley.
Conversations regarding policy changes need to be had, the village said in its statement.
“Working together is key to affecting change,” the village said. “We are committed to working collaboratively to address the issues of the BLM message. Rather than responding to a demand, we would rather sit down to discuss changes in policies, procedures and finances that would truly reflect the goals of the BLM movement. We have not yet received any request or input for discussion other than painting our Main Street, but we remain ready to welcome it. We remain committed to working with all parties to make the village of Catskill an inclusive community. We will not tolerate racial injustice and unequivocally believe black lives matter.”
Johnson announced a 10% budget cut for the Hudson Police Department last week. The cuts will come from equipment and supplies, not personnel, city Police Commissioner Peter Volkmann said.
The 2020-21 budget for the Catskill Police Department is $1.3 million, or 26.5% of the overall spending plan; the total village budget is $4.9 million. The department has 14 full-time employees and three part-time employees, Lt. Ronald Frascello said.
The village of Catskill has about 4,500 residents, Seeley said.