NEW BEDFORD — They are the homeless and the literati, all converging on the front steps of the main library branch downtown. They chat and smoke, read and watch the cars pass by on a breezy summer day.
Their perch, a marble staircase, leads to imposing black iron doors that, until about 15 years ago, marked the entrance to the historic New Bedford Free Public Library. It was then that the nearly 200-year-old building was renovated, its front door moved to another façade.
Now, officials are proposing to drape a chain across the library’s two classical columns to cordon off the portico of the sealed entrance, because, they say, it plays host to drug deals and is used as a bathroom.
Such talk has provoked the ire of the people who linger here, who see it as the latest in a series of efforts to push the homeless and indigent out of downtown. And it has riled local preservationists who argue the chain would be an affront to the venerable landmark.
“It’s city life, and you’re going to have bad apples,” said Hardwood Jomes, 46, who was sitting on one of the bottom steps.
Between slow drags from his cigarette, Jomes, who is homeless, said that city officials were overreacting.
“The mayor makes us feel as if we aren’t members of society,” he said.
‘It’s about increasing the quality of life . . . especially downtown.’
Last week, Mayor Jon Mitchell emphasized that only the portico would be closed off, not the stairs leading to it, which people “of all stripes” use. The chain would be similar to ones at memorials in Washington, D.C., he said.
“We want to do this respectfully,” he said, “in a way that does not impede access or detract from the architecture.”
The Greek Revival library, one of the oldest buildings in downtown New Bedford, was built in the 1830s and designed by noted architect Russell Warren, said local historian and preservationist Peggi Medeiros.
From his office on the third floor of City Hall, Mitchell can see the front steps and the Whaleman Statue on the library lawn.
Medeiros said she disagrees with the proposal for the chain.
“I obviously object on historical and architectural grounds, but I object just as much to treating people as animals,” she said. “You can’t welcome people to New Bedford by chaining off the steps of your library.”
She said the police station right across the street was enough to keep the area safe. Medeiros was involved in a successful campaign last year to remove a wrought-iron fence put up around the Whaleman Statue by the previous mayor.
Mitchell said police and local residents had complained about the environment on the front steps. The proposal for the chain originated in conversations he had with local law enforcement, who, he said, noticed a small uptick this summer in crime.
“The arrests on the portico are not infrequent,” the mayor said.
The entrance was switched to the library’s north side in the 1990s because it was more feasible to make that entrance accessible to the disabled, as required by federal law, said Geoff Dickinson, acting library director.
The old entrance is no longer used because there are not enough staff members to keep track of who comes in and out, though once or twice a year it is used for special events, Mitchell said.
Kevin Fitzgibbon, who for the past few years has come to use his laptop and read, said the chain was “probably not a bad idea.”
“I think it’s good for safety,” he said.
He said he has seen the police called inside to deal with combative people, though he said he has not had issues.
Hearing the interview from a neighboring table on the library’s second floor, Ron McEndarfer told Fitzgibbon he “shouldn’t generalize.”
Though McEndarfer is not homeless, he said, as a low-
income person he feels antagonized by what he regards as the mayor’s efforts to move services for the homeless and indigent away from downtown.
Two years ago, Mitchell talked about a “growing problem with street people” downtown and asked outreach workers to move such resources away from City Hall, according to news reports at the time.
“I’d like to be able to see how they get away with it in a public place,” McEndarfer said.
Mitchell stressed that the portico chain was only a proposal and that he would be open to other ideas. He said another solution would be to put up a sign to deter loitering.
Tourism and investment in New Bedford are up, and Mitchell said he wants to keep the improvements going in this old whaling port.
“It’s about increasing the quality of life in our city, especially downtown,” he said.Oliver Ortega can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ByOliverOrtega.