News Spot

Busy day of work today: finish up a story about a change in the law that affects who you can pull a gun on (it goes in effect Saturday), report a story about an “armed” robbery in Ossipee (the note said he had a gun, but no one saw it) and run over to Fryeburg to watch an old dowel mill burn down.

That’s news. I was at the fire alongside three vans from Portland-based television stations. And there weren’t even flames. That’s a long ride for smoke.

I have to admit, I like reporting about legislation and town government more than fires and robberies. The term prurient interests comes to mind. A fire is news, in the most basic sense of the word, but it is less than crucial information for a citizenry hoping to self-govern.

I know that may seem a little over the top, but the forth estate is protected by the U.S. Constitution because information is central to democracy. Factual and relevant information is what the founding fathers hoped would enable people (Ok, in there day it was only landholding Christian white males, but still) to join together to make the best decisions for the plurality. The free press was and is crucial for that.

But it also has a seedier side — one interested in crime, death and destruction. Why does a fatal accident matter? One doesn’t. If there are a string of them, tied to an unsafe vehicular design or a dangerous stretch of road, then maybe it does. A newspaper should point out the latter, I believe, and ignore the former.

But if it does that it’s ignoring news. There is a distinction, between relevant news and sensationalized news, and it can be difficult for a paper to walk. The smoke at today’s fire was clear from Center Conway. People are going to want to know what happened. And this was the third time the same Rite Aid pharmacy has been robbed. That’s a pattern, I would say.

These are important stories, but they aren’t (or shouldn’t be) a paper’s bread and butter. A story about legislation that changes how gun owners can brandish their weapons when threatened — that’s something every citizen should know. Abuse within a residential care facility — that’s worth noting. Legislation that changes taxation and fees for a group of people — that too is worthwhile.

As are the “boring” stories about town hall, city council and school board. At least on the local level, those can’t be undersold. If all politics are local, then all reporting should be too.

Dirty to Clean (or Reborn)

Good signs are spreading through Berlin. The properties at 90 and 92 Main St. were cleaned up with Neighborhood Stabilization Program money. Notre Dame was cleaned up with an EPA Brownfields grant. The property on High Street was cleaned up by the land owner. Berlin has things to smile about. These aren’t the most recent photos by any means, but it’s clear the work has been progressing. Under storm clouds and winter skies it might be hard to recognize, but slowly the city is riding itself of its most decrepit eyesores. Sometimes it just takes someone pointing it out before you notice it.

A Ray of Sunshine

A Sunday morning fire destroyed the house at 320 High St., and now its guts are spilling out onto the sidewalk. The smell of smoke burned in my lungs as I took pictures on Monday, and a man stopped by to peer into the building’s bowls. He said the it’d be a shame if no one comes by and takes all the copper piping and wire left exposed. I got the distinct impression he would do it as soon as I left.
I imagine it is easy to get down on the city. Sometimes it seems there are vultures everywhere, particularly after the quiet spell is broken, and the story about Berlin in the Union Leader is once again about fires.
I go home every night to a different town; the city’s struggles are not my struggles. If I were here every day perhaps something like this would be harder to accept, but I don’t, so I am able to look past it and forward.
Residents of Berlin have no shame in being weary. The past decade has dealt a lot of blows to the city, some of which might have appeared fatal, and yet Berlin has survived them all.
I drove to the WMCC campus today, and on the way in I noticed their sign. The best education is adversity the sign said. If that’s true, Berlin has earned it’s Ph.D.

The city hasn’t given up. It is a testament to its residents, even those who trash on it, that the place has the life that it does. In a community like Berlin it’s easy to become ideological enemies, but residents have maintained their pride in their home.
I don’t have that weary perspective, and I haven’t earned a higher degree in hardship. What I see here is positive, and I spend most of my time writing about them in hopes other people will see them too. But I thought after a fire, with the paper just about done, I would put together a list of good things I noticed today to cheer up anyone who feels the most recent fire is the weight that will cause them to crack.

  • Tony’s Pizza — If you haven’t noticed, it’s been cleaned up and it looks like a business might be moving in. I’m going to have to check this out in the future. Nice to see some development.
  • Morning Lane Photography — The building is looking great. The painting that has been going on outside for more than a week really helps spiff up Main Street.
  • Gill Building — New business moving into town… Story to follow to be in the next Berlin Reporter, so stay tuned.
  • Neighborhood Stabilization Program — $4.3 million. Need I really say more? OK, it gets released Wednesday, and it will be used to clean up the blight. Again, story to follow more in depth, but it’s happening.
  • ATV Trail — A big part of making the city a destination for ATVers, and it gets voted on tonight by the city council. Can’t imagine that won’t help bring people in.
  • Wang’s Garden — Need a sports bar. Check out this week’s paper to learn more.
  • Fagin’s Pub — They’re working on it, cleaning up the mess. Not sure when it’ll be open, but they’re on it.
  • Main Street Benches and Flowers — In fact, all of Main Street up to East Mason Street is looking great. The flowers, benches, scarecrow displays, everything. And store owners have been taking more pride in their store fronts, which shows. The whole thing looks great.
  • The Main Street Fires — Those two buildings will be coming down in a month or two. This, combined with the other upgrades on Main Street, make a huge difference.
  • The Traffic — I know some people hate it, but I love it. I was downtown the other day, and the streets were busier than I’d ever seen. People will bring the revival the city needs.

I hope that helps for anyone who was having a bad day. I could go on, because so much of what I see up here is positive, but I wanted to make the post quick. Negatives are here, but many of us who haven’t lived surrounded by them all our lives see them as the fringes, not the essence, of Berlin. A number of people have fallen in love with the area in the last few years; this is what they see. Thank god for that outside perspective; may it give hope to those without it.

Update: Two more: the city council passed the ordinance allowing ATVs on city streets, connecting the trails on west side of the city with those on the east, and the building next to the library has been cleaned up and will soon house a gazebo. Keep it coming…

Even Google Is Against It

I love Google. I use Gmail, Google Maps, Google Docs, Google Calendar, Blogger, all sorts of Google applications. But then, every once in a while I find a reason to hate Google.
Google has a company policy to never be evil, so hopefully they don’t turn into a 21st century Microsoft. I can appreciate that. But then how come when I type Berlin NH into Google Maps, the tag that comes up under Explore this area is a couple photos and Arson charges in Berlin? This is the type of thing that makes me consider Google evil. Come on Google! I’m saying the city needs a marketing campaign, but it’s damn hard to argue with Google, a search engine so ubiquitous its become a verb. This is not the type of coverage the city needs.
I know, it isn’t really Google’s fault, because the map was made by the Union Leader. But wouldn’t it be so much nicer to have a map made by the recreation department, or the city marketer, showing the city’s parks and recreation spots? How about its swimming holes? Or its historic buildings? Its churches? They wouldn’t erase the word arson from showing up on the side of the Google search, but they would at least put the word in context. Berlin isn’t all burned out buildings, but look to Google and that’s what it appears. Who wants to do something about that? Thus far, the answer is no one. That makes it hard to point the blame at Google.

A Little Respect, Please

I sat down with economic development director Norm Charest the other day and had a talk about marketing and Berlin’s future (a good recap of the conversation will be in next week’s Berlin Reporter). He pointed out that marketing will only go so far when the first thing people see in the city is burned out buildings and decrepit houses. He said he didn’t see that marketing would amount to much, which I don’t agree with, but he did make an interesting point. He brought a business owner to the veteran’s park along the Dead River to show how beautiful the area is. They walked along the river for a little bit and then popped out the other side, with a great view of Mount Forist. The first thing the guy noticed, though, was a burned out building on Second Avenue.
That inspired me to take a walk along that same path, to see what that park is really like. I ducked in the woods wherever I could, checked out the Dead River and sat under the railroad trestle. What astounded me wasn’t the burned out building on Second Avenue, or the one on York Street, but it was the condition of the park, from A to Z, and the crap sitting in the Dead River.
Mr. Charest said it had been a long time since Berlin residents had anything to rally around, anything to really bring people together. He and I don’t see eye to eye on all aspects of Berlin’s development, but I can understand his point there. I think the Notre Dame renovation has been a rallying point, but not enough to energize the city. There needs to be something to pick the city up; something people can believe in.
But then, I remember what Dana Willis said. He is one of the developers of the Notre Dame project. He said it was the community involvement and effort he saw from Project Rescue Notre Dame that convinced him to do something with the building. PJND painted the windows blue, the school color, and cleaned up around the property. So was is it the renovation of Notre Dame that rallied these people, or was it the rally that led to the renovation?
Walking along the Dead River, it wasn’t the burned out buildings that caught my eye. It was the truck tires sitting in the river and the trash along the bank. Wondering what the photo is at the top of this post? It’s the bicycle sitting in the Dead.
Berlin needs to rally. Yes, there are burnt out buildings, and they aren’t going away fast enough. But what about the bicycle in the Dead River? What about the tires there too? What about the properties not adequately maintained? What about trash on the side of the road.
I hear the arguments already, about people not doing their part with their property. So what? Did Project Rescue Notre Dame worry that there were other vacant buildings on their street? Is there any excuse for the amount of debris in the Dead River? Does anyone need permission to clean it up?
This evening I volunteered to go out and pick up trash around Cathedral Ledge, to keep a place I care about clean. There are people who throw beer bottles off the top of the cliff. It will be me and others like me that clean up their trash. Who will clean up Berlin’s trash? Who will invest their time to clean it up?
No one can clean up the fires though, right? Wrong. The city is doing what it can to obtain and demolish dilapidated properties. Having worked on a story about this I am convinced the city is doing everything it can. Every few weeks at the city council meeting I hear about another building going through the RSA 155B process. It is hard for the government — city, state or federal — to deprive people of their property, which everyone should be grateful of. It takes time to change the charred landscape. Be patient.
And if you feel like complaining, go out and fish some trash out of the Dead River. Ante up and do your part, instead of bitching the city isn’t doing theirs. Become part of the rally that turns Berlin around. Or shut up and let the people who care about Berlin put the city back together.

Fire Five

Empty houses burning — at this point they just make me sad. The house with the sign on it has been sitting vacant for years, according to one of the firefighters who put it out Saturday morning. Three surrounding buildings will need repairs, including the one in the picture, which was on fire when crews arrived. And this three unit house, listed for less than $50,000, is now basically worthless.

It goes back to the issue of what to do with these vacant houses. They are a drag in so many ways, and worst of all when they catch fire and damage other people’s property. Hopefully the $4.3 million will make some headway in dealing with this problem. If not, there are still a lot of empty buildings sitting around waiting to catch fire.

The Latest Fire

One more weekend, one more fire. Today I made it over to the garage that burned Saturday night. The garage was behind an empty house, and it caught the neighboring house where someone was sleeping on fire. The woman got out unharmed, but the house needs repairs. Firefighters were able to save it, and Karen Bradley, the owner, was amazed at how effectively they fought the fire. The garage, however, didn’t fair so well, and several cars were also badly damaged or destroyed.

Now the big question: how does it all get fixed? Mrs. Bradley has insurance, but the remains of the garage are leaning on her house, and she doesn’t know who owns it. She is a lifelong Berlin resident, and this city isn’t big enough for anonymity. The owner most likely lives out of state or out of the area, which is the central challenge for Berlin. As I wrote in my last post, it is often worth it for landowners to walk away from burned out properties instead of fix them up. But where does this leave the landowners who want to rebuild? Usually it doesn’t matter, because if a house burns down it only affects itself, or even if it catches other houses on fire it doesn’t stick around for the cleanup. But Mrs. Bradley needs the garage moved before she can go to work. If this property owner is like many in the area, this may prove a challenge.

Berlin has a host of challenges, between fires, absentee landlords and property owners, job losses and a declining population. My job, as I see it, is to sort them all out for the citizens of Berlin. It is amazing to watch this large group of people, all with the same general goal but with a million competing specific self-interests, wrestle to work together.
The fire department can’t tear down houses because they’re private property. The property owner can’t rebuild because she needs the abutting owner to raze his property. The landowner might not want to put money into a property essentially devoid of value, and for the city to tear it down it’s a year long process and takes $25,000 to complete.

Last week, at the meeting about the fires that almost no one showed up to, people were complaining about a property on Gilbert Street. I stopped there today as part of a story I’m working on. At first I couldn’t tell which property they were talking about — there were too many abandoned properties on Gilbert Street. But then I looked around, and the one they were upset about became obvious. But what is the city to do? It is private property, and they can’t just tear it down. And what is a landowner to do? In this incendiary environment every vacant house looks like a target. No one wants to be the next Mrs. Bradley.

How do you sort out competing interests all headed in the same direction? How can the city preserve the rights of out of state landowners and the safety of residents? They have to stay within the law, they can’t just bulldoze all the empty properties in the city, of which there are more than 100. The city and its residents are caught in a battle fighting themselves for the same goal.

I’m working on a piece about this for next week’s paper, but it is hard to put all these issues into one story. The fires, the long distance landlords, the city’s efforts and the residents’ fears all coalesce into something too big for a thousand words. But it’s hard to imagine who will tell it in cities and towns across America if print journalism fails.
Pick up the Berlin Reporter and there is a week’s worth of conversations and interviews, events and insights from the residents of Berlin and Gorham. I find it hard to understand how this city, or any city for that matter, can function without a paper. Too much goes on every hour, every day and every week in any town or city for people to just pick it up. People can filter the world through the Internet, or television, or radio news, but that doesn’t filter the local. And the local doesn’t matter, perhaps, until you wake up at 2 a.m. to your dog barking and your house burning. Then, all the sudden, what the reporters in your town are doing matters.

Fire Number Four

The fourth fire in two weeks happened over the weekend. It started in the garage of an abandoned house and damaged the house next door. I don’t know if the fire marshal has declared the fire incendiary or not yet, but either way it still touches on an issue that is central to Berlin: what to do about burned buildings.

I talked to Berlin Fire Chief Randall Trull, as well as city manager Pat MacQueen and housing coordinator Andre Caron about it today. Berlin is in a unique situation — if a building burns, the leftover property is often worth less than the total of cleanup costs. This results in landlords walking away from their properties. Chief Trull, Mr. MacQueen and Mr. Caron all pointed to RSA 155B as the best means to move forward in this situation. The law allows the city to do something about these abandoned properties, even though the city doesn’t own them. In addition, sometimes the law can even incentivize landlords to clean up properties they otherwise would have walked away from. It isn’t perfect, Mr. MacQueen said, but recent changes to the law are making it possible for the city to move forward with destroyed properties at less cost to taxpayers.

Berlin used to have 22,000 residents. Now there are 10,300. That means there is a wealth of infrastructure for a dearth of population. The empty houses are only one symptom; the closing schools are another. In a city where there are ample vacant properties for arsonists to burn there are also schools closing for lack of students. The Bartlett school will close in about two weeks, and not just for the summer. The new superintendent will be in charge of only four schools, where the current superintendent is in charge of six.

At the same time there are signs of improvement. The Gill Building, on Main Street, former home of Gill’s Flowers, is now available for rent. David Morin, one of the investors who bought and renovated the building, showed me around the four beautiful apartments and downstairs office space. It is the type of place any young professional would love to rent — well built, quiet, efficient and inexpensive. StoryCorps has jumped on the opportunity to rent the apartments for the first month. Now Morin and his partners are looking for a few people in search of quality office and living accommodations in the downtown. It is a promising move forward in a city Mr. Morin said is often making lateral movements.

Check out next week’s Berlin Reporter for an in depth look at these stories.