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When city residents walked through the doors of College Church Tuesday night, they were handed brochures from the Ward 3 Neighborhood Association. The front panel read, "Great Neighbors Working Together."
On a frigid night, they greeted each other warmly, and it would seem like a simple gathering of friends, if they weren't all here to talk about last weekend's tragic fires. The fires have rattled many city residents, like nothing ever before. And so the mayor, the chief of police and deputy fire chiefs stood at the front of the room to provide whatever information they could and to hear from the public.
"Thank you all for coming tonight," said Bill Bliznak, who has lived in Ward 3 for 53 years. "And I want to thank all of the city departments for their hard work."
Not everyone was so up front with their praise.
"These incidences of fires in Ward 3 have been an issue since I've been in the city," said Jonathan Brody, who has lived on Williams Street in Ward 3 for about 5 years.
He told Mayor Clare Higgins he's upset with city officials and it wasn't until two people died that the city got proactive about suspicious fires that have plagued Northampton for years. He said it comes down to this: Ward 3 is on the other side of the tracks.
"I heard what you're saying," Higgins responded. "But I just want to say for a minute that our police officers and our fire fighters have been working on this issue for the number of years that you've talked about. They've been out on the streets and trying to solve this problem.
"I talked with the fire marshal yesterday. He said this is one of the hardest crimes to solve. That there have been communities where fires have gone on for 10 years and then the person stopped setting them and they never happened again and they were never solved. That's what I really don't want to happen in this community," she went on.
"I don't believe this is a question of ignoring Ward 3 because of class or any other reason and I'm sorry that that's coming up as an issue, because I really don't think it's true," she said to a round of supportive applause.
Many people last night focused on what action they could take. Higgins told the crowd their own vigilance is step number one.
"And if every single one of you talks to ten of your friends in the city we can maybe get more eyes and ears on the street, so that we can bring this to an end," she said. "But we're going to need you to do this."
Residents like Naomi Cairns would like to help. But after last weekend, staying in Northampton is not an option. Cairns lives in an apartment on Highland Ave. She was the only one in the house Sunday morning when the porch was set on fire and she hasn't slept since.
"I feel safe sleeping maybe around 8 to like 11 in the morning," she said.
This is Cairns second fire. Three years ago in January she said she almost died when her house on Holly St. — about a half mile from where she lives now — went up in flames. She said investigators never determined how the fire was started.
Even though her family is local, "I'm moving, which is a battle, because I don't want to leave my home, because I won't give it up again," Cairns said. "But I can't sleep then and then I can't work."
But Robert Davis who lives on Franklin St. and woke up to a car on fire outside his home Sunday morning said this is his Northampton: He's not going anywhere.
"We've got a good neighborhood and it's like a family, not just in the neighborhood, but the whole town has this attitude of family," he said. "I've got two kids raised in this area and doing incredibly well. I've got a magnificent wife. I like it around here."
This week, Davis started meeting more of his neighbors and they've all exchanged telephone numbers. He said it's better to be safely paranoid than dangerously complacent.
City officials, the Red Cross and other emergency workers might not use those exact words, but they agreed. Almost every speaker at the podium encouraged residents to get to know their neighbors, put up smoke alarms, keep flammables off their porches, and lock their doors.
And on the way out of the meeting, instead of a brochure from Ward 3, the fire department's chaplain was handing out bright yellow index cards, filled with pointers on how to stay safe in your home, and where to report suspicious activity.
This program aired on December 30, 2009.
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