About 15 years ago a bench sat in front of the Perché No! gelato shop on Second Street, the space now occupied by Grilla Bites. That bench was a source of friction and controversy, I recall, because non-consumers (skateboarders) tended to occupy the bench, which drove away the more desired people—those who spent money in downtown stores. Eventually the benches were removed and downtown commerce returned to normal. Everyone, with the possible exception of the skateboarders, was happy.
About a year ago, a city-financed art project brought benches back to the downtown area. These benches are not just utilitarian devices; these babies are artful endeavors that truly enhance the downtown. But once again there is a problem. Undesirable people are sitting on the benches. Some downtown business owners—those whose businesses are close to the benches—are concerned that once again potential money-spenders are staying away to avoid possible confrontations with the benchwarmers. Add that to the perceived parking shortage, and we have a disaster brewing. Other store owners, I’ve heard, are making it clear that they do not want any new benches installed near their shops, by golly.
For the past month I’ve observed one guy who’s taken up residence on the Jackson Pollock bench located at the corner of Second and Main streets. The guy has a bedroll and a sleeping bag and some other possessions on the bench with him. He’s a passive fellow who on occasion will quietly ask for some change. Last Saturday I walked past him and heard him say, mostly to himself, I think, “Bobbie McGee. Now there’s a name I haven’t heard in long time.” He was lost in his reverie. I kept walking.
The real question, of course, is what do we do with these people who insist on sitting on the benches? We could hang signs on them: “These benches are not for sitting unless you are taking a break from shopping.” How about wiring the seats with an electrical current and giving the nearby business owners a switch they could use to send a low-voltage shock through the bench to clear it whenever a guy with wrinkled clothes and no obvious intention to shop sits down. Or maybe, utilizing a more humane approach, merchants could offer their customers who make purchases bench-sitting vouchers that they could show to the downtown bench patrol. Or they could be democratic and ban everybody from sitting on the benches. “Hey, don’t sit on that piece of art.” On the other hand, the Downtown Chico Business Association has floated the idea of hiring downtown guides—a.k.a. the eyes and ears of the cops—to help visitors find their ways around town. Why not put these bench-sitters to work? Make them earn the 35 cents they occasionally ask for. Give them maps of the downtown, white visors that say “Welcome to Chico” and maybe a friendly greeting they can offer downtown shoppers. “Hey, how you doing? Have you tried the coffee at …?” “Looking for a good pair of sunglasses?” “Need a new a yo-yo?” The possibilities are endless.
Then there is this: The Chico Creek Nature Center continues its “Building Nature’s Classroom” fund-raising campaign this weekend to help build a new interpretive center in Bidwell Park. The third-largest municipal park in the nation deserves a bigger center. You can help. On Saturday morning, April 16, from 7 to 9 things kick off with a “Bird and Breakfast” walk led by the Audubon Society’s Skip Augar. At 10 a.m., Chico’s Urban Forester Chris Boza will discuss the history of the forestry station. That’s $10. At 11 a.m., Chico Creek Nature Center Naturalist Randy Palmer leads a hike through the World of Trees grove; $5.00. At 12:15 p.m. kids 5 to 11 can take part in a Meet the Animals program, led by Palmer. Five bucks for an adult and up to two kids. At 1 p.m. local falconer Randy Landis will conduct a falconry/raptor program; $10. At 2 p.m., there will be a creek walk led by naturalist and CCNC board member Scott Torricelli; $10. Local music legends Jimmy Fay and John LaPado will play from 12:30 to 2. A dinner banquet catered by Guzzetti’s and featuring a silent auction and live jazz music is scheduled for the Chico Women’s Club at 592 East Third St. beginning at 6 p.m.; $25. Call the center at 891-4671 for more info.