A week ago today, Billings Gazette editor Darrell Ehrlick opened his Sunday column with the words, “This is one of those thing that hurts to write.”
If it’s any consolation, Darrell, it was also painful to read.
He went on to paint a lurid picture of downtown Billings, all derived from what he described as a four-block round-trip lunch outing from his office at North Broadway at Fourth Avenue North.
He wrote of encountering “four groups of semi-sober folks,” some of whom were yelling, and about how pedestrians were forced to suffer the indignity of walking into the street to avoid a “huddled group” of transients at one corner. He also mentioned seeing, on that same walk, “a half-washed pile of puke” and smelling the “unmistakable scent of fermenting urine.”
What made the column remarkable is that it seemed to have been written from the perspective of a man who had not been reading the Billings Gazette at all in the past few months.
It was written as if Ehrlick had just made the discovery—not yet noticed by anyone else—that certain aspects of downtown Billings were less than uniformly pleasant. For some mysterious reason, he seemed to be saying, his once agreeable lunch outing had suddenly become a Dickensian tour of the slums of old London.
There were passing references to the work being done by “many groups” to address the problems downtown, but almost no specifics, certainly nothing as specific as his description of fermenting urine.
It was as if the Gazette had not, in recent months, devoted hundreds of column inches, in its news and opinion pages, to coverage of and commentary on all that is underway to solve some of these longstanding problems.
Anybody who has been reading the Gazette’s admirable coverage of these efforts would realize that the work being done by businesses, individuals, city officials, cops, service agencies and charitable groups is more serious and determined than any similar efforts in the history of this city.
This is not to say that there isn’t a mountain of work yet to be done, but the commitment and will shown have been impressive, and results are already being seen.reported that the Montana Rescue Mission and Harvest Church opened a new drop-in center for transients and homeless people. A church member told KTVQ that that center is aimed directly at the 74 “chronically homeless” people identified by the city as part of the recent Community Innovations Summit. In other words, this center was a quick, direct result of that summit, held just two months ago in hopes of galvanizing efforts to do something about the downtown’s problems.
This failure to acknowledge the good work being done, though, was not the worst thing about Ehrlick’s column. The worst thing was that it played on every fear of the downtown that so many people have been working for years to erase.
After delivering the “hard truth” that downtown Billings “has a problem,” Ehrlick asked, “Would I bring my kids with me to do a little leisurely shopping?” He doesn’t answer his own question, but I guess we know what it would have been. He also wondered whether a “young female” would feel comfortable shopping downtown, which he referred to as “the province of stumbling drunks.”
Ehrlick must know that there are many, many people in Billings and surrounding communities who are predisposed to shy away from the downtown and who would find in his column confirmation of all their fears.
Those of us who live and work downtown are always trying to persuade people that the minor annoyances are far outweighed by all the good things downtown has to offer. I would argue that we have more to fear from heedless drivers—dare we say West Enders and Heightians unused to seeing pedestrians?—than we do from transients.
We have the problems that inevitably accompany economic growth, increasing urbanization and the lack of a national commitment to help people suffering simultaneously from poverty, mental illness and addictions. But we also have a downtown that offers more in the way of entertainment, food, drink, arts, culture and yes, hope, than any city in Montana.
To ignore all that, to emphasize all the worst aspects of the downtown right in the midst of what is the make-or-break season for downtown businesses, beggars belief.
It is the equivalent of a slap in the face with a rolled-up newspaper, more jarring and vivid than even the scent of fermenting urine.