Governing Paradise: Noho’s Recovery Would be Sciarra’s Biggest Campaign Yet…
Governing Paradise is an occasional series on impending change in Northampton government.
NORTHAMPTON—No New England community is complete without an old church-cum-meetinghouse. However, a few years ago, the one at the center of Paradise City, today First Churches, was in trouble. Circa 2007, plaster was caving into the sanctuary. Dating to the 1870s, it was the fifth church on that site, but it would need a massive renovation.
First Churches turned to Gina-Louise Sciarra, then a recent Noho returnee—now a mayoral candidate—to head the fundraising and coordination for the endeavor. It was a sprawling task with stakeholders across the city’s civic, religious and business communities. Yet, the renovation succeeded, ensuring First Church’s place as one of Noho’s premier meeting spaces.
“Coordinating that effort was so vital and that involved so many groups in downtown Northampton,” said then-pastor Peter Ives, who knew Sciarra as a Smith College classmate of his daughter. “She got to know so much about the entire city of Northampton just working on the capital campaign.”
“That really put in her in touch with the heart and the soul of the community,” said Ives’s wife, Jenny Fleming-Ives.
That campaign would set the stage for Sciarra’s rise in Paradise City politics including campaigns for City Council. Even before COVID, the city’s challenges were manifold, but she basks in the details of complex assignments.
Yet, Sciarra’s virtues may be a vice to some. To opponents, the considerable support from across the many dimensions of Northampton feels like the establishment coalescing around her. She faces Shanna Fishel, Rosechana Gordon, Jared Greenberg and Roy Martin in the September 28 preliminary.
Sciarra rejects the charges of insiderism, but they do not surprise her.
“I’m proud of that work. I think that people know that I want to show up, I’ve been showing up for a long time,” she said. “I engage with people, I have been able to work on tough issues and with disparate views and come together around something.”
Multiple people WMP&I contacted cited Sciarra’s ubiquity and her embrace of the minutiae.
“She listens, she works hard, she shows up, she studies and she gets things done,” Alexandra Russell, a philanthropic advisor said of Sciarra. “She has that rare and powerful combo of policy wonk and charisma.”
In Noho, there is no shortage of fervent and disparate opinions she would have to corral, both pandemic-related and not. However, retiring mayor David Narkewicz will bequeath his successor a city in excellent in financial condition.
During an interview last month at a side street downtown café, Sciarra argued she has the background to govern and willingness to step up despite the breadth of the issues.
“I’ve done the foundational work to understand how a municipality functions to appreciate the people who work for Northampton I’ve worked with these department heads for years now,” she said.
On the sun-soaked café patio mooned by the rears of Main Street buildings, Sciarra described her arc from suburban New York to Smith to cities on both coasts and then back to Northampton with her husband the writer Bill Scher.
After graduating from Smith, Sciarra went out to San Francisco to work for a political consulting firm that focused on clients dedicated to reproductive freedom. From there she found her way to New York. She took a job with American Civil Liberties Union again on reproductive rights. That time coincided with 9/11 and the subsequent Islamophobia that the ACLU fought to oppose.
Sciarra had planned to become a lawyer, but an interest in prison reform led her pursue degrees in sociology. Life happened amid those plans. Her father died and a research project brought her back to Smith. She and Scher ultimately settled here even after Sciarra’s work with the college wound down.
“We’re just committed to wanting to be here and surely after we moved here and sort of became more engaged with the community, we knew this was going to be our home and this is where we wanted our family to be,” Sciarra explained.
Engaged she has been. In addition to the First Churches campaign, she ran now-retiring-colleague Bill Dwight’s Council campaign. When Pamela Schwartz vacated Ward 4’s Council seat in 2013, Sciarra ran for it. An at-large seat opened in 2019 and Sciarra went citywide. She became Council President in 2020.
Gwen Agna, a retired principal at Jackson Street School cited Sciarra’s efforts, both as the parent of students and a councilor, to support and showcase city schools. Sciarra and her husband have two school-age daughters.
“I could count on GL to stand up for schools in challenging budget times and when there needed to be voices heard at the state level,” Agna said, employing a monogram Sciarra’s supporters frequently use in casual speech about the candidate.
Housing itself will be a major issue for the next mayor. Despite the reputation of its quirky citified village centers, underdeveloped swaths of Northampton scream Western Massachusetts rural stereotypes. Like other uber-progressive enclaves, the Paradise City has faltered on housing construction.
Fishel, one of the mayoral contenders, has supported more housing, too. However, there remain voices that believe Northampton is still building too much.
To illustrate the stakes, Sciarra recalled seeing a child’s bike being unloaded at a housing development the city supported with Community Preservation Act funds. She noted that the development was in the school zone for her daughters’ elementary school. That this child would be going to the school was, in Sciarra’s mind, an unambiguous good for both.
Sciarra added that she and the City Council have already taken steps to amend the zoning ordinance and allow more building.
“There’s just no, almost no inventory and things go immediately for well above asking,” Sicarra said. “We need to have more housing at every level. I know that’s hard for people to hear sometimes, because they because affordable housing is my primary goal.”
Of course, the issues of housing and affordability have other dimensions. While the pandemic scorched downtown, there had long been a slow burn emptying out retail storefronts. A multitude of factors are to blame, but homelessness is among the tinder.
Sciarra spoke about bolstering the resilience hub the city is working on. The hub offers the unhoused a place to be during the day and access to computers and other facilities.
“If we can have a safe space where people can be they can feel safe and relaxed and be able to start talking about what their needs are and seeing how we can connect them, that’s a really innovative, transformative thing for Northampton,” she said.
As Council President, Sciarra steered the City Council through its COVID-induced virtualization. For Northampton, that included rollicking remote meetings after the murder of George Floyd. Zoom server-busting crowds packed speak-outs in the following weeks and protested outside councilors’ homes.
The city is moving toward responding to some calls without police Sciarra said. A Police Review Commission recommended certain services remain with police and cautioned against premature cuts. Still, she understands the doubts some residents have.
“Not everyone feels equally served by the police and not everyone feels sort of the comfort or sense of safety that I do,” she said.
Sciarra also said she had confidence in Police Chief Jody Kasper. Kasper has told her that her department would love to see specially-trained civilians trained respond to certain calls.
“I think that if people are willing to engage with her, with Chief Kasper in particular, they’ll find a willing partner,” Sciarra said.
In addition to these many ongoing concerns, Sciarra made a point to note the city’s climate goals as well.
All things considered, Northampton weathered the pandemic better than other places. Residents like Kelsey Flynn, a writer and comedian, are optimistic about the city’s future, especially if Sciarra is helming it.
“I see us coming back, the city returning from COVID and having it be an equitable return so everyone kind of rises,” she said.
Flynn had also worked as a reporter for WHMP, covering City Hall and saw how Byzantine processes can be. But Sciarra understands them.
“GL is the conductor to make sure these trains keep running through the station,” Flynn said.
Arguably, Sciarra is just gearing up for a new capital campaign. It is for a city with a solid foundation, but whose rafters have weakened over the years. COVID did not cause the damage, but only gnawed at it. Any accusations of establishmentarianism are not an alternative to the experience she and her supporters say the city needs.
“I think that it’s an indication of people recognizing the work that I’ve done, and that I have the experience to take on the largest elected role in the city,” she said. “It’s not it’s not an entry level job.”