The Towing – An Open Letter from Ellen LaFleche

We would like to share with you this open letter to Mayor Clare Higgins from Clark Avenue resident Ellen LaFleche.

To All It Concerns,

My husband works as an activities director at a local retirement community, and although our own retirement is more than a decade away, we spend lots of time talking about where we would like to retire. Sadly, we have decided it will NOT be Northampton, Mass., where we have made our home for the past 25 years. It is where we raised our daughter.

This is a sad decision for us as a family. It is a sad decision for the City of Northampton. We are the type of citizens the City of Northampton celebrates. My husband has spent a long career in social services, working hard to promote the rights of senior citizens. I am a very active member of Northampton’s writing and artistic community. I volunteer at the local Hospice Shop on Bridge Road. My daughter has absorbed these values. She is a graduate of Northampton High School and the state college system, and has just begun a career as a social worker working with traumatized teens.

When we moved her in 1985, I was expecting my first child. We purposefully and thoughtfully bought a modest home on Clark Avenue. We wanted to raise our child with values of simplicity and frugality. We did this because we firmly believe this is the right way to live morally and environmentally. We also were thrilled to be living close to the downtown area. We always shop downtown, supporting local businesses with all of our dollars, and we avoid the malls like a plague. We would rather pay a few extra dollars for a book, for example, if that means we can buy it at Broadside, because we believe it is important to support local bookstores. I shop often at Serio’s and State Street for the same reasons.

For this decision to live modestly, in the downtown area, we were soundly punished on Thursday, December 18, 2008.

Our car was towed in the middle of the night, without notice or forewarning – this operation took place in a very quiet manner; I had insomnia that night and was sitting in the living room, which overlooks the street and I heard no beep-beep-beeps or other sounds to alert me to what was happening. This stealth operation occurred not one but two days after a couple inches of snow had fallen. Our street at NO TIME was treated – on this crucial point, all of my neighbors agree. My husband had to miss a medical appointment because our car was gone. The towing happened over 36 hours after one or two inches of snow had fallen!!!!!!!!!

One young woman at the impound lot, a college student, melted into tears. She told my husband, “Now I cannot buy my parents any Christmas presents.”

When I called the City to protest the punitive absurdity of this situation, I was repeatedly told about the snow “policy”. I find that response painful and utterly ironic. Hasn’t Northampton’s proud history of social justice always focused on challenging absurd and unjust “policy”? Most Northampton residents do not agree with George Bush’s “policies” on Iraq. I am sure most of us would not sacrifice our sons and daughters to that absurd and unjust “policy”. The same could be said about the wonderful rallies that took place in Northampton recently, protesting California’s “policy” about gay marriage.

I dutifully parked my car in the parking garage on Tuesday night, when the two inches fell. No person in their reasonable right mind would have even considered the possibility that 36 hours after a two-inch snow event the “policy” would be in effect. I always call the hotline number when snow is in the forecast. I am a dutiful citizen. It never occurred to me that there would be an “emergency” snow ban 36 hours after a very light snowfall. And I do have strong analytic and deductive skills! The towing was punitive and absurd. It punished the wonderful people who live in our modest neighborhood. Can anyone on your staff honestly say they would have considered the possibility of something so silly?

Clearly, the towing company made some serious money. Very serious money. I was planning to spend $150 at one of Northampton’s camera stores to buy a special Christmas gift for my daughter. “Sorry, local photography store. The money I planned to give you padded the pockets of a towing company instead.” The towing operation that took place feels like a scam to me and my neighbors.

What hurts me so much is that I just donated about fifty hours of my time as a guest poet at Northampton High School preparing the students for the annual poetry slam. I spent about fifty hours of my time in preparation for this, and spent over two full days at the school. I will receive a small honorarium, which will amount to about $2 an hour. But that is not the point – I would have gladly done it for free. I was delighted and honored to work with the students, sharing my gifts with them and contributing to my so-called “community”. I received thank you cards from many of the students.

I was very hurt when someone in the mayor’s office told me yesterday there was no connection between my work at the high school and the towing. Yet, it feels connected in every way. I feel punished for living in a modest neighborhood, where most of us do not have garages for our cars. I feel punished for living in the downtown area. I feel financially punished. (In fact, I willingly gave up a freelance editing project last week (that is how I make a living) in order to concentrate on the high school work. Had I known a stealth towing was in my future, I would have taken the editing gig instead of the high school project in order to earn the money to pad the pockets of the towing company. How sad. The students would have lost out.)

I spent the day yesterday knocking on doors in my neighborhood. Several residents wept. All of them expressed outrage, hurt, disappointment. One college student from UMass said, “I wish I had never moved to Northampton.” He plans to move back to Amherst. So the apartment building on South Street can expect a vacancy. Does the town really wish to drive tenants out of town, leaving apartments vacant, especially in light of this economic downtown?

I will continue my organizing efforts. This event was so hurtful, so absurd, so un-Northampton-like. All downtown businesses mentioned in this letter will receive a copy.

Ellen LaFleche
Clark Avenue
Northampton, MA

See also:

Gazette: “In Our Opinion: A ticket and towing blitz” (12/24/08)
Amid so much confusion over the snow emergency, the police response was excessive. The city would be well served to reconsider the manner in which it initiates and enforces its snow emergencies. It can do much better than it did last week.

Gazette: “Blizzard of towing, ticketing across Northampton” (12/19/08)
In Northampton, 167 motorists woke Thursday morning to [discover they had been towed]… Police said a total of about 300 tickets were written Thursday for vehicles both towed and left parked…

Columbus Avenue resident Ashley Didion said she saw a news report Wednesday morning that the parking ban had been lifted, and never learned it was reinstated later. After her pickup truck was towed about 1 a.m. Thursday, she said, she spent the next six hours trying to track it down…

Both Mitzel and Didion’s bills worked out to about $163 – $90 for towing, $20 for storage, $25 for the parking violation and another $25 for a police fee…

  • The four towing companies the city works with during storms – Ernie’s, Florence Towing, 1812 Paint & Body and Cahillane Auto Body – brought in about $18,370 [from Thursday’s towing].
  • The city’s parking division gained $7,500 for parking tickets issued by police.
  • The police department earned $4,175 under a new fee approved by the City Council in October.

Northampton Department of Public Works: Winter Parking
For information on current SNOW and ICE EMERGENCIES call the Snow Emergency Hotline: (413) 586-6969

DPW Email Alerts
Sign up at