I was in Holyoke yesterday at Veterans Park. It's sort of run down and weirded out these days, but it used to be the heart of town. Part of the cause of the feeling of desolation are the boarded up buildings that formerly made up the Holyoke Catholic High School Complex. The main building has now been vacant long enough to show some deterioration.
Like Springfield learned with its former Technical High School, either you get these buildings into reuse fairly quickly or they start into a downward spiral that is very difficult to reverse.
The once packed full parking lot is now overrun with weeds.
The Whiting Elementary School across from St. Jerome's Church is a sad model of bleak abandonment.
I'm always intrigued by this alleyway by St. Jerome's, near the statue of the Virgin and child.
It gives me a sense of deja-vu, as if I know it from another lifetime or something.
One life at a time, I always say. Psychiatrists have theorized that the emotion we associate with deja-vu is actually triggered not by past life experiences but by things that recall memories of events that occurred before we were old enough to consciously remember them. The reason most people have very few memories of their first few years of life is because we learn to organize our experiences around using language. Therefore, the experiences we had before we learned to talk are seldom part of our conscious recall, with the exception perhaps of a few special or traumatic events.
However, the memories of our earliest years are not completely lost, and when we revisit a place we were as an infant, or someplace similar to it, the unconscious memory floods the mind with a sensation of deja-vu. We feel we've been there before, but we can't explain when or why we feel that way. Frankly, it is very possible I was at St. Jerome's as an infant, as I had numerous relatives who were very active in the Catholic Church throughout the region.
Anyway, this talk of the ghosts of Holyoke past reminds me of an essay I wrote earlier this year about the pasts of Holyoke and its sister city Springfield. I took the post down months ago, but people from both cities have asked me since to reprint it. I'm glad to oblige.
A week ago I was sitting in Packard’s in Northampton being interviewed by William Peters from Local Buzz magazine on the subject of masculinity in the Pioneer Valley. Being the macho, manly superstud that I am, I was able to explain the whole topic of masculinity to him in a matter of minutes. I then went on to bring peace to the Middle East, cure the common cold and invent a perpetual motion machine. Who knows what I might have accomplished had we stayed for another cup of coffee?
However, I did leave the interview pondering an interesting question that was raised: What is the difference between Springfield and Holyoke? The reporter had raised it in the context of the masculine culture of each city, but it intrigued me in a larger sense because there are distinct differences on a wider level. For want of a better term, each city has a different feel.
In some ways Holyoke is a city of ghosts. Everywhere you look you see things that make you wonder, "What must this have been like in better days?" The abandoned mills, the Victorian structures, the empty spaces, all suggest a different city, now vanished but for these occasional remnants or pregnant absences.
Of course you can say the same about parts of Springfield, but in general Springfield is pretty much intact, all except for the glaring exception of its once beautiful downtown, which has been severely damaged by idiotic and corrupt government economic development programs. In Holyoke the villain was low-income housing projects, dropped like poison pills of concentrated societal dysfunction into every neighborhood.
They are alike in many ways, Springfield and Holyoke. Both are former industrial centers that have lost most of their original industries and found little to replace them. Both have had stretches of revoltingly bad governmental leadership. Both now have better leadership, although in some respects it’s too little too late. Both are undergoing a recovery of sorts, although it's occurring in what seems at times a slow-motion two steps forward, one step back. But for all their similarities, there is one subtle but important distinction between them. For all its troubles, when you walk around in Holyoke there is an upbeat feeling of energy. People are laughing, and walking about and there's a real feeling of vitality. There's a sense of action, of intermingling, of good will. Holyoke may be rundown in its infrastructure, but not in its spirit.
It is hard to say the same about Springfield. Its downtown, in a word, feels depressing. Where are the people? Why is everyone shuffling around with their head down? It's not much better in the neighborhoods, where in many of them there's a sense of isolation and desertion. People aren't friendly and nobody's smiling.
What accounts for Holyoke's optimism and Springfield's gloom? Part of it might be that Holyoke is more comfortable with a large population of poor people. Holyoke has always had a large number of poor, before there was the poor Hispanics there was the poor Irish. Springfield, on the other hand, only became a mostly poor city in recent decades.
Perhaps that explains the difference. In Springfield there is a strong sense of having fallen from grace, the knowledge that it was once something better than what it is now. In Holyoke, which always housed a lot of the region's poor, there is greater comfort with the culture of poverty. Less hiding in the house, there's more of a sense of acceptance, and therefore empathy with, the fact that the poor are there, and do what they do, so don't worry about it. Or at least it's not considered an excuse to be down and negative on yourself. Holyoke is comfortable with its funky self, while Springfield feels like a has-been.
Springfield's past was indeed glorious, but its over. It has many problems, and it will take a long time to fix them. But nothing justifies the bad attitude you feel on the streets. It doesn't cost anything to smile. Your neighborhood may be a rundown ghetto, but it's YOUR ghetto, so why not try to get off on it a little? Since you didn't wake up dead, why not try to get something out of your day? Poverty can sometimes be forced upon you, but poverty of spirit is always a choice that you can refuse.
The people of Holyoke seem to get that, while the people of Springfield are looking in a rearview mirror weeping with nostalgia. Let the past be over and, as those Zen dudes say, Be Here Now. The present is all any of us have got to work with, so lets try to be positive about what can be accomplished.
C'mon Springfield, let's see a little of that Holyoke spirit!
I regret that I didn't have the chance to attend the fundraiser the other night for GOP Springfield City Council candidate John Lysak. Fortunately the ever intrepid Bill Dusty was there and made this video. Considering Dusty's work with the Karen Powell campaign and now Lysak, he should consider reinventing himself as a political media consultant.