The Baystate Objectivist

The Baystate Objectivist

Monday, January 21, 2008


A tale of two cities.

This morning the buses were running on a limited schedule due to the Martin Luther King holiday. God bless Dr. King, a true American dreamer, but frankly how did he get a national holiday ahead of other deserving luminaries? I mean what about Thomas Jefferson? Or Benjamin Franklin? Or Ken Kesey?

Anyway, when I got to the bus stop I discovered that I had about a half hour to kill so I wandered across the street to Broadside Bookstore to kill some time poking around for a while. In their front window, I saw these stickers displayed for sale:

You might think they were promoting two different locations, but of course NoHo and Hamp are, at least in the material world, the same place. In the realm of the mind however, they are two very different localities.

Hamp is the old Northampton, the one that existed before the 1980's revitalization. It is middle-class and familly oriented, and by Valley standards it is moderate to conservative in its politics. It feels hostile towards downtown and ignored by City Hall and resents anyone who has lived in Hamp for less than a quarter century. Frankly, they don't fully trust anyone who wasn't born here. You will never hear them refer to Northampton as NoHo.

NoHo is the term that was created by advertisers and public relations people to promote the downtown economic development projects of the 1980's. It was designed to market Northampton to New Yorkers as if it were a sort of New England version of a New York City burrough. A place where sophisticated people from NYC in search of a rural experience could come without straying too far - physically or psychologically - from their Big Apple sensibilities. Bostonians looking for cheap housing were also encouraged to come, as well as the last remnants of the upper class fleeing Springfield.

I lived in Northampton in its pre-NoHo days. I'm not kidding when I say that we used to joke that they might as well roll up the sidewalks at five o'clock. More so even than Amherst, Northampton at that time was the hippie haven of Western Mass. The place was crawling with longhairs, and I was one of them. Downtown housing was absurdly cheap, you could raise your rent by panhandling the last week of the month. Most houses were communal, which furthur slashed rental expenses. Personally I was above panhandling, proudly earning my living through good ol' American capitalism - I sold marijuana.

Northampton successfully pulled off it's Hamp to NoHo transformation due to two major factors. First of all it had a creative business community with a vision for what might transform the bohemian aspects of this hippie heaven into something marketable, while at the same time without making any major changes in Northampton's appearance. For example, this picture was also in the window of Broadside Books this morning. It shows a scene from a century ago near the site of the current Haymarket Cafe.

There are even a couple of characters hanging around outside, showing some things never change! The creators of NoHo also had local bankers with an eagerness to co-operate with providing start up capital. They were a little too eager to bend the rules in some cases, as subsequent grand jury indictents alleged, but by then the transformation was complete.

More importantly, Northampton had escaped the disastrous "urban renewal" projects that destroyed other once beautiful Valley downtowns. Springfield for example used to have the region's most beautiful downtown, but greedhead politicians and their friends, anxious to cash-in on the contracts new government construction projects created, completely trashed Springfield's urban center. Northampton, on the other hand, kept all of it's old New England charm intact, a charm that in the consumer backlash against shopping mall culture made their downtown very popular.

Therefore Springfield, having squandered millions supposedly revitalizing its downtown by replacing historic structures with cheap modern buildings constructed by shoddy politically connected builders, found its downtown almost completely dead. Meanwhile Northampton, which had torn down almost nothing, had crowds flocking to their downtown every night.

In other words, where government spending dominated the urban renewal process, as in Springfield, total failure was the result. Where the private sector dominated, like in Northampton, the result was success beyond anyone's imagining. Sadly, there's a lesson there that Springfield has still failed to learn.

Oh no! In downtown Amherst yesterday I came upon this crime scene where two newspaper boxes were tipped over. It is rare to see such vandalism when the students are not in town.

Damn it's cold! It can be confining and depressing in New England this time of year with the temperatures in the deep-freeze day after day. In Amherst College's library they have this screen that every day shows a different poem by one of Amherst's poetic superstars, Emily Dickinson or Robert Frost. This one I thought was particularly appropriate for this season.

a poem by Robert Frost

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued

In other words, the poet feels that the snow falling from the tree that was knocked down by the bird startled him out of his depressed mood. In a similar way let us face these cold days with good cheer.

However, if even a Robert Frost poem can't lift my spirits, all I have to do is recall the fun days of last summer, as typified by this picture I took in August at a party in Hadley.

May such days come around again soon.

Finally, here's a video I found that has Paolo Mastrangelo interviewing Northampton Mayor M. Clare Higgins on her views of citizen journalism:


Mary E.Carey said...

Great post. Nice and succinct definition of Noho v Hamp.

Mike Dobbs said...

If i had a nIckel for every time I've heard someone wistfully say, "I wish we had a downtown like Northampton" I could be owning where I work! People don't seem to understand that Noho came about through an organic process of older businesses failing, creatign vacancies and cheap rents that hippie business types took advantage of...combined with the growing population of young people (thanks to the expansion of UMass in the late '60s and early '70s) there was a market for what the new Noho had to offer.

These market conditions can't necessarily be repeated elsewhere (although Easthampton is doing it thanks to the high price tag of living in Noho).

Springfield, Chicopee and Holyoek all have their own strengths which have only recently been acknowledged. If I was a young person I'd consider some fo the downtown condos in Springfield as a place to start a new art scene.