Friday, August 29, 2008

Culture Wars

Why Albano's arts and entertainment district failed.

If you enlarge this photograph of the cover of The Baystate Objectivist by clicking on it you can see in the left hand corner a picture of me, age twelve, wearing a StarTrek shirt.

Originally published May 1997

I was heading out the door of the TicToc Lounge on Worthington Street when a woman called my name. I could've kept on walking, and probably should have, it being generally a poor idea to turn around when an unfamiliar voice calls out to you in a place like the TicToc, especially if that voice is that of a female, and she's phrasing your name in the form of a question.

"Tom Devine?"

I turned in the direction of the voice and there she was, Yvonne, seated at the bar and smiling in a welcoming way that made it impossible for me not to walk up and say hello.

She'd changed since the last time I'd seen her, and not for the better. She was thinner in an unhealthy looking way and her face was lined. Her hair was a color it had never been when I knew her, it was a strawberry blond of a hue that never occurs in nature. Although her hair was without a touch of grey, the lines in her face suggested too clearly what the hair dye was meant to disguise. Maybe without realizing it I looked at her funny, but she seemed suddenly self-conscious and the moment felt awkward.

"Yvonne," I said as I sat on the stool next to her, "you look awful."

As always whenever you come right out and say the thing you're trying to avoid, the awkwardness was dispelled and Yvonne let out a loud laugh. She never could abide a false gesture or a dishonest pose, and she would've considered a polite complement as phony. She knew what she looked like.

Yvonne was the older sister of a couple of brothers I used to hang with in Pine Point. Later when I lived in Northampton she and her boyfriend used to live upstairs from me and my hippie student roommates. Her husband's name may or may not have been Charlie, and he used to beat the crap out of her pretty regularly in insane fits of jealousy.

In my personal dealings with Charlie he was a likable enough sort, friendly and often funny in conversation, and I don't think many people realized what a monster he could be when he was drinking and feeling suspicious that Yvonne was cheating on him. But then if evil people appeared with horns and a tail, we'd recognize them at once for what they are and render them harmless by avoiding them. Instead evil usually appears with a firm handshake and an easy smile, creating the margin of doubt through which evil can ooze into your life sort of the way heroin leads you through a fog of bliss into a nightmare.

The strange thing I remember about Yvonne was that she sometimes appeared to purposely encourage Charlie's jealous fantasies. As far as I know she never actually cheated on him, although she probably should have for all the abuse she got for supposedly doing so.

In retrospect I realize that Charlie was a classic control freak, and that Yvonne's fidelity or lack thereof really had little to do with his abusive behavior. If Mary did X, Charlie would have beat her for not doing Y. If she'd done Y, he would have beaten her for not doing X. If she'd done neither X nor Y, he would've beaten her for not making up her mind. The real issue was one of dominance, and if no reason was handy for knocking Yvonne around, Charlie would have just made one up.

I was always puzzled by the occasions when Yvonne seemed to purposely provoke Charlie's jealous rages. Yvonne was a good decade older than me, and I knew her best when I was around 20 and she used to invite herself down to my college-boy parties on the weekends, whenever Charlie stepped out to the local bar or somewhere. She was usually a model of propriety at these parties, playing the role of the housewife humoring the college kids. Yet I realized that all the time she was with us, she must have been listening, listening very carefully for a car door or footsteps on the stairs, sounds that she could somehow hear no matter how loud the music or the conversation. Charlie would come home, go upstairs and find her absent, and somehow she would always know when that was. Then her behavior would change.

Yvonne would suddenly grab a bottle of hard liquor, even though she'd been drinking beer all night and start talking really loud. Then she'd start dancing outrageously or plop herself down on the lap of some guest and then of course Charlie would come through the door and catch her behaving that way. He'd take her back upstairs, and then we'd hae to turn up the stereo to drown out the yelling, and as often as not Yvonne would end up wearing sunglasses on cloudy days or wearing long sleeve shirts in the dog days of summer. Doltish college kids that we were, it never occurred to us to call the cops over these incidents.

I never could make sense of Yvonne's behavior when she came to visit and I wondered whether she might be crazy. However, I had no doubt that her boyfriend was insane, and I feared that someday he would vent his rage on someone besides his wife if she kept coming down to my place and playing her crazy games. When the day came that I moved out of that apartment, I was quietly relieved to leave the sad and violent world of Yvonne and Charlie behind.

I never expected to see or hear from them again and for a long time I didn't. Then I heard from a friend that Yvonne and Charlie had split up. In an ending so absurdly ironic it could only have happened in real life, Charlie had run off with another woman.

But now, all these years later, here she was, sitting with me at the bar of the TicToc Lounge, a bit the worse for wear but as we chatted I realized that she was still the same Yvonne I had known. Although there are always a thousand new details in our lives, somehow beneath it all we remain essentially untransformed. And yet it turned out to be hard for me to find out any of those new details in Yvonne's life however, because from the start she dominated the conversation by asking all the questions.

What, she wanted to know, had brought me to the TicToc? She laughed when I told her that I had heard that the TicToc was a happening place, one of the centerpieces of the new music scene downtown. She laughed because at the moment it appeared to be anything but. Most of the tables in the bar were filled with elderly men and women playing Pitch. The curious thing about the TicToc was that it had two roles, one as a kind of neighborhood bar, where a mostly older group of regulars hung-out, and another identity as a sort of cutting edge music club. If you showed up one night you encountered the Pitch League, stop in a few nights later and the place was roaring with a punk rock band and their rowdy fans.

My curiosity in the TicToc had been aroused by media accounts I kept reading, particularly in the Springfield Advocate and Union-News, about a new cultural renaissance downtown. For years the center of the music and arts scene in the Valley has been Northampton. In fact most of the major cultural events in the Valley seem to bypass Springfield entirely. Whenever local bands went national (Dinosaur Jr. comes to mind) they would go directly from their success in the Northampton area to the Boston markets and beyond. It was never considered essential to have an interim phase of conquering the Springfield market.

As the larger, more populous and diverse city, Springfield seems as if it should be the natural leader of the region's cultural scene. Yet the consensus in recent decades has been that culturally Springfield is the poor cousin to its smaller neighbor to the north.

It wasn't always so. From the 1800's right up through the 1950's Springfield was renowned in the arts and entertainment world for its unusually sophisticated and challenging audiences. From Twain and Dickens to Elvis and The Grateful Dead, few major figures in the arts left Springfield off their itinerary. In recent decades however, little has seemed to work very well for Springfield in the cultural arena.

The terminally deficit ridden Springfield Civic Center long ago lost its status as the region's premier venue for top talent to Hartford and then later, The Mullins Center. StageWest suffers from chronic financial difficulties, as does the city's symphony. The Quadrangle, arguably the city's cultural heart, faces charges of elitism and dominance by wealthy suburbanites who sometimes act like the Quadrangle is just their hobby.

As for the music scene, it was long considered to be non-existent, with most city clubs either not hiring live acts or booking so-called "tribute" bands which play already popular songs by already well known groups. Shamefully, it was necessary for Springfield bands that played original music to abandon their home city for Northampton.

All that started to change a year or so ago. One of the unintended side effects of the success of the Northampton scene was that as Northampton became more and more famous as a cultural mecca, it also became more and more competitive and as a result, more expensive as a place to survive as a business. As real estate values soared, those being priced out were the kind of low rent inexpensive venues that are essential to nurturing start-up cultural enterprises. Meanwhile, in Springfield, whose Main Street was unable to support even a Friendly's or the Johnson's Bookstore, there is plenty of cheap affordable property, especially on the destitute side streets off of Main, where desperate landlords rent space at bargain prices. Gradually, those who felt frozen out by the high rents and stiff competition in Northampton began migrating south to occupy the all but abandoned real estate in downtown Springfield.

The new businesses cater to a previously untapped market in the Springfield area. It's often said that part of the reason for the Northampton area's success is the five major colleges in its vicinity. Springfield however has four colleges in a much more condensed area. Many of these Springfield students used to travel to Northampton on the weekends, but now they go to the downtown arts and music clubs, many of which are without liquor licences and cater especially to an 18-20 year old clientele. It's possible to attract a sizable crowd from Springfield College, Western New England, Springfield Technical Community, American International College and even the nearby Elms. In other words, there was this huge entertainment market that nobody was serving, and so, like a daisy coming up through the asphalt, the ruins of downtown's failed 1980's revitalization became the playground for thousands of Springfield college students and entrepreneurs in exile from the prohibitively expensive Northampton market.

As the crowds increased, the predictable synergistic effects occurred. Successful businesses attracted other, similar businesses, some of them more upscale than the first pioneers. Restaurants and coffee houses began popping up in long abandoned storefronts while streets long considered lonely and dangerous became crowded and well lit by commercial signs. The heart of the revitalization is the area immediately surrounding Stearns Square, but the positive effects can be felt throughout the downtown area. The word is starting to spread. For the first time in years, downtown Springfield is a place worth exploring after dark.

Not content to merely read about these developments, I embarked on a tour of this new entertainment district myself. I stopped in at the Life in Harmony Cafe, a kind of hippie-style salon, visited the DNA Club, Fat Cats and Caffeine's, the latter being probably the most upscale of the Worthington stops (valet parking no less) but it is still designed to fit in with their more modest neighbors.

I spent a wonderful evening as the old man in residence at a place called Daddy-O's, whose packed to the wall crowd of almost exclusively under 20 year olds rocked with such youthful exuberance that I was jealous that no such club existed to for me to attend when I was their age. A few remnants remain in the area from the bad old days, in particular a shabby porno shop and a fortune telling parlor, but their days appear to be numbered.

For one of my visits to the new entertainment district I decided to see what the scene was like on a non-weekend night. Not surprisingly, I found the area much less active but still far from deserted. I spent a little time sitting on a marble bench in Stearns Square, watching the passerby, and recalled how when I was a high school student I used to cut across Stearn Square after school while en route to that temple to misspent youth, Playtown. I tried to remember what this section of town had been like in those days but couldn't clearly recall. Eventually I got up and decided to stop for a drink at the TicToc before heading home. That is how I happened to stumble upon my all but forgotten friend Yvonne.

When I told Yvonne about my tour of the district thus far, she was unimpressed by the concept that Springfield was undergoing any kind of meaningful cultural renaissance. She claimed that she could remember the days when Springfield was a real cultural center, and then proceeded to tell me a fascinating story.

Yvonee told me that in the late 1960's she had worked behind the counter at a long vanished diner called The Nutty Goody, which was located near the intersection of State and Main. I have vague memories of having seen, and perhaps even eaten at such a place as a child. According to Yvonne, one afternoon after she had finished her 7-3 shift, she was sitting at the counter talking with some of the customers. That struck me as a strange thing to do after work, but then maybe if you have a boyfriend like Charlie you aren't in such a big rush to get home. Anyway, she was sitting there when she heard this loud, braying laughter coming from outside. Looking to see who it was, she nearly fell off her stool to see that strolling past the Nutty Goody was none other than the blues/rock stylist Janis Joplin.

Yvonne immediately ran outside, and sure enough there was Janis with a male companion, walking down Main Street towards the South End. Several other people recognised Janis and came up to her, each of whom were greeted with, "How are ya honey?" boys and girls alike. When a small crowd began to form Janis said, "C'mon, let's get off the street and go find ourselves a drink!"

There were a good dozen people, including Yvonne, trailing behind Janis by the time she turned into a bar that Yvonne insisted is still there, although she couldn't remember what it's called now. She described it as a dark little hole in the wall. Upon entering Janis shouted, "Set up the bar for me and my friends! The first drink's on me!" And so for the next hour or so Janis Joplin sat in a Main Street bar in Springfield, holding court for an ever increasing crowd of fans that kept growing as word spread of her presence. Yvonne claimed that she managed to get a seat right near Janis and had a chance to talk to her briefly. She said that Janis told her that she was enjoying her current tour, but that she was getting tired of the road. "I never would have thought," Yvonne said, "that someone so famous could be so friendly and down to earth."

Then after a while a couple of men in leisure suits elbowed their way through the crowd and one of them whispered something in Janis' ear. "Lord have mercy!" she exclaimed. "I've got a show to get ready for!" In fact, she was performing later that night at Symphony Hall, which in those days had the less pretentious name of the Springfield Auditorium. With the help of her newly arrived escorts she was led out of the bar, which by this time was so full there was even a small crowd waiting outside. Someone had called radio station WHYN and told them what was happening, and it was said that people from all over the city were en route to the bar.

As Janis, her male companion and the two suits headed up Main Street, Janis was sometimes walking, sometimes skippin and dancing, waving and blowing kisses at the passing cars. Trailing behind her was the entire crowd from the bar. She cut across Court Square with the crowd still behind her, all the way to a side door at Symphony Hall where she was ushered inside. Before she disappeared however Joplin turned to the crowd and shouted. "You've all been really groovy!" Then she added, "Anytime you're in San Francisco, you're all invited to my house for a drink!"

So that is what she told me, and Yvonne just sat there and looked at me with an expression of complete finality, as if daring me to suggest that a few cool coffee houses and restaurants could possibly count as culturally significant next to the day that Janis Joplin was a Pied Piper to dozens of people on Main Street.

It was quite a story. In Springfield a waitress, in full uniform, once danced down Main Street with Janis Joplin. What I wasn't sure of was the point Yvonne was trying to make. Was it that Springfield's new entertainment district is of no significance because famous people don't stop in and buy their fans drinks? Must Eric Clapton stroll into the TicToc for it to have status?

"No," she said, "the point is that nothing like that could ever happen in Springfield today."

"Why not?"

"Because those were different times and this is a different city."

"In what way?"

"I don't know," she said, sounding exasperated with my question. "It's just different. The vibes, the atmosphere, it's not the same. If Janis Joplin were alive today, she'd never come to Springfield. It's too uptight. They would call what we did a public disturbance."

In her own way, Yvonne was touching on something that skeptics of Springfield's new entertainment district have expressed. It isn't just young peple and patrons of fine dining who have noticed that daisy coming up through the asphalt downtown. Last month Mayor Albano announced that we now have a new and completely official ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT DISTRICT complete with official maps and official charts and official government programs designed to create what the maps and charts and government programs say they'll create. Nevermind that this district has already come into being without the help of City Hall. Nevermind that none of those who started this district ever asked for government help - and probably wouldn't have received it if they had. Nevermind the very relevant questions of whether the city's economic planners are even competent to design, or should be allowed to dictate, what this district should be like. The fledgling, still fragile arts and entertainment district is approaching its hour of greatest peril. The government has arrived, announcing, "We've come to help you."

For all the media attention the Mayor's announcement got, it was actually pretty short on the specifics of what the city intends to do. There was vague talk about "encouraging" new businesses with low interest loans, creating "standards" for the district and the predictable happy talk about how the new bigger Civic Center will somehow be more successful than the failed current one and how the still non-existent revitalized riverfront will send its overflowing crowds into downtown.

But as imprecise as Mayor Albano's remarks were, the general thrust of his proposal is fraught with danger. Most ominously, the plan seems oblivious to the forces that brought the district into existence in the first place. It was the desire of the business community to find and create an environment that was looser, cheaper and less structured than could be found in overdeveloped Northampton that brought the first entrepreneurs to the area. If the district becomes some kind of rigid, perfectly planned government supervised economic development project, the spontaneous, free market atmosphere that currently gives the district its appeal will soon evaporate.

Another key component of the district, reasonable rents, is also placed at risk by the city's plan. What could drive up rents quicker than to have the government involved in placing businesses into these buildings with the subsidy of cheap loans? And who, precisely, would be receiving these loans? Will it be people like those who creaetd the Life in Harmony Cafe or Daddy O's? Or will it be already established businessmen, especially those with political connections?

It's no secret that powerful insiders are already beginning to manuever within the district. Peter Picknelly, for example, is planning to do something with the old Zeller building. When someone like Picknelly becomes involved, then you know that the city's inside players have arrived big time.

It's a shame to see the city's economic development glitterati becoming involved. Their almost unbroken string of failures - Monarch Place (at one point sold to its creditors for one dollar) the Bank of New England building (no one wants to remember the Bank of New England) the Hollywood revitalization project (which tranformed a merley poor neighborhood into a full blown ghetto) Indian Motocycle apartments (they thought people would want to buy condominiums in the slums) the Plaza del Mercado - on and on over the years until our economic planners acquired their well deserved reputation for poisoning everything they touch. Now that they want to get their grubby little paws all over the fledgling arts and entertainment district and I predict they will kill it if they do.

But I'm a reasonable man, and I understand that our economic planners have to do something to justify their 60, 70 and 80 thousand dollar salaries. I mean just because a cultural and financial renaissance blossomed downtown without their participation or even their awareness doesn't mean that they shouldn't come muscleing in on the action now that others have got the district up and running. Let's allow them to proceed according to the following three step plan (they love multi-step plans) as a guide for them to follow whenever they feel the need to do something for the arts and entertainment district:

Step Number One: Leave the district alone.

Step Number Two: Do nothing.

Step Number Three: Go away.

What's happening around Stearns Square is a miracle. A key section of the city that was given up for dead just a few years ago is coming back to life, with nothing but the free market and the creativity of the participants guiding its development. City Hall can only impede its growth with its interference. Didn't we learn anything from the 1980's when we tried to direct the development of downtown from City Hall and instead ended up with a ghost town? Let the district evolve according to its own pace, in its own way and in accordance with what the market will support. Anything else will be artificial, and artificiality is death in both business and art.

I didn't get into any of this with Yvonne. I let her Joplin story be the last word. Besides, what I really wanted to do was find out what the heck she had been up to in the years since Charlie left. But before I could get the first question out of my mouth, she suddenly spotted someone come in that changed her expression to fear. Turning in the direction of her gaze I saw standing just inside the door a black man of about forty dressed in a black leather jacket and with an icy expression on his face.

"Yvonne," I said, "are you afraid of the that man?"

"No, oh no," she giggled nervously, "of course not, but I have to go."

I looked back towards the door and the man was gone.

"Yvonne, who was that man?"

"No one, I mean he's a friend. My ride. I have to go."

And so she left, hurrying out the door so quickly that I hardly had the chance to say good-by.

I sat there for a few minutes, then realized that the Pitch league was beginning to to break up and that I'd intended to leave an hour ago. Once outside, I half-expected to see Yvonne and her "friend" somewhere, but the street was deserted except for a couple of loud drunks coming out of Theodore's.

Walking across Stearns Square, I paused for some reason by the Square's famous fountain, which was built by the same guy that made the puritan statue at the Quadrangle. It was a mess. Rainwater had gathered in the fountain basin and papers and McDonald's soda cups and beer cans were floating in it. It occurred to me that if the city really wanted to be helpful to the arts and entertainment district they could start by doing a little routine maintenance on the city's property.

Then I was struck by an odd thought. Hadn't there once been statues of turtles here? Around the fountain? I couldn't remember whether I had actually seen such turtles myself or merely noted them in photographs of Stearns Square back in the day. I saw a couple of block-like stumps that looked like that's where they might once have been, but I couldn't be sure. I surprised myself by saying out loud, though there was no one around, "Where's the fuckin' turtles?"

I started walking and I found myself walking faster and faster because suddenly it seemed necessary to walk fast, fast, fast because it was cold, cold, cold and so very, very late and then I looked up and had to blink something out of my eyes to see that there was a full moon overhead.

Doyle the Twig Painter with Yvonne Gordon 1995

I came across this Flickr series called A New World that features some photos taken in Northampton in 1985:

A Valley cowboy at dusk.

Well you might as well jump.

I think I used to date this guy.

The town toughs.

To see the complete set of photos click here.

Did you know there's a website for Barsies, the bar whose closing in 2006 broke the heart of Amherst like nothing since they shut down The Drake? Check it out here.

The liner notes to this loving video tribute to Barsie's had this to say:

The legendary Barselotti's bar, better known by generations of customers as Barsies. Located in the heart of downtown Amherst, MA , this college town attraction has been a popular watering hole for nearly 75 years. Many students from the five college area (UMASS, Amherst College, Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke College & Smith College) have spent time in this establishment during their college years. Once referred to as "the dirty little drunken school bus" Barsie's has been a mainstary in the "Happy Valley" since 1933.

I was never much of a Barsie's patron. It was always very much a straight people's pick up bar, and not a good place to go if you were openly queer. They did however hire cute bartenders.

I mostly remember Barsies as being full of drunken fratboys, girls with big tits and "Shook Me All Night Long" playing on the jukebox over and over until it gave you a headache. Just sayin.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Time for Springfield

Time for delusions.

Recently I came across a copy of Time for Springfield (above) the 1978 promotional item designed to resemble a copy of Time magazine. It was put out by Springfield Central, a now defunct downtown business group that was formed in the early 1960's primarily to promote the building of what would later be known as BaystateWest, now called Tower Square. It pretty much disbanded after that, but came back alive in the late 1970's. At the time of the promotional magazine, the organization was headed by past and future Mayor Charles V. Ryan and his executive director Carlo Marchetti.

Rising fast in the organization was the publisher of the Springfield Newspapers David Starr, at that time newly arrived from New York. A profile of the soon to be powerful player appeared in the promo magazine, where Starr's philosophy was described as "a publisher should take an active part in public affairs." (click photo to enlarge)

Just how active a role Starr would play was not then perceived, but in time he would become the dominant figure in Springfield Central and the most powerful unelected public figure in Springfield.

At that time there were two papers, a morning and afternoon edition, as seen in this advertisement from the promo magazine. (click to enlarge)

In the advertisement, the Springfield Newspapers praise themselves for the cheerleading role they played in economic development. However there was a clear conflict of interest between Starr's role at the top of the economic development group (he eventually became its president) and the watchdog role his paper had a duty to perform over the development schemes. As a result, even constructive criticism of the development plans was censored, thereby resulting in disastrous errors of judgement and lost opportunities which occurred simply because those with good advice or better ideas were shut out of the discussion if they challenged Starr and Springfield Central. Eventually Springfield Central died in the 1990's when its members finally quit in disgust and frustration over the organization's legacy of failure.

Here's the gang that couldn't shoot straight and their City Hall allies. Notice Charlie Ryan and Dave Starr sitting together in the top photo.(click to enlarge)

At the beginning of Springfield Central Ryan and Starr were great friends, but the friendship eventually soured as Ryan became increasingly alarmed by Starr and his newspaper's self-serving agenda. I asked Ryan about his split with Starr in an interview I had with him for The Baystate Objectivist in 1995. Here is what Ryan told me.

"David's an old friend, but I started to distance myself when I saw what was going on. I didn't like the type of characters he was bringing in. I said to him, "These people don't seem to be of the best caliber," and he replied, "Yes, but they are OUR people."

The magazine itself is rather dull. It has useful sections on local history and a lot of positive talk, but most of it consists of a economic development "master plan" (one of what would be many more to come) and like those to follow this one was a miserable failure. It was designed to be financed with taxpayer subsidies, which were supposed to be secured by the city's Congressman Ed Boland.

In Congress Boland's nickname was "the House Mouse," an ineffective legislator whom most of his colleagues would have considered a non-entity except for his close relationship with House Speaker Tip O'Neil, his longtime Washington roommate. At home he was much more significant as the leader of the local Democrat Party machine. Despite the corrupt political machine Boland built and his failure to bring home the bacon in ways like saving the Springfield Armoury, a major statue of the House Mouse stands in the heart of downtown. But that's typical of Springfield - the bigger the scoundrel the higher the honors.

The heart of the failed master plan was the concept of turning downtown into a pedestrian mall, as seen below. In the top picture, I wonder who would get to park in the mall's one parking spot. (click to enlarge)

It was only a dream, but Springfield looked wonderful to the city planners in a future where apparently cars drove without drivers.

This motley crew is the Springfield City Council in 1978. (click to enlarge)

Can you pick out the two Councilors who went on to become Mayor? Can you identify the one who served a year as an acting-Mayor? Do you know which one became a judge?

One joy of reading Time for Springfield is the nostalgia of looking at the advertisements in it. What isn't so joyful is contemplating how many of the places advertised are no longer in business. (click to enlarge)

On page 70 there begins a listing of some famous people from Springfield. Conspicuous in its absence is any mention of Dr. Seuss! Here is the write-up they had on Timothy Leary:

"To be born in Springfield, Massachusetts, in the 1920's - well, it was a wonderful place, a cultural place - and a lot of important people have come out of the Connecticut Valley."
So said Dr. Timothy Leary, who advised young people in the 1960's to "tune in, turn on and drop out" with LSD, having dropped out of his hometown many years before.
Leary can still recall the motto of his Classical High School Principal William C. Hill, "Don't do that which, if everyone did, would destroy society."
Apparently Hill was unable to instill that motto in all of his students.

It's fun to read Time for Springfield, but there is a serious lesson there too. It was the private sector which built the downtown Springfield that is now considered its glory days. It was the public sector that destroyed it. If Springfield is ever to be reborn, then it must be the private sector that does it, and not the foolish government plans of Time for Springfield.

This car parked in Amherst demonstrates why the peace protests in town will never end.

Yesterday on my way to the bus stop at UMass I saw all this steam pouring out of every opening in the ground around the Fine Arts and Herter Hall. I guess they were just testing the heating system or something, because I didn't see any explanation for it in the media. However, it was a good subject to video.

Finally, the truth:

Monday, August 25, 2008

Council Report Card

Of 1993.

In March of 1993 I decided to grade on an A to F scale the Springfield City Council. The cover of The Baystate Objectivist featured a drawing by Richard "The Twig Painter" Doyle showing Councilor Morris Jones wearing a dunce cap (above) and inside showed Councilor Francis Keough doing the same.

Doyle also did other unflattering portraits of pols over the years. For example former School Superintendent Dr. Peter Negroni once appeared on the cover with devil's horns.

School Committee member Allene B. Curto, a political ally of Negroni, got the same treatment in the same issue.

Later my sister Bev waited on Ms. Curto in the Tavern Inn. The School Committee member told my sister that she laughed hysterically when she saw the drawing. Some of what is reprinted here is a little dated, but not much. Sadly, in Springfield the more things change the more they seem to stay the same.

When you stop and think about it, it's a wonder that anyone is willing to serve on the Springfield City Council. The pay is laughably low (10 grand a year and all the aggravation you can stand) while you're likely to spend an amount equal to your salary just to get yourself elected.

If you win, everyone who voted for you (and many who did not) feels free to act as if they own you, every position you take makes an enemy out of someone, and all during your term people call and interrupt your supper in order to hold you personally responsible for the unrepaired pothole in front of their house.

On the other hand, life on the City Council is not without its perks. You get treated like a celebrity of sorts wherever you go, you can get your name in the paper and your face on TV almost at will, the media seeks out your opinions and a little jingle identifying you as a "newsmaker" announces your calls to talk radio. You get to watch the circus of city politics from a ringside seat, and many have used the Council as a springboard to more lucrative political offices.

And if you're lucky, you might even make a difference on an issue that matters.

The following is a brief report (complete with letter grades) on the seven men and two women who currently serve on our City Council. This brings us to yet another peril of serving the public on the Council: Some smart-alecky zine publisher may decide to give you a cute nick-name and evaluate your performance in the manner of a tyrannical political science professor.

Sorry Councilors, but this too comes with the turf.

Tony Ravosa 1989

Rebel Ravosa - If ever there was a political career likely to scare others away from public service, it is Councilor Anthony Ravosa's long, sometimes seemingly hopeless efforts to act on the public's behalf. It's hard to believe that he's only been on the Council since 1989, at times it must have felt to him like he's served since 1889. His family's name has been dragged through the mud, his business was ruined, his morals were drawn into question and his political opinions have been dismissed, denounced or ignored. Last year Congressman Richard Neal dismissed Ravosa's charges about political corruption in Springfield as "dwelling in the past." Ravosa has been a prophet without honor during a dark chapter in Springfield's history. Shame on the voters if they don't make amends by making Ravosa the highest vote getter in the Council elections next fall.
Grade: A-plus.

Wonderful Walsh - A Councilor since 1987, Kateri Walsh has gradually grown to become the most popular member of the Council. That popularity failed to follow her into her congressional race last year, where she appeared out of her depth and stumbled badly against the super-slick Richie Neal. Her most valuable role on the Council has been as a fiscal watchdog and advocate of just plain commonsense. She never grandstands or goes chasing after publicity (rare for a politician) and instead goes quietly about tending to the public's business. The secret of her popularity is that once Walsh chooses an issue, things get done.
Grade: A

Guardian Garde - With only one year on the Council behind her, it isn't clear exactly where on the political spectrum to place Barbara Garde. Yet if there is one characteristic passing consistently through the ideological mish-mash it is Garde's fierce independence. A potential swing vote on many issues, Garde is courted by all political factions with equal fervor. But it's probably a waste of time trying to call this Councilor's tune. When it comes to matters of principle, this lady don't dance.

Busy Boyle - New Council President William Boyle is something of an enigma. A protege of controversial ex-D.A. Matty Ryan and a staunch Neal supporter, some observers believed he was chosen to succeed Francis Keough as President because the establishment considers him safe. If so, that's not the way it's worked out. Since assuming the Presidency, Boyle has had the Council in a constant uproar, and none too soon. The best evidence that he must be doing something right is that the Springfield Newspapers now editorialize against him. Boyle's past ties to Ryan and Neal have made some people slow to trust him. But present actions speak louder than past deeds, and the fact is our new President is doing a good job.
Grade: B

Fickle Foley - It's hard to forgive Councilor William T. Foley for his do-nothing, go along to get along career as Council President during the former "golden age" (now called the rusty, tarnished, pockmarked age) of former Mayor Richard Neal. But his lackadaisical performance was typical of Foley, sometimes called the Council's "Great Compromiser" for his ability to appear to support both sides of every issue. Though he's got a decade long track record behind him, it's hard to find compelling reasons to either praise or condemn him. While it wouldn't be a tragedy if he were re-elected, unfortunately the same thing could be said if he were defeated.
Grade: C

Awful Albano - Few new Councilors get to a more stumbling start on the Council than newcomer Michael Albano did. A task force on crime he headed turned out to be so lame that Kateri Walsh called it "a political sham," while Valley Advocate writer Al Giordano quipped, "If brown-nosing public officials could solve the violent crive problem, this task force would have won a Nobel Prize." When the city tried to restore Forest Park by charging an entrance fee, Albano opposed it, only to look like a fool when the park underwent a renaissance after the fees were instated. He also opposed attempts to reform the running of the concession stands at city golf courses, only to have it discovered that Albano's relatives had benefited from such a stand. Albano's judgment as a member of the State Parole Board was called into question last summer, when a convict Albano voted to release was almost immediately re-arrested for rape and murder. For a time it seemed as if everything Albano did turned into an orgy of bad publicity. When Albano announced that he would donate his salary to the city and work for nothing, it seemed less like an altruistic gesture than merely adjusting his salary to reflect his true worth.

Albano is trying to present himself as an outsider, but don't be fooled. During Neal's "golden age" Albano was a loyal Neal supporter while serving on the School Committee and a prominent supporter of Michael Dukakis. The Sunday Republican on January 17 described Albano as "an acquaintance for 25 years" of now indicted deputy tax collector Charles Kingston, who Albano was quoted as praising as "a savvy individual." Is Albano really the only major figure emerging to challenge Mayor Markel in this time of desperately needed change? Citizens, we can do better.
Grade: D

Slippery Santaniello - Technically the "Dean of the Council" with nearly 16 years of service under his belt, Brian Santaniello makes a lie of the old adage that experience brings wisdom. All but invisible except in election years, when he shows a genius for latching onto popular issues he ignores the rest of the time, Santaniello is the the political establishment's loyal soldier. An example of the infuriating extremes Santaniello will go to in order to protect the status-quo was demonstrated last month during an interview with Dan Yorke on WHYN. When Yorke attempted to discuss the various corruption investigations in the city, Santaniello tried to play dumb, repeatedly asking, "What investigations?" in a snide, sarcastic manner. So arrogant and condescending was Santaniello's attitude that although the interview lasted less than twenty minutes, the entire three hour show was dominated by callers expressing their outrage over Santaniello's behavior. To be re-elected so many times, Santaniello must be doing something right. The problem is, no one can figure out what.
Grade: F

Krazy Keough - "If Frank Keough cared mor about the taxpayer's of Springfield than he does about himself, he would have voluntarily stepped aside months ago." So wrote BusinessWest in an editorial last June, discussing the year long humiliation that Keough subjected the city to when he refused to step down from the Council Presidency after he was indicted by a Grand Jury last year. The constant references, whenever Springfield was discussed in the media to our "indicted City Council President" gave Springfield a public relations black eye that a hundred Greener Pastures campaigns couldn't have fixed. Keough was insane to believe that the public would forgive such arrogance (or the sleazy real estate deals that led to the indictments). Today, Keough is probably the least respected man in city politics. As Springfield Police Lt. Richard LaBelle was quoted as saying in the Springfield paper, "This city is run by small minds, and the biggest criminals in the city wear suits and ties."
Grade: F-minus.

Jerky Jones - Competing with Keough in the negative popularity polls is Morris Jones. Try as one might to like him, it's simply impossible to forgive Jone's repeated betrayals of the public's trust. The most infamous example occurred last month over the Quinn Bill, when Jones stabbed the police in the back by switching his vote from favoring the police educational benefits to opposing them. It wasn't just the switch itself but the circumstances surrounding it.

"My word is my bond," Jones had said, solemnly pledging to the police his unwavering support, only to let the police down flat in the council chambers. Worse, Jones has refused to be interviewed on the matter, leaving it a mystery how "My word is my bond," got to be "My word is baloney."

Jones has long been famous for his sudden switches, the Quinn Bill fiasco was only the most recent and extreme example. The public never knows when Jones, no matter how fervently he appears to have taken a position, might suddenly jerk the city into a crisis with his unpredictable flip-flops. It makes one wonder whether Jones answers to unseen masters. In any case, his credibility is zero.
Grade: Z

At Raos Coffeeshop in Amherst yesterday I noticed my State Representative Ellen Story enter. I asked if I could take her picture and she graciously agreed. Dig the cowgirl shirt.

At a reading at Amherst's Food for Thought Bookstore I saw the latest in cutting edge fashion - the electric vest!

The problem is the brightness makes your friends have to close their eyes while they talk to you.

Our narratives are how the universe knows itself. When push comes to shove, it's all about trying to tell the stories.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Miller's Archives

The postcards.

Veteran reporter Mike Dobbs, the brains behind The Reminder publications, has a new book coming out about Springfield postcards. According to a review by Bill Dusty the book is a treasure chest of images from Springfield's lost glory days.

Chapter One features images of Springfield’s historical landmarks, including vintage images of the Municipal Group (City Hall and Symphony Hall) and Court Square. Chapter Two delves into the city’s downtown, with photos of street cars trundling along Main Street and rare images of hotels and theaters - some lost to history, others still with us today. Chapter Three, “Around The Town,” takes readers on a trip around Springfield’s neighborhoods, while Chapter Four features images of the city’s manufacturing past. The final chapter, Five, treats readers to vintage shots of Forest Park, including images of the Barney Residence and the old Forest Park zoo.

“Springfield” will be on sale starting August 25, 2008, for $19.99, and can be purchased at local and online bookstores, as well as at Arcadia Publishing’s website (

This valuable new book reminds me of the postcard collection of the infamous Attorney J. Wesley Miller, whose collection I once viewed. I even wrote a review and scanned a few of the cards. Dobbs new book gives me an excuse to reprint it. I'm not sure of the date, probably around 1997.

No one encountering local attorney J. Wesley Miller in full regalia will soon forget him. The 56 year old arts and copyright lawyer typically appears at public forums throughout the Valley in what might be called his uniform; a mohawk haircut, black leather jacket, combat boots and a "Public Enemy" t-shirt topped off with a metal chain link necklace.

The total effect is not just radical, it's disturbing, a kind of mental case chic that can be quite intimidating. The generally well-dressed, respectable activist and establishment types who attend public meetings usually don't know what to make of a person like Miller, and observing people's responses to him can be genuinely amusing.

The most interesting reaction to Miller's persona that I ever observed came from WGGB personality and consumer activist Pricilla Ress, who upon encountering Miller as I escorted him through the Channel 40 newsroom, responded with an expression of what appeared to be genuine fright. I had to laugh inspite of myself, having never before seen fear on the face of the generally unflappable Ms. Ress.

Yet Miller is more than just the subversive court jester of local politics. He is also believed to possess the largest single private library in the city of Springfield. Among the thousands of books and publications he possesses are a collection of artifacts and memorabilia relating to local history. His collection is so extensive and rare that local historians such as Richard Garvey and Francis Gagnon might weep with frustration over their inability to obtain access to it. In a manner maddening to local scholars, Miller is extremely choosy and idiosyncratic about whom he allows access to his multi-faceted collections.

Therefore I was somewhat surprised and flattered when Miller recently offered me the opportunity to examine his collection of Springfield related postcards, believed to be the most extensive of its kind in existence. Miller informed me that he was loaning me the collection so that I could see for myself "the glory that was once Springfield, but is no more."

Going through Miller's collection is indeed a sobering experience. While some of the collection consists of such rarities as the former Studebaker dealership in Pine Point or Lam's, a long forgotten pioneering Chinese restaurant on Bridge Street, most of the cards display the images of major structures that once stood where today's modern skyscrapers now stand. Were there really once such mobs of pedestrians on Main Street?

Priceless artifacts mysteriously disappeared in 1959 as the Everett Barney mansion was torn down in order to make way for a highway that many still argue never had to pass through the Barney estate in the first place. Many local historians consider the loss of the Barney mansion and the never explained disappearance of its artwork and antiques to be the true beginning of Springfield's downward spiral at the hands of its corrupt government. Even today one still hears the city's elders whisper, accurately or not, that the highway's destructive path was secretly insisted upon by political insiders precisely so that the Barney estate could be looted.

If so, that wouldn't be any more scandalous than what happened to the Unitarian Church. Once located directly across from the City Library, the church was so famous for its beauty that it was a regular destination of architectural classes from Harvard and Yale, who came to admire what was considered one of the state's premiere architectural marvels. Sadly, city planners and business insiders put together one of their infamous "public-private partnerships" and the church was razed in order to prepare for construction of a government subsidized high-rise. But the deal fell through and the skyscraper was never built. In a bitter irony, the red sandstone steps that once led to this now vanished architectural treasure remain to this day, only now those steps lead only to a parking lot.

The devastation of Springfield at the hands of economic planners is made all too real by an inspection of Miller's postcard collection. What one gets from looking at the Barney Mansion,

the Wesson Mansion,

or even the original entrance to Pine Point's Saint Michael's Cemetery, whose ornate marble gate tops were mysteriously stolen,

and the countless individual buildings and even city blocks that were destroyed in order to construct generic modern structures - none of which have half the class of the buildings they replaced - is not a feeling of nostalgia. Instead it inspires a feeling of anger over how the glory that was once Springfield was systematically sold-out over the years by dishonest politicians and the greedy contractors and business people who feed on public economic development funds. Everybody had the same goal, to do a dirty deal in Springfield and then run to the suburbs.

Perhaps it is best that Attorney Miller keeps so much of his collection out of public view. If the people of Springfield ever fully realized what was taken from them, there might be rioting in the streets.

So buy Dobbs' book, and I'll meet you at the riot!

A fixture on Boston Road in Pine Point since the early 1970's was Richard Doyle, better known as the The Twig Painter, who used to sit out on the sidewalk in the warm weather months painting. The first week he did so, around 1972, a cop gave him a hard time. Doyle went straight downtown and demanded to see then Mayor Frank Freedman. When he told the Mayor what had happened, Freedman told him to go back on the sidewalk and all would be taken care of. Doyle was never bothered again and stayed on the sidewalk every summer until he was forced into retirement a couple years ago by diabetic blindness.

However, the Twig Painter did have occasional problems, like in 1998 when they widened Boston Road. The plans called for a traffic light to be erected in the exact spot where Doyle always sat. He painted the following image of the traffic light passing through his body and sent it to all the local politicians.

The plans were soon changed to relocate the traffic light.

Doyle always feared that some out of control vehicle would swerve onto the sidewalk and strike him where he sat painting, but he couldn't convince the city to put a guardrail in front of where he worked. In frustration he came up with a great prank to illustrate what might happen.

He got Jay Libardi to pull his pick-up truck up on the sidewalk, while Doyle knocked everything over and splashed red paint on himself before lying down. As a final touch, he lit a smoke bomb. The result was this very realistic crash scene: (click to enlarge)

It worked a little too well. Cars screeched to a halt, creating a big traffic jam. People frantically called 911 and women screamed. However this prank did not result in Doyle getting his guardrail. What he did get was a citation for disturbing the peace and a stern warning that any further stunts of that sort would result in his arrest.

Speaking of Jay Libardi, here is a picture of me and him in 1984.

Loose ends

This and that.

Last night I was walking through downtown Amherst when I saw what looked like a party going on at Mystery Train Records.

Going inside I discovered that there had been music playing, but it had just ended.

However, I did learn that the store was closing, but only to move to a new location just down the street. I bought a lot of music there over the years so for the sake of posterity I photographed the check-out counter one last time.

Earlier that day I noticed that the Amherst Starbucks had stripped away all of it's vinyl siding.

Notice all the nice woodwork that has been revealed. This is the plain manner in which the building appeared with the siding.

I think siding ruins the appearance of old buildings, and I hope that Starbucks invests in restoring the woodwork to its former splendor rather than put on new siding.

Gwen helps at the Amherst Survival Center and has the best dreads of any girl in town. Even more unique, they are blond!

The guy with the best dreads in town is someone who goes only by the name Rhythom, and who also helps at the Center.

However, blonds have more fun.

This is a pretty sexy mannequin in the window of a Northampton health food store.

Would I want it to come to life? Naw, you can't give head if you ain't got a head!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Hamp Errands

Around the downtown.

This beautiful morning I took the bus to Northampton to pick up my check at the office of the Valley Advocate. When I got off the bus, I took this little shortcut between the courthouse parking lot and Center Street.

Dynamite Records is moving from its longtime location in the Thornes complex to a place on Main Street.

That's remarkable for two reasons. For one, most record stores seem to be going out of business due to the internet, not expanding to a new location. Also most of the moving by downtown businesses these days is off of Main Street, not onto it.

Is this spraypainted stencil cool or scary?

The Valley Advocate offices are located in the building of their corporate parent The Daily Hampshire Gazette.

Inside the Advocate headquarters not much was happening. Tom Sturm was doing his usual chore of putting together all the listings for the Happenings section.

Helping out is intern Alex Ross from Westfield State College.

At noon I went to the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at the Unitarian Church that is officially called the Northampton Lunchtime Group. It is however universally known as "The Looney Nooner."

Notice the sign saying it is a violence free zone. The sentiment is nice, but has a single act of violence ever been stopped by such a sign?

After the meeting an AA friend and I put on the ritz by going out to eat at the King Street McDonald's. I noticed that the Wendy's that stood for decades next door has been completely torn down.

This is what it looked like before the arrival of the wrecking ball.

Oh well, life is change. Arriving at the bus stop a little early, I avoided boredom by stopping in at Broadside Bookstore.

There is no excuse for boredom as long as there are books in the world.

I hope the rumors turn out to be true that Barack Obama intends to choose Senator Joe Biden (above) as his running mate. Biden would definitely add some much needed heft to the ticket. Wiseass Ann Coulter has this to say about the announcement on Saturday of who Obama is going to choose.

This week, Barack Obama's challenge is to select a running mate who's young, hip, and whose accomplishments in life don't overshadow Obama's. Allow me to suggest Kevin Federline.

Would Federline be worse than Dan Quayle? Actually I think KFed is tres sexy.

Or at least he used to be. These tragic photos showing before and after the Britney break-up suggests he's been consoling his broken heart with lots of beer and pastries.

Amazingly, I have not gotten fat as I've aged.

These days I like to just watch the river flow.