The Baystate Objectivist

The Baystate Objectivist

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.


Anonymous said...

Great reading today. I'm willing to bet the "hole in the wall" Yvonne was refering to was "The Palm Cafe". It was before Bliss Street on the same side as the Nutty Goodie. Thanks again. mini

Mary E.Carey said...

Wow, this is a fascinating slice of history.

Anonymous said...

I could swear I know the guy in the foreground of the "Town Toughs" photo (aged 20+ years). Does anyone know who he is?