The Tech Groundbreaking
Wednesday I took the bus from Northampton to Holyoke, then transferred to the express bus into downtown Springfield, soon arriving at the Peter Pan bus station.
From there I went over to Tower Square (forever Baystate West to those of us of a certain age) and had a chili-dog at the Tower Grill.
Then I hurried over to the site of the former Technical High School, where the groundbreaking ceremony was to be held for the conversion of the site to a state data center. When I arrived a large crowd had already formed beneath the tent where the ceremonies were to begin.
I was surprised by the size of the crowd, especially since there had been no announcement of the event in advance nor anything about it in the media. Mostly there seemed to be people who had heard about it through political networks or the Tech alumni grapevine. The crowd certainly featured a who's who of politicos, beginning with Governor Deval Patrick, who has been campaigning for re-election so frantically lately that he would probably attend the dedication of a lemonade stand if invited. Of course the media swarmed all around him.
TV40 reporter Ray Herschel.
Other political heavyweights in attendance included Springfield Mayor Dom Sarno, Congressman Richie Neal and State Rep. Angelo Puppolo.
Faces from the past were everywhere, such as former mayors Charles V. Ryan and Billy Sullivan.
Former Mayor Michael Albano never attends these types of affairs, perhaps out of fear of being tarred, feathered and thrown into the Connecticut River by angry Springfield residents. Old rogues who did appear included library thief Henry Thomas and the shady ex-rep Saco Catjakis. Here is the former State Rep. from Pine Point Dave Vigneault, who served in the 1960's.
I was glad to see that I wasn't the only troublemaker in attendance - the infamous Sheila McElwaine.
Springfield City Councilor John Lysak.
However, apparently not everyone who was expected showed up, as indicated by this chair I saw cast aside that was originally reserved for no-show State Rep. Benjamin Swan.
However, the name most often remarked on as not being in attendance was State Rep. Tommy Petrolati. Representative "Petro" had played a major role in the controversy over converting the Tech building to a computer center, doing everything in his power to have it placed instead at a failing technology center at STCC that was in desperate need of a taxpayer financed rental check. That alternative was also favored by historic preservationists who were unhappy that the computer center conversion would destroy all but the front facade of Tech. In all it was a classic power struggle between local pols as Richie Neal fought for the Tech site and Petro fought for STCC, with federal influence eventually triumphing over the state rep. Petro supporters denied his absence had anything to do with sour grapes, pointing out that Tech is not in Petro's district, but then that was true of nearly all the other politicians on the stage.
Most people in attendance seemed just glad to see something finally being done with the Tech building after nearly 25 years of being vacant. It was closed in 1986 as part of a cynical plan to close a number city schools that were alleged to be in bad repair. Some said the buildings were actually quite sound, and that it was all a front in order to insure that there would be an excuse to build a lot of new schools to provide politically connected contractors with a steady stream of new projects. Tech, it's sister school Classical and others such as Tapley and Jefferson Avenue, were closed because they were supposedly unfit for use. However taxpayers soon found to their surprise that after they closed, the buildings that were alleged to be unfit for use by students eight hours a day were quickly rehabbed (at a small fraction of the cost of building their replacements) to house tenants 24 hours a day!
The badly designed replacement high school for Tech and Classical turned out to be too small on the day it opened. Yet despite pleas from the Superintendent of Schools, Tech was never re-opened as a badly needed supplement to the inadequately built new high school. Indeed Tech was so structurally sound it survived standing vacant for 24 years. The name most often mentioned as being responsible for Tech's long vacancy is the man who was Mayor when it closed - the current Congressman Richard Neal. While others of the irrationally closed schools like Classical and Tapley were quickly converted to residential apartments, Tech got bogged down for years in a failed attempt to steer development towards an outfit with close political ties to Neal. To read the details of the whole sordid affair, click here. In fairness to Neal, other culprits are said, at least in whispers, to have played a role in Tech's long vacancy, including rumors of politically connected people who had access to the school and stripped it over the years of everything valuable in it, from the metal pipes to the schools mysteriously missing famous mural.
Local historian Greg Metzadakis was inside Tech recently, and shares these final photos of the inside of Tech taken before the gutting of the insides began.
So while the local political glitterati were on display for the groundbreaking, the remnants of Tech itself stood in the background as a hulking ruin, looking more like something from Berlin 1945 than anything about to enter the computer age.
However if there was any political blame for Tech's tragic demise, no one was casting any guilt at this gala affair. In fact ironically the person most praised was Congressman Neal, who was showered with praise by every speaker. At the end of all the blather the whole motley crew gathered with golden shovels to fling a little dirt to usher in Tech's new era, but perhaps flinging a little horse manure would have been more appropriate.
Yet for all the sound reasons to be cynical about the event, the day had some special moments, such as when Neal led the crowd in the singing of the old Tech school song. So let's put aside the cynicism and be glad that at least a small portion of Tech has been saved and that several dozen hi-tech jobs have been created. Yet the fact remains that if the political skeletons connected with Tech had come out of their closets to attend that affair, the skeletons in attendance would have outnumbered the people.
Speaking of Congressman Neal, one of his opponents, Dr. Jay Fleitman, got a great boost this month from a front page story on the widely distributed free magazine Heathcare Ledger. Curiously, the interview is not available online. Dr. Fleitman is also opening a campaign headquarters on Pleasant Street in Northampton.
Monday was the summer solstice, and as usual there were morning and evening rituals at the UMass Sunwheel. This video shows how the sunwheel was made.
The shining mystery.