On Monday it was reported that David Starr, longtime publisher/president of the Springfield Newspapers and one of the most controversial and divisive figures in the Pioneer Valley, had died at the age of 96. A first rate fundraiser and patron of the arts, Starr's prodigious philanthropy could not overshadow his key and often contentious role in many of the regions most important political, economic and social issues.
Starr's years of greatest influence were the 1980's and 90's, before the internet became so all pervasive and newspapers were still the most powerful form of media. In this sci-fi year of 2019, it is hard to convey the powerful role Starr played in local politics, particularly in Springfield. Critics claimed he used his newspaper as a weapon to both attack his enemies and aggressively promote his political and economic agendas. Often this meant backing candidates of slight qualifications and dubious character for city offices while promoting ill conceived economic development projects that were ultimately unsuccessful.
The rogues gallery of Starr launched political careers includes many, but a few stand out. For example, Michael Albano was promoted by the paper through four scandal plagued terms as mayor, while the famously felonious Frankie Keough was launched on his life of crime when at Starr's insistence he was installed as head of the local homeless shelter. The aggressiveness with which Starr pursued his political objectives could be ruthless, as recounted by former Councilor Mitch Ogulewicz in his memoirs. The politically manipulative manner in which Starr used the Springfield papers was also noted in a 1990 Boston Globe article.
Former Springfield Mayor Charles V. Ryan once told me about the time he was in Starr's office as the publisher was going over the paper's choices for endorsement in a municipal election. Charlie was dismayed by those he saw on the list, telling Starr, "Some of the candidates you are endorsing are really not the best people." Ryan was stunned when Starr replied, "Yes, but they are OUR people." On another occasion Charlie said to me, "Half the people running this city should go to jail."
Eventually, they did.
A federal corruption probe that began in 2000 ended up producing over 30 convictions, taking down some of the most prominent political names in Springfield. By then Starr had been overseeing local political coverage for 22 years, yet his paper saw nothing corrupt going on until the FBI raids began. Whether it was Matty Ryan in the 80's or the Albano crew in the 90's, the Springfield Newspapers under Starr seemed deaf, dumb and blind to local corruption, always caught flatfooted when some other news source would report the scandal first. That indifference by the paper gave a green light to the culture of corruption that flourished under Starr's journalistic watch, as scammers and crooks knew they had little reason to fear exposure by the local press.
In the wake of Starr's passing, the media coverage has ranged from amnesiac to surreal. One can perhaps forgive the Springfield Republican for laying on the praise a bit too thick, but still, it's hard not to wince at lines like this: "Starr also was the driving force in turning Springfield from a decaying downtown to a vibrant inner city in the 1980s and ‘90s, packed with arts, culture, museums and businesses."
Really? Where was I? How did I miss it?
Or how about this: "He and his wife, Peggy, walked down the “absolutely deserted’’ Springfield streets the first night he was in town. “Buildings were vacant, windows of office buildings were broken, it was clear downtown was just a shambles.’’
That would be in 1978. I remember downtown Springfield in the late 70's, and I can tell you this - Downtown Springfield was far more vibrant, with far more stores and places to eat in '78 than it was say, in the year 2004. That was after more than 25 years of Starr and his Orwellian named "Springfield Central" economic development schemes (and also the same year the city had to be put under a state control board for gross fiscal mismanagement). No one can deny the central business district was far more degraded in 2004 than it was when Starr and his wife made that downtown stroll a quarter of a century earlier.
Whether it was the towering Monarch Place (sold to its creditors for $1 only a few years after it opened) endless funds poured into a Civic Center that never turned a profit, a crony capitalist insider culture that had Starr as one of its central figures, neglected neighborhoods in decline as millions were poured into one downtown development boondoggle after another, all while the Springfield Newspapers cheered on the politicians it owned to support one expensive flop after another.
The plain truth is that Springfield's decline was in no way reversed or even slowed by the so-called "economic development" schemes promoted by Starr and his newspaper over the decades. In many cases, those efforts seemed to actually accelerate the rate of decline (again, see Monarch Place). The only positive economic development downtown we've seen came in just the past few years from a billion dollar investment by a private company, MGM.
No one can blame Starr's friends and family for wishing to focus on his extensive, and undeniably admirable philanthropic efforts, but there is also much more to Starr's legacy. Along with the Dr. Seuss sculptures, there were the sterile, glass and concrete, half-empty skyscrapers that replaced the city's once beautiful, vibrant and historic downtown. Along with the successful Quadrangle fundraisers were the Starr backed politicos running the city's finances into the ground. There was the revival of the Springfield Symphony, but there was also public officials doing perp walks.
All these things deserve mention in any honest appraisal of Starr's career. Despite all the puff-piece obits, they are unlikely to have any effect on the judgement of history, which will be that David Starr actually played a very dark role in Springfield's terrible fall.
Meanwhile, the Forbes Library in Northampton turned 125 years old this year.
It is still one of the Valley's most beautiful libraries.
The music was mellow last weekend at the downtown concert at sunset.