Walking through the neighborhood to help a friend celebrate 40 years in his home we walked through the Quadrangle:
Jane Jacobs eat your heart out!
This post is not about football. In the mid 1970’s there was one Patriots fan at Forest Park Junior High in Springfield, Massachusetts, and that was me. There were Steelers fans, and Cowboys fans, and Dolphins fans, and Giants fans, and even one Baltimore Colts fan (my best friend, Mike Surrette), but being a New England Patriots fans in those days was a lonely practice. How many Mondays did I skip school after an embarrassing loss? My (deceased) parents will never know!
But there was something more gratifying about it then than there is now. Apart from growing up and having concerns apart from living vicariously through athletes it just isn’t as satisfying to me to be a fan of the big bad bully who nearly always wins. Being the only guy in Hinkley Hall rooting for the Pats in Super Bowl Roman numeral whatever (Bears 460, Patriots 10) was humiliating, sure, but no one doubted I was a real fan! (Fastest points ever scored in a Super Bowl, Go Pats!)
I’m old enough now to have seen these reversals play out in areas other than sports as well. Boston and New York were every bit as shat upon as Springfield, Hartford, New Haven, and Bridgeport are now. I remember when I was stupid for going into school teaching because those who graduated with me were making 4x what I was in the private sector and had better benefits.
A conversation at a dinner party last week (so 70’s I know, but good fun) brought to mind not only the fact that none of the leaders of our cultural institutions live in the city, but that only 25% of our living former mayors reside here. Hey, at least our current mayor does, though I suppose he kinda has to! Mike Mathis from MGM chose Longmeadow for his home. I can’t imagine the head of MassMutual, or Baystate Medical Center, or any of our colleges/universities lives here…unless they have an on-campus mansion as part of their compensation plan(even still, bet they really live in a condo in Wilbraham). It’s fun watching the public service announcements made by these people touting Springfield as a great place to live, work, and play…”for you, I mean. Do I live here? Oh, God no, I just take the paycheck!”
What a great parody video that would make:
“…blah, blah, blah, blah, blah blah”
-Do you live here?
“What, me? No.”
Call the series “Springfield: What, me? No.”
It is what it is, and I’m not calling for a pogrom against suburbanites or upper valley types, I’m just waiting for that one transformative moment (the tuck rule meets Adam Vinatieri in a blizzard for you Pats fans still reading) after which all of these people will decide to live here. They’ll claim to have been here all along, pulling for the team, but I’ll know, they were Niners fans in the 80’s.
What Strongtowns does to communicate important ideas about resilience at the level of the community, PeakProsperity does for the individual. I could not recommend more highly the updated Crash Course for understanding what to do as an individual to prepare for the future. What makes my involvement with the site problematic is the core level anti urban bias.
A conversation released last week on their podcast stream demonstrated to me just how deep the bias runs. Chris Martenson was discussing community and ritual with a guest, and the guest shared a story(5:40), in contrast to a discussion of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, of a “town” in Spain which has a “fire festival” in which the whole “town” and the “select board” take part. This “community festival” is an opportunity for “personal renewal work”. It’s obvious that the guest is under the impression that this is a quaint tradition in a tiny village somewhere in the hinterlands; where else could a community come together for such a wild and yet fulfilling community building celebration?
Only, Las Fallas is a festival I attended in 1987 and it takes place in Spain’s 3rd largest city Valencia. Valencia. Population 800,000. Hundreds of thousands of people take part in this festival. And it is everything the guest describes it as being. And it takes place in a very metropolitan city. Home of paella, the “boys with the bats on their shirts“, and these starchitectural wonders from Santiago Calatrava.
My three days in Valencia experiencing the Mascleta, the Cremá, and the general insanity of Las Fallas will never be forgotten. Just as my evening sleeping in the María Luisa park in Sevilla during Holy Week and my two Carnaval experiences in Cádiz will never be forgotten. Of course the case can be made that our cities are not the homogenous tight knit communities that those of Spain are, but that doesn’t mean that our cities can’t become unified places where CITIzens take pride in their place and feel for the place they actually spend their day to day lives the passion they express for the abstract concept of the nation state: U.S.A! U.S.A.!
What is the current “U.S.A.” if not a collection of places which, mostly, no one gives a rat’s ass about and almost everyone is willing to abandon at the drop of a hat, or at the promise of $3,000 more a year, or a 3% difference in property taxes? How can the nation as a whole mean anything to you if not one place within it is of any particular importance?
I’m laughing and crying at the same time; Maricopa county, Arizona is the fastest growing county in America. The city of Springfield gains in population every year what Maricopa county gains on a daily basis; somewhere around 200-300 people. None of that pesky rain that ruins your whole day on the wonderfully green beautifully manicured golf courses, air conditioning not just inside, but outside as well, everything easily accessible by private automobile with absolutely no end in sight to our ability to extract fossil fuels from the ground, and absolutely no negative long term consequences to doing so! What places did those 200-300 people abandon in order to make Phoenix their new home? Who gives a shit? I might have to wear a sweater or miss a day on the links, and what place could possibly be worth that?
The unusually heavy sudden mid-March snowfall forced me to change my walking patterns around the neighborhood this week and reminded me of one thing: I live in an astonishingly beautiful place. The buildings, constructed of natural materials at a time when construction and decoration still viewed coherence and integrity as a primary aim, created a cityscape and the snow covered up the shortcomings in landscaping and maintenance (not to mention the trash) and the combination reminded me of what is so special about this place.
My wife is fond of saying that so much of what is discussed and debated comes down to aesthetics. As innate and personal as our individual tastes may seem, they are all molded and mediated by the society in which we live and the experiences that we have. Growing up in Springfield I happened to notice that many of the most beautiful homes were in some of the poorest neighborhoods, and that nearly all of the homeliest homes were in the wealthiest. Whether it was because I recognized the beauty before I understood poverty or because the delineation was particularly clear along the pathways of my daily comings and goings I will never know, but for as long as I can remember my appreciation of what I would now call urbanism and architecture was disconnected from the qualities and conditions more closely tied to wealth.
In Andalusia I had a hard time understanding why the Americans with whom I worked, nearly all of whom were from the suburbs of the West and Southwest of the United States, were filled with such harsh judgements regarding places which I thought were beautiful. I remember the excitement in the crowd when a car was available to drive us to Hipercor, a sort of Spanish version of a Walmart in a Spanish version of suburban sprawl; I hated it. It seemed so antiseptic and banal and required such a tedious journey while the city in which we could walk around every day and fulfill our needs as we went about our proselytizing was gracious and solid, and conveyed unfathomable depth.
I remember standing in a small park on the grand central artery of Jaén and my compañero of the moment expressing his sadness at the lack of grandeur…in the cars going by! They were all small by American standards, and the closest thing to a pickup truck was a sort of bloated tricycle thingy which could turn on a dime but looked to be made of corrugated aluminum.
It strikes me that auto centered post war development is the pornography of human settlement. Outwardly it facilitates gratification but doesn’t demand enough to provide a complete experience. It does to society and community what food supplements do to nutrients; it isolates the elements which are more easily understood to be necessary for function, but fails in every way to understand just how other elements, perhaps not as easily identified or understood, enhance, promote, mediate, or control the effects of all the others. As with both industrial food and erotica, the experience of living in the car centered environment provides for the most basic outward needs, but fails to satisfy at a deeper level.
Just as with food and sex, however, if all someone has ever known is the artificial and the inorganic, then there is no way to know that the experience is incomplete, and even upon being given an opportunity for a more fulfilling experience the uninitiated may balk at the heavier burdens that accrue to more complete realities. Thus having to “find” a parking space and having to walk along sidewalks and across streets to arrive at a place where the menu is unique and the logistics are unfamiliar is orders of magnitude more frustrating than pulling into the McDonalds and ordering a Big Mac, but it also holds out the promise of a much higher level of satisfaction and of human connection.
In my conversations with colleagues or even students at my suburban school any mention to the beauty of Springfield is assumed to be tongue in cheek. I have to become exceedingly earnest in order to convince people that I am being serious when I say things complimentary to the aesthetic value of the city; which is not to say that doing so alters the hearer’s perspective on the city. To them it is an ugly and sordid place to such an extreme that they no more entertain the notion of changing their views thereon than they would do so in connection to feces or mucus.
There are things we never really see for the first time because we have been disciplined as to how to see them before we mastered the art of seeing; the Mona Lisa comes to mind, or the Statue of Liberty, or the Eiffel Tower. In America many of our cities are in this category but the disciple is taught to fear or disdain them. In a very real way the markers of poverty are the elements which ring the Pavlovian bell to categorize a place as ugly and only as those things recede will Americans accept cities as potentially beautiful, and even then for most it will be the markers of wealth and not the deeper grammars and syntaxes of traditional urban design that will stimulate their appreciation.
What is it that makes Hartford such a troubled place? My seeming to pick on Connecticut’s capital could seem a bit hypocritical given how I feel about those who express similar feelings about Springfield, but I don’t mean it as a condemnation or as a call to flee the city, I intend it as an inquiry to better understand what is taking place in my own hometown.
In so many ways I am as completely ignorant about Springfield as I am about Hartford. I avoid contact with the people whose struggles give rise to the behaviors which are daily catalogued by local news outlets and so understand very little about their circumstances. While I do not think that their dysfunction places me in appreciably greater danger vis a vis criminal violence, I know that it has an impact on my quality of life. Homicides are an excellent example of this. While nearly all of the victims of homicide, spanning years of analysis, are engaged in particularly dangerous behaviors; whether that be drug dealing, gang membership, or being in a relationship with an unstable person, it still is the case then that I share community with people more likely to engage in those behaviors.
Enter Hartford. While Springfield has yet to see its first homicide of 2017, Hartford, a city with just over 2/3 of Springfield’s population, has had 7. A heart-wrenching story in today’s Courant tells the story of a city whose school aged population has plummeted while Springfield’s sits at or near an all time high. In Hartford, for the time being at least, concerns swell over the potential departure of major employers and the most recent attempt at a magic bullet for spin-off economic development has become a saga of delays, lawsuits, and cost overruns, while Springfield believes itself to be primed for a downtown Renaissance. There is talk of austerity regarding Springfield’s budget, but Hartford’s financial situation looks to be that of a city requiring a bailout.
Keep in mind, I don’t buy all of this. Hartford is ahead of Springfield in someways, bringing market rate housing downtown for example, and certainly Hartford can command more in the way of its state and regional resources. But what interests me is precisely why it is that a state capital with an instantly recognizable name and which is also a recognized leader in the FIRE sector of the economy is struggling even more than the City of Homes?
There is one teeny tiny nugget of demographic information which jumped out at me years ago in the (now) Springfield Republican’s comparison of Springfield, Hartford, and Worcester of which I was recently reminded, and that is that Springfield has the highest rate of owner occupied housing of any city its size in western New England(see demographics);much higher than that of Hartford. I’m a fan of multi-unit dwellings, I’ve spent 2/3 of my adult life in them, but I wonder if it is the abundance of owner occupied homes in the City of Homes which gives us our relative stability?
If so, would a potential future redensification of American living mean trouble for the city, or would our mostly densely packed homes retain value even in an age of expensive energy? It would certainly be determined on very fine margins of functionality relative to public transit, walkable access to daily needs, and domestic energy demands. Apart from those issues and despite Springfield’s eternally modest home values, will a future general collapse in home prices leave owners in a worse position than renters even in a humble market like Springfield?
I suppose it’s the question of whether future realities will simply flip flop the desirability and livability of places, or if certain locations will always remain preferable. The latter does seem more likely, but that does not mean that Springfield will be among those places. What would improve many of Springfield’s more heavily owner occupied areas in the future will be their ability to function as traditional, walkable, neighborhoods. Springfield has retained, at some cost but perhaps with great accidental foresight, a strong core of neighborhood schools, neighborhood libraries, neighborhood parks, and neighborhood retail centers. A few places, like Forest Park, still have entertainment venues and cultural centers, and Indian Orchard, of course, has its own re-energizable Main Street; only Sixteen Acres lacks almost completely in walkability, but it’s very bike-able and could be connected at a few nodes to public transit somewhat cohesively.
Downtown just might be poised on the edge of a remarkable Renaissance; if it turns out to be not just a chimera, its most important legacy will need to be the ability to stabilize or resurrect the city’s other neighborhoods.
I had a brief Miss Emily Litella moment this week when I saw the final plans for the Stearns Square renovation; stories were released on two media outlets with somewhat blurry pictures of the design and I was unable to read much of what I saw and, it turns out, I was also unable to see a very significant part of the plan.
A not nearly as contentious as I’d like to be proposal was floated to return the original Augustus Saint Gaudens’ Puritan to its original location on the square. As far as I can tell no one except me was in favor of doing that. What I didn’t see in the final plans was an awareness that, in the absence of the Puritan, another vertical statue of some sort should stand opposite the turtle fountain.
The Springfield BID released a higher resolution version of the plans which showed clearly that the former location of the Puritan was to be dedicated to a “new sculpture”: Never-mind!
Given the somewhat xenophobic use of some of the reproductions of the work of Saint Gaudens by some it would be clever to sit in its original place a statue of John Brown (one local historian thinks it already is) and Frederick Douglass only a few blocks from the place where they met for the very first time; memorializing not only this significant event in the history of the United States, but also showing Springfield’s resolve to be a model of courage in the face of bigotry.
Sometimes we answer the question we’re asked when what we ought to do is answer one that is completely different. What to change about the media? That’s beyond quixotic. Looking at the introductory page of this very website what I recall is that this effort is not about altering what’s said by the media about unpolished gems like the city of Springfield, it’s about reaching the people who are interested in doing the polishing and trying to get down to the real obstacles to progress.
Historic preservation is a correspondingly important topic because these cities did have a heyday, there was a peak before there was a decline. That fact compounded by the reality that much of what has been built since 1945 is of lesser quality in terms of design and materials makes preserving what was built before that time advantageous. There are some people on either side of historic preservation debates who believe that an “everything old is better than anything new” attitude which underlies the entire concept, but the reality that I see as a member of a local historical commission is quite different.
A recent petitioner requested that a demolition delay order be waived in order that he might be able to move ahead on plans for a new hotel less than a block away from the new MGM resort casino. Based on the information we were given that evening the commission denied the request by a 5-1 margin, but we clearly communicated to the petitioner that this decision was not absolute. I spoke to him at length after the meeting about the process and, as I became point person for the commission on the topic, I made phone calls and arranged meeting to become better informed on the case.
This culminated 3 months later with a meeting with the petitioner and a local developer who had just completed renovations and repairs to a nearly identical building across the street. That developer explained that he had looked into redeveloping the structure in question and that it was not feasible to do so with property values as they are in the neighborhood. That conversation, and viewing the deterioration of the structure close up with the petitioner convinced me that lifting the delay would be the right decision. I urged him to return to the commission on a date certain and that I would express that view to the other commissioners. I told him that I was confident that the delay order would be lifted and that he would be able to proceed almost immediately.
Two of the photos I took while viewing the building in question with the petitioner and the developer of the Park Street Lofts:
He never did. I don’t have a problem with that in and of itself. If 5 or 6 months no longer mattered in terms of moving forward on the project relative to the delay of demolition, that was certainly an issue for the man with skin in the game to judge, and not I.
Imagine my surprise however when last month two stories (masslive and wwlp)appeared in the media in which the developer expressed to reporters that he was finally able to move forward with construction only now that the delay had elapsed. While technically true that the delay was still in place, he was well aware that the persistence of the delay order was not due to the local commission’s intransigence or indifference, but rather that we had actively sought to do our due diligence regarding our responsibilities related to historic preservation and development. But instead of acknowledging that we had actively worked with him and likely would have lifted the delay months earlier, he and the reporters allowed for the narrative to be perpetuated that the Historical Commission is simply anti development.
In the end the two reports were tiny additions to the narrative of growth and rebirth in the city, the historic preservation aspect of the story was a minor one. For some reason in both cases the reporters interviewed members of an advocacy group for historic preservation (of which I am a member) instead of the governmental body which decides whether or not to lift demolition delay orders for reasons of historic preservation. Whatever the motivations anyone paying attention to local media would assume that we continue in our role as “hysterical commissioners”, indifferent to the impacts of our decisions on our community and its prosperity, our only interest being to see to it that the city become some sort of spectacular ruin for future visitors to gaze at in wonderment.