The interplay of data and personal experience are what I use to understand what’s happening to my community. What I glean from my own experience of course tends to be too narrow to wholly depend on, and most of the data I can find is often too broad to be sure just how accurate it is with respect to urban neighborhoods in Springfield.
I pay close attention as I skip from one news aggregator to another so as to find studies which might include meaningful information. When the data is grouped state by state I can be fairly certain it will be useless as Boston and its environs weigh so heavily and possess a reality which is so distinct from Western Massachusetts. Often metro data is only released for the nation’s 50 most populous metropolitan areas, a category into which Springfield does not fall, though it does fall in the top 100. If the data is for the 100 largest cities or for cities over 200,000, then I am also out of luck.
As I have mentioned before, a frustrating element of that is that what defines a city or even a metro area in the United States varies so much, especially from region to region. Birmingham, Alabama, for example, is “a city” with over 200,000 people and is a top 50 metro but its city population of 25% more than Springfield is stretched out over 500% of the land area with roughly the same calculation holding for the metro. It’s no one’s fault of course; cities and metro areas haven’t come to define themselves for the purposes of distorting data or hiding information but it the result is the same.
Even in the same tiny state two apparently very similar cities such as Springfield and Worcester are actually very different. Worcester has 15% more people on 15% more land, but Worcester is not contiguous to a single community which is also a city; Worcester contains one tiny island of urban density in what is otherwise a thoroughly suburban and rural location. Springfield, on the other hand, is merely the most populous of a set of 5 long established cities.
Look at these screenshots taken at the same scale of each region:
Add to that the fact that Worcester is both in reality, and according to the Census Bureau, part of the enormous, and enormously successful Boston Metropolitan Area, whereas Springfield sits very much in isolation from Boston and, in reality, much more closely connected economically and culturally to Connecticut whether we or they like it or not.
Still, finding analysis which includes Springfield is important to understanding what might be happening and what might be changing in the city.
By the same token I know that even my own lived experience and my interpretation of that experience can be skewed. It took a colleague whose wife was a social worker in the neighborhood where most of my friends lived while I was growing up to make clear to me just how different it was from 40 years ago. The slow pace of that change made it invisible to me despite visiting my parents week after week during all those decades. I hadn’t noticed how different the reality was from what I thought I was seeing all those years. I remember how different the lived experience of a young Black woman working at a phone store was from my own while living in the same neighborhood for the same number of years, and how she felt as though violence was all around her, meanwhile I had seen and experienced none.
With all of this as a much overwrought prologue I was eager to peruse a publication of the Manhattan Institute on America’s Stagnating Metropolitan Areas in order to take the data I would find and synthesize it with my own experience. There was a problem, or perhaps a dearth of them: Springfield was not listed among them. There were the usual suspects: Syracuse, Rochester, Pittsfield, even New Haven and Albany, but Springfield was not on the list. This was, this is, fairly remarkable.
The focus of the report would normally put a bullseye on Springfield, but, according to this report, the city no longer qualified.
What this implies, of course, is that by dint of whatever larger forces are at work Springfield has managed to work its way into the middle category of mid sized cities which, while certainly not among the red hot, are no longer stagnating; a sort of “extra medium”. I don’t rule out that the exclusion of Springfield from the list is mostly an anomaly, but even for it to be possible to be left off anomalously is a step up for a region so long dogged by negativity, pessimism, and decline.
John Michael Greer writes about the British often struggling to find a general who could take overwhelming numerical, technical, and weapons related superiority and use it to achieve the “not impossible task” of gaining a military victory. It feels as though Springfield is in someways managing to do something similar: blessed with being a metro area with renowned cultural and educational institutions, access to fantastic recreational opportunities, and an amazing cache of low cost, high quality housing, and located smack dab in the middle of the world’s most prosperous mega region, we’re managing to not sink into the absolute depths of economic depression: Goooooo Us!