(My weekly post is delayed so as a ñapa for my patient readers I’m posting this.)
These are some photos I took on the way down to vote on Super Tuesday:
Right on cue two of the biggest projects I called out in my Promises, Promises post got upgraded in terms of their life support level and appear to be moving forward. MGM got a one month extension from the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to get the project “across the goal line”, which was later revealed to consist mostly of convincing the city to throw in $4 million towards clean up and the like. It’s amazing how you can take a building like this through its chain of custody, generally being owned by remarkably well-to-do people, and yet there’s always a lot of hand waiving around deterioration and site clean-up; “Let’s not bicker and argue over who killed who”. I can’t imagine the city not kicking in the cash, $4 million of a $50 million project, but I get why it might annoy people.
If that project moves forward then the MGM “safety school”:
Would be turned back to the city for redevelopment. It was announced years ago that this had already happened, but, not surprisingly, MGM is unwilling to let that property go unless the Court Square thing is definitely happening.
The other project moving forward is what was the MassDevelopment building on Stearns Square.
It was announced that it has been turned over to the downtown Business Improvement District to begin a million dollar renovation of the interior for an as yet unnamed tenant. I have absolutely no idea who that might be but given that the whole MassDev concept was to create a dining district and the building is enormous I would imagine we are talking about a huge national chain which is unrepresented in the region or Boston/New York enterprise moving into Springfield. If it is a local establishment only the Picknelly-Yee partnership would seem to have the wherewithal to take on such a giant facility.
On the other hand it could be split in half with a full build out on one side and a speculative refurbishment for another concept being done on the other side.
An announcement regarding another project, the one I referenced at the end of my prior post, muddied the prospects of how and where it might move forward. The Red Lion Inn people had previously committed to building a boutique hotel at the old Paramount Theater in the Massasoit House building, it was then announced that they were moving ahead with talks with MGM on putting another boutique hotel on the old Mass Mutual building now owned by MGM.
Initial reports stated that it was not unusual for a hotel management group to run two properties in one city, but later reports implied that the project might be “moving”.
The most exciting news related to the Mass Mutual building announcement was that the local cable access team would move from their ground floor location at the corner of State and Main to the otherwise semi-abandoned CityStage property which might well leverage improvements which could once again make that venue viable for concerts and such not big enough for Symphony Hall and the MassMutual arena.
I’d be more excited about all of this if it weren’t for what seems to me like the specter of an approaching recession which I can’t help but believe would make 2008 look like the 1950’s. To me the world economy, much like the supply chains of world manufacturing, is efficient but not resilient; when you add to that a federal budget running a trillion dollars in the red during what is being called a boom period with a surging stock market and low unemployment and I can’t help but think that a downturn will be confronted with very little “dry powder” and no tools left in the tool box to turn things around.
Mixed metaphors aside, having asked questions in my blog about these projects so recently I would be remiss not to mention that there appears to be progress being made. Let’s hope they’re not undertaken to the strains of Songe d’Atomne.
The heuristic for my philosophy of art is that it must have some value in at least one of the three categories of beauty, meaning, or difficulty. I’m not making an attempt to universalize this framework as I realize the subjective nature of, at the very least, two out of the three, but it does give me a rubric for a critique which protects me from the Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome of post 19th century art. I find it works quite well at detecting hackery and charlatanism: duct taped bananas and discarded t-shirts pinned to walls tend to score very low.
Let’s be honest, there have been horrible writers, terrible painters, insipid sculptors, and talentless composers from the time those forms began, but the rigors and technical demands of the rules of, for example, the sonnet would weed out the people who couldn’t “word good”.
Architecture is special in that it adds a layer of practical function to art in such a way that it is, in my opinion, the weakest link in so called Modern Art. Little things like keeping the elements out, not collapsing, indicating where the entrances and exits are, not endangering environs with excessive heat and light, not popping out windows, and being a library that can withstand the weight of books are all challenges that must be met or “you didn’t architecture so good.”
Here in Springfield we have the two structures which make up the state court system. One of them is well over a hundred years old and absolutely no one makes any complaints about it. It was designed by H.H. Richardson:
The other is less than one third the age of the first and by all accounts it suffers from various structural problems and a huge effort is underway to replace it with a building that perhaps isn’t also the bullseye of a rare illness.
Can you tell where the entrance is?
Nope, it’s to the right of what looks like a cantilevered portico. And you can’t use most of the stairs in winter, they’re just too dangerous so if it snows they add temporary rails and close off a section or two. If you’ve read my blog for a while, you’ve seen this building before:
And I don’t hate the newer one. Turns out Eduardo Catalano, the architect of the courthouse, was a much bigger part of my Bildungsroman than I ever would have imagined. You see, he designed all three of Springfield’s most significant 1970’s megastructures: the civic center, Baystate West, and the aforementioned courthouse. While I never spent anytime in the courthouse, I spent hours and hours in the other two. Hockey and shows from the Harlem Globetrotters to Disney programs were part of my formative years:
Baystate West was the downtown mall where my mom worked part time and I would hang out and buy imported records from The Move or Violinski, eat a California Pizza Dog from Orange Julius and then wander around the surrounding streets and in so doing fall in love with what I would now call “urbanism”.
There are two ways to judge those buildings. On the one hand they have stood the test of time much better than the courthouse and continue to serve the community quite well; on the other they have required major remodeling and even reconstruction to minimize the deadening effects of their stark Brutalism on the surrounding streets.
In the case of the civic center it had to be hidden by another building to frame Court Square in a dignified way and hide its monotonous soul crushing expanse of concrete:
As Baystate West was transformed into Tower Square windows have been added on the first two floors on the Main Street and Harrison Avenue façades, splashes of form and color were slapped on to help people find entrances, and an enormous airwalk was removed:
As Catalano buildings go, they’ve fared well. The “masterpiece” which put him on the Modernist Map had to be torn down as it couldn’t stand the test of even a few decades of time withstanding the elements in the harsh climes of Raleigh, North Carolina!
I read on apologia for modernism which claimed that it is poor maintenance that has let modernist buildings down: In the case of the two courthouses it’s the exact same entity that maintained them since they’ve been in existence but only one of them has been able to stand up to that malign neglect…and for over a century longer.
The truth is I don’t hate these buildings, I mean, I’m not dying of ALS so maybe that’s easy for me to say, but they are a part of the fabric of the city I love. If Eduardo Catalano ever becomes an El Greco of architecture, his genius rediscovered centuries later, then Springfield will be his Toledo and all of the fixes will need to be undone and savants will wonder at the callous treatment his works were given. Short of that, these structures will continue to serve whatever purpose they’re put to to the best of their ability which, with the possible exception of the courthouse, I have little doubt will extend long beyond my time on this planet.
Way back in 1978 or thereabouts Springfield representative Ed Boland, yes, he of the Boland Amendment, got money for building a new federal courthouse in Springfield. As a broad redevelopment of the downtown was very much underway it was decided to place the new courthouse right on Main Street and to use the attached parking facility to wedge in a new home for a local professional theater group.
The federal building was gray, drab, and lifeless. Its plaza was unwelcoming and cold. Post Office Alley, which cuts between the two structures and was intended to be a continuation of an attractive alleyway on Fort Street, was the most urbanistically successful portion of the design, but the failure of downtown retail to rebound from what was hoped to be only a temporary lull never allowed the space to reach its full potential.
Within 15 years of its opening the federal building was viewed as having inadequate facilities within the building in terms of keeping jurors, judges, and defendants appropriately separated; it also failed from a post Oklahoma City security standpoint, and it was too small to provide adequate space for the agencies it was intended to house. Add to that the fact that nobody liked it, especially the staff of the local congressman, and a push began to build yet another courthouse and federal building, and the old building was handed over to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. As a footnote, the state has turned the building into a gem and the plaza into a real winner.
I was very involved in the process of bringing the new courthouse to Springfield. I not only lived right across the street from where it was to be located on State Street, but I was also working as the community liaison for the Armoury-Quadrangle Civic Association which was the neighborhood group which worked with the GSA to ensure that all of the guidelines for community input were followed. In the early 1990’s there was a recognition that a lot of federal money had been spent to design and build structures which hadn’t done cities any favors in terms of beauty, livability, and economic development and so a Design Excellence Program was created in hopes of ensuring better outcomes.
At the first few meeting with the GSA representative we were given photographs of some courthouses which had been built under this new program. Some were really beautiful. One or two were hideous. The location where the courthouse was to be built sits on a corridor with multiple impressive historic buildings:
There was a fear that the new courthouse would either be a bland sort of black hole in that trajectory, or worse, that it would be a modernist piece-of-shit middle finger to everything around it. Everyone at the neighborhood level was ready for a pitched battle. In the middle of all this the city forester determined that there were two inviolate trees on the selected property, one of which was possibly over 500 years old, and the design of the new structures needed to preserve them.
Springfield is pretty small potatoes as federal buildings go so getting a design which did the job of being a courthouse and federal building, preserved the stately elegance of the corridor, and preserved the two historic trees seemed like a big ask of the architects who might be expected to bid on such a financially modest project. Springfield got lucky in that one of today’s most celebrated architects had a collaborator who was not only from the city, but had gotten wind of the development and urged Moshe Safde to create a design for the project.
If memory serves there were three design finalists. Despite its thoroughly contemporary style the Moshe Safde design was far and away the most popular among the members of the community. I can’t recall the style of the other designs, I believe they were all more or less “non-traditional”, but I’m not sure of that. I am certain that the overall concern about the impact of the building on the streetscape disappeared.
This essay is not a random historical sketch about courthouses in the city of Springfield. The debate regarding federal buildings and design styles has erupted over the last few weeks and it was what prompted me to excavate these events from my memory. Arguing about taste and preferences is about as close to a useless endeavor as I can think of. I happened to visit my old high school last weekend for an open house, it’s now a condominium where I actually lived for 12 years. I took these pictures of the central library:
And the Moshe Safde courthouse:
I can’t imagine not being more inspired by the library.
But I also can’t imagine liking fish; that doesn’t mean that I think that other people are lying when they say they do like fish, but it also doesn’t make fish taste any less nasty and disgusting to me. That said, some contemporary architecture, like the new courthouse or the Basketball Hall of Fame, are like swordfish, they’re not too fishy, which is to say they are not too “whatever it is I hate about some modern buildings”.
But this needs to be deconstructed a little bit. They are less offensive for somewhat different reasons. The courthouse does a good job of maintaining the warm feel of the elegant boulevard on which it sits both for the pedestrian and the motorist: a pretty amazing achievement. Day and night it really enhances its surroundings.
The Hall of Fame has no streetscape. The roadway it sits on is essentially a service road and an access corridor to an interstate. That this agglomeration of roadways severs the city from the waterfront is not the fault of the architects of this one structure, that decision was made decades ago. The hoophall is intended to be both an iconic structure creating an impression for people zooming by at 65 mph, and a modern sculpture representing both the sphere of the actual ball and the arc on which it travels. (And it’s a strip mall!)
There’s a difference between urbanism and architecture. I snapped this picture in Westfield a few weeks ago, long before I had even thought of writing this post, because it so well illustrates that significant point:
One of the four buildings is a fine example of prewar architecture. Of the other three the one with the closest thing to what one might call “design” is as vacant as the most beautifully designed building; it’s the two total pieces of crap, architecturally, which actually have tenants! As we walked along that side of the road, before we crossed and I took the picture, I hadn’t even noticed the disparity. Within a core neighborhood urbanism trumps architecture: Does it frame the street? Is it permeable? Does it perpetuate whatever syntaxes and grammars surround it?
I’m on the local historical commission, I live in an 1870 French Second Empire townhouse, I prefer traditional architecture, overall, to the International style, Deconstructivism, and Brutalism, but I do enjoy, from a distance and as sculpture, for example, the works of Santiago Calatrava, but I think they’d be a disaster on most downtown streets and in almost any walkable place.
To me, my most under-appreciated essay was the piece I wrote comparing Chuck Marohn and Michael Pollan. In essence they arrive at the same conclusions for the same reasons about two contemporary disasters in our society despite the fact that there might appear to be no connection between them. While the most entertaining critique of modern architecture I’ve seen, from Leon Krier, takes a very different extremely polemical tack; a less impassioned, alternative critique, also ends up aligning with the Marohn-Pollan assessment of development/food: In breaking down and atomizing what we did and could understand of the elements of building buildings we then used our fossil fuel engorged modern capacities to produce a completely new formulation which failed to integrate the more numinous, and ephemeral qualities which our limited knowledge overlooked.
We didn’t know what we didn’t know and so, much like industrial food pleases but doesn’t nourish, and sprawl facilitates but doesn’t fulfill, modern architecture stimulates, but it often alienates; individuals from the environment and itself from its surroundings. Like fast food and big box power centers we can survive a little bit here and there, any more than that is mortally dangerous.
Events are in control. Jim Kunstler has been predicting that this time would come for a decade or more and it feels as though it is finally coming to pass. The response on this end has been to contemplate where I am in all aspects of my life from physical and mental health to financial stability and food storage. Having assessed as many of those things as I could, and quite frankly feeling satisfied that I’ve done the best I can to be prepared given my relationships and responsibilities, it has been a time of leaning in and enjoying life.
My wife and I have taken a few daytime constitutionals and we’ve been to some events, and a restaurant or two, we’ve done some deep cleaning that’s been needed for a while, but more than anything else we’ve taken the time just to appreciate how lucky we are and how lucky we’ve been. The up-lighting on so many of Main Street’s most beautiful buildings and along Worthington Street on a quiet night with a surprisingly healthy number of other people perambulating around the downtown makes for a wonderful backdrop as we share with each other all of the exciting things going on in our lives.
In our lives much of the last 4 years felt like we were dealing with Wuhan coronaviruses, Iowa caucuses, stock market melt-ups, “not q.e.” liquidity injections, and impeachment melodramas, but everything has culminated in the most marvelous of purple patches where our best laid schemes have actually not “agleyed” much at all. My attitude has nearly always been to avoid any application where the perfect wasn’t the enemy of the good: Anything worth doing is worth doing with moderate effort and with very little attention to detail! Those things not conforming to this heuristic are best left to those stupid enough to take them on.
There are so many fatal flaws in all my plans that they kill one another off, generally leaving me more or less unscathed. For a long time I was wondering how long I could maintain the façade of competence, but having come this far I’m afraid that an actual community has taken up residence behind my metaphorical Potemkin Village.
It was really just an hypothesis that it might be cool to live in the Wild, Wild West of the corner of Maple and Union when I bought my house 10 years ago. Yeah, I’d lived in the neighborhood, but Classical is more like a gated community than an apartment building, and the apartments I had lived in downtown, 3 in all, were part of well run complexes; here, I was going to be both management and resident. One of the attorneys who sold me the property mistook me for a contractor at one of our walk-throughs and said that the “potential buyer” was nuts to move in here with two daughters; that gave me a $25,000 discount on the price when we sat down to negotiate an hour later.
Security was job one. I had to make the place look lived in again, and I had to get rid of all the oversized bushes which provided so many hiding places from the front of the house to the alleyway which runs beside it. The backdoor looked like it belonged on a farmhouse in some idyllic Midwestern community where no one locks their doors or cares if door frames are square.
Next was getting utilities and the city to accept that I was using the house as a residence and not an office; I made doubly sure not to bring any work home from school just in case. The city bought in right away, the gas company took a few weeks to come around, and it only took the electric company a year or so to finally get me an actual bill; it’s a good thing I was skeptical that this 1870 townhouse, without any solar panels, was a net zero user of electricity.
My first winter heating bills were over $1,000 a month. Turns out that windows that don’t close and a cathedral ceiling without any insulation are bad ideas in New England; who knew? I got replacements for the irreparably damaged top floor windows and spent the next summer listening to the Kunstlercast and putting up insulation.
From there on things were piecemeal until Elizabeth came into the picture and refocused my efforts. Since then the garden has taken shape, the basement apartment has risen from the ashes (some literal) of what I used to call Guantánamo, the upstairs has been finished, all the floors redone, all the bathrooms polished. The only thing still on the agenda apart from the continual process of maintenance on a 150 year old house is making the kitchen a bit more user friendly. I put it together from scratch and dent appliances, used cabinetry, and sidewalk style concrete as counter tops. It’s very much the kitchen of a dude whose cooking skills were, let us say “nascent”! Except for the stove, it all still works. I did place the cabinets so that I could reach the top shelf…and I’m 6′ tall; Liz is 5’2″. I still get the stuff on the top shelf.
If my plans for my retirement, or the Springfield run of “Marathon Man/I Am Legend” work out as well as my decision to take up residence here then I will be sitting pretty. Whatever the case what I’ve enjoyed more than anything else is having done it. There’s nothing more fun than playing by your own rules, doing everything wrong, living where you’re not supposed to, sending your kids to the schools they’re not supposed to attend, and all that; maybe it’s just me.
I came to the city because I wished to live deliberately, to front the most important issues of our society and see if I could not better understand them by engaging them and not, when I came to die, discover that I had avoided living.
If memory serves and, to be honest it probably doesn’t, the list I used to give my home search some direction was divided into “musts” and “prefers”. On the must side was a walkable neighborhood with access to public transit. The walkable thing ended up with me looking from the Main Street spine of the downtown and South End, up Fort Pleasant or Belmont by Forest Park and then down Sumner Avenue until just past the “X”. The Cozy Corner was, even with the housing price collapse of 2007, too rich for my blood, and there was something uncomfortably suburban for me about most of the homes my daughters and I looked at once we moved south of the Columbus statue.
My heart was downtown, and it was really only the park itself which drew me to the Forest Park neighborhood. Meanwhile downtown had the Quadrangle: I was single at the time and the constant parade of (what I hoped were) single moms was a draw. I was never a singles bar kind of guy, but I was glad that there were lots of clubs nearby too; the abstraction of their existence and my proximity to them was enough. Hockey was big. A handful of games a year was enough, but even at their low ebb the Falcons were significant to my decision making.
The Springfield Symphony and Symphony Hall mattered to me and filled a void. There was something about being in attendance at a performance of a particular piece of music and knowing that, at the scale of a symphony orchestra, this might constitute one of just a handful of times a work might be played this year or this decade even; it makes me feel a part of the story of a genre which has endured, but seems fragile.
What was missing was what I thought of even then as a missing middle. I can’t be so sure as to claim that invented the term, but I do recall that when I first heard it used by others in reference to housing in particular I knew that I had captured the concept when contemplating downtown Springfield. In retail there were Steiger’s and Johnson’s bookstore at one extreme of what was soon to become a nearly extinct form of multi story department stores in non superstar cities. At the other end there was CVS. Nothing in the middle.
Entertainment had the high-end made up of symphonies, some theater at city stage, the occasional big-time concert at the Civic Center and pro sports at one end and, well, getting drunk in the entertainment district on the other extreme; nothing middle brow like movies, or even bowling.
Even temporally there was a missing middle: On a Friday or Saturday there might be a handful of things going on, but heaven forbid you had some free time on a Wednesday evening, or just wanted a sandwich on a Tuesday after 5 p.m.. Lunch on a Sunday? Maybe there was a restaurant open at one of the hotels.
Housing seemed to be the one area with more that enough on both ends and in the middle: I would say homeless shelter through Loomis-Wesson mansion and everything from tenements, studios and one bedroom apartments through luxury condos and lofts pretty much covers the gamut. The price points are low throughout, except for the Section 8 stuff, I mean, if the tax payers are footing the bill why not charge a little more if you know you can get it?
This is where MGM comes in. As my wife and I were waiting to go into a burlesque show and I began to run through the…untruths…deceptions…falsehoods(?) embodied in the experience relative to what MGM said they would do in their negotiations with the city and the reality (a blogpost I’ve yet to find the energy to write): everything from the renovated (still empty) armory “castle” being “the centerpiece of the development” and the location of the “guaranteed to figure prominently in the design” skylight of the United Illuminating building being located at a corner of a lobby of an upper floor, to having to show tickets for an event on the premises where there would be “NO on campus ticketed events”(!) but I had to admit, apart from retail (which is a disaster of black hole proportions) MGM has completely solved the problem of the missing middle. Movies morning to night 7 days a week, food 24/7 at the South End Market, bowling and an albeit too small arcade, and ice skating for a few months a year.
From a very selfish standpoint I have to admit that, even when I wished for movie theaters, and I did, they were never located a block from my house! I ended up choosing the row house on Maple Street primarily because it ticked all the boxes on the “must” list, and was super cheap; but being near the center of a circle enclosing the Italian shops of the South End, my daughters’ high school, the Quadrangle, and the Mass Mutual Center, and Symphony Hall I thought, right, it isn’t IN any one of the best places, but it is proximate to all of them. Little did I know an EF4 tornado was about to open up a gaping hole that was just the right size to squeeze in a movie complex, albeit connected to a casino.
This neighborhood isn’t headed in any one direction. Its undulations are less like tides and more like what you get with a series of belly flops and cannon balls in a backyard pool. I’d be lying if I said I had any idea where we’re headed next. Maybe everything is headed for a little timeout, who knows? Boom or bust, the Wuhan coronavirus, Tom Brady leaving the Patriots, Bernie Sanders winning in Iowa? Anything can happen. Except having some useful, reasonably priced, locally owned retail establishments downtown. Let’s not get crazy.
A zero or even negative interest rate environment, on its face at least, screams out for developers to “build, build, build, build” (“That’s the story”), and according to reports that has happened in lots of major markets, but here in the provinces nearly everything feels stalled once again. I’m not even referring to the dozen or so demo’ed buildings which we were told would become movie theaters, restaurants, art centers, hotels, or apartment buildings; I’m talking about developments which have been announced, some multiple times, as having funding in place to begin, only for actual work never to materialize.
The most significant, and perhaps most bizarre of these is the MGM/Opal/not Opal/Picknelly/Not Picknelly Court Square Building project. MGM has a commitment under the Host Community Agreement to build over 50 units of market rate housing in proximity to its casino. There was talk that these apartments would actually open for residents before gaming would begin on the casino floor; instead we’ve yet to hear if construction on these contractually obligated units will even begin before MGM celebrates its 2nd anniversary. It has been written many times that a finalized plan is only a month or two away. Apparently market rate units to downtown Springfield are what cold fusion is to energy: “It’s the future…and always will be!”
Meanwhile another property which was begun as a commercial to residential conversion by another developer (It stalled, then MGM picked it up as a possible solution to creating market rate housing, and then sold back to the city) is sitting as dormant as can be at the corner of Chestnut and State. Both the original developer and MGM reportedly did some serious site prep which made converting the former insurance and school department building more easily transformable into housing; not enough apparently.
A entire series of building directly across the street from MGM have been announced as becoming hotels, restaurants, and shops, but everything has stalled and so nearly every storefront facing MGM along Main Street is empty. These are some great buildings, which combine architectural beauty and solid urbanism.
One last tornado victim sits next to the new CVS on Main Street. It has been bought, sold back, and auctioned off in the last few years with announcements made about local developers moving local businesses in in short order but, there it sits.
Surprisingly, I haven’t heard anything about the Chicopee Savings building in years. Garbage architecture, as you can see:
Across the street from my house sits the Female Seminary Building. When Springfield announced the beginning of free public schooling for all boys back in the early 1800’s, local citizens were outraged that girls were not included and built this structure so rapidly that it was ready to educate young women by the time the public schools were open for young men. Happily, within a few years it was made obsolete with the inclusion of girls in public schools. From that time until just 15 years ago or so it served many different functions, but then it was left vacant. After some work by the Springfield Preservation Trust it was sold to Develop Springfield to be part of their Lower Maple Business Park. When Develop Springfield’s most active leader departed Springfield, mostly because, as this essay demonstrates, the pace of development in Springfield is measured like the movement of tectonic plates, there was a large press conference announcing funding to convert the seminary into a shared work space. Two years later the most prominent changes have been effected by neighborhood kids using piles of leftover bricks as Legos and wood planks from the back deck as bike ramps!
Further up Maple Street an apartment building and some of the city’s most impressive brownstones have been given CDBG money and have been awarded CPC funding for housing and historic preservation from local property tax dollars, but no obvious work has been done in at least a year.
To finish the list I have to include Mass Development’s empty building on Stearns Square. A half a dozen or so establishments have been attracted to the new dining district around the square, and Worthington Street, Duryea Way, and the square itself have never looked better, but the giant linchpin meant to unite them all sits looking empty and forlorn. The challenge of filling such a huge space when so many much smaller storefronts are available for making much smaller and much safer bets must be enormous, especially with so much of the area’s focus falling to the Trinity Block:
That was because even after it was presented as a fait accompli (a recurring theme) it then nearly dropped stone-cold dead. Resurrecting it left very little oxygen for anything else in the neighborhood.
This is not to say that nothing has been done. After more than a decade of promises both the Civic Tower:
The Zorzi block has a CVS:
The Dave’s Furniture parcel IS becoming a Wahlburgers:
The Underwood Building and the Shean Block haven’t been torn down for parking!
The Willys-Overland building is being transformed into apartments:
Wayfinders is finishing their building on Main Street, Platform C is finally complete at Union Station, and it’s too early to be frustrated by the lack of progress on the Red Lion Inn. I’m sure, given a little time, enough nothing will be done that its developers will meet expectations for frustrating us locals with an immeasurable lack of progress.
I’ve read in many places to beware the grand sweeping explanation for all things; “A theory which explains everything explains nothing”. What I would propound is not a clean mathematical hypothesis which can be proven or disproven but, what is even worse, just a sense of any idea which exists as an underlying truth. It is the reason a coffee shop in one community sparks a revival and another, just as quaint, just as folksy, stumbles and fumbles on and on and on but never engenders a renaissance. It is the reason one campaign for revitalization strikes a chord and is remembered as the beginning of a new day in some benighted city, while a second becomes yet another in a long list of punchlines used to mock the pretense of a shithole.
What is this all encompassing existent? Retirement. Not only the concept that we all spend our working lives in pursuit of the dream that we may one day become nothing but consumers in the capitalist utopia, but the overarching idea that all but a handful of places, and most of them located in Florida and Arizona, are unworthy of receiving us as we achieve the nirvana of our species: active uselessness. With that everyplace not deemed worthy of being a worry-less playground for septuagenarians is nothing but a purgatory where doing and making and being are the punishment and only the much worshipped (Disney) vacation represents a momentary liberation from the torture of Tantalus.
And if your current, temporary place in the world has no ultimate meaning, why grant it even proximate meaning? Your true community, the one which awaits you at The Villages, is that which will bring you total consciousness.
And that sweeps everyplace from Youngstown, Ohio to Schenectady, New York on to the rubbish heap of civilization. If heaven already awaits…elsewhere…then your current “material shell”, you know, the place where you may spend decades with your family, and perhaps your parents and your parents parents spent decades with theirs, is nothing but a way station, a temporary shelter from the elements which deserves, perhaps at best, enough care only to keep it from collapse while you seek protection underneath.
This revelation sprang from finding myself, unexpectedly, in a room with an advocate and activist for the revival of dying places. To nearly everyone else present the topic was a bizarre tangent from our daily operations, but I found it fascinating. What was most fascinating, astounding even, was that this former mayor of one of the Rust Belt’s fastest shrinking cities, called to Washington D.C. to assist all such cities, had now come to greater Hartford to take part in its turnaround and, with total awareness of the absolute need of that city to be seen as the center of the revival of the entire region, this man had chosen to take up permanent residence…in its most prosperous satellite community.
If there’s one thing cities need it’s more people on the sidelines telling us what to do; successful suburbanites with absolutely no skin in the game who earn their fortunes telling us how to make our current residents more successful, and how to attract more successful people to our communities…just…not them.
Think of it: As a former mayor of a struggling city he has to know that what Hartford needs more than anything else is prosperous people living there who care about it. Not being willing, even temporarily, to live inside the city’s boundaries shows that, by his own measure, success means NOT living there, and not being seen as rooted there. Which means not only that Hartford is a charity case, but that his commitment to the region runs as deep as his next paycheck.
When you run through the list of significant people in the Hartford region, I wonder, is it the case that, much like Springfield, everyone but the politicians who have no choice lives somewhere other than the city? I wouldn’t be surprised. And do they live somewhere else because Hartford is deemed unworthy of being a place of ultimate destination?
What are the qualities, the characteristics, the values, the rationalizations which can make someone so blind to the importance of embodying what you claim to support? What if I didn’t even live in Springfield? What if I wrote these essays from Orem, Utah? What would it say about my actual belief in the ideas I was espousing? Whether it’s Hartford or Springfield, Dayton or Syracuse, shouldn’t it just become an understanding, a part of the zeitgeist, that a new economic development director, or the president of a cultural association, or the head of a philanthropic organization will live in your city? It shouldn’t even have to be in the contract, it’s like expecting the Pope to be Catholic, the military to attack foreign nations, or firemen to put OUT fires.
When is it going to stop? Have boards of directors grown so accustomed to hypocrisy that they just accept it? Or do they not live in these cities either?
The other people who were forced to listen to this particular speech with me, not one of whom had any interest in the topic, all noticed the screaming duplicitousness of the speaker who one minute called on all of us to come to grips with the inequality of opportunity which held back this region and then in the next breath admitted that his commitment to that end was to give speeches regarding it and take his paycheck therefrom and get as far as f#<€ away as he could from confronting that reality.
It’s not a Superstar Place, nor are there palm trees, or desert golf courses, and therefore it should expect no more than mercenary services from people who view themselves as too good for these communities they serve. If you live in a place where the transit chief takes a train, or your community development boss lives in the community count yourself lucky, you must live in a place which is actually considered ok to view as worthy of a decent person’s care and affection. The rest of us just have to hope that one day we have the chance to move to The Villages.
Richard Dawkins describes how we have evolved to exist in what he calls “middle world”. The properties of immeasurably small and incomprehensibly large matter never came into play in terms of the survival of our ancestors and so, unlike the properties of matter in middle world, understanding their behavior is nearly impossible for us to the point of being ridiculously absurd.
I bought my home 10 years ago for $90,000. Zillow says I could get anywhere from $168,000 to $190,000 for it today. The city says it’s worth $140,000. I can’t imagine getting anywhere anywhere near that much for it if I put it on the market. I wouldn’t pay that much for it, not because I don’t love it, but because I just wouldn’t want to shell out that much for a home. I’d rather focus my efforts on annoying my realtor and finding a place for, well, less.
My brain is attuned to my own little economic middle world. Even imagining putting down $365,000 as only a down payment for a $1.8 million 1,500 square foot condo, which would entail payments of nearly $10,000 a month for mortgage, taxes, insurance, and condo fees for 30 years, describes a reality which is completely beyond my ken.
While it isn’t the circumstance Johnny describes, I suppose it might be clever to buy such a place in hopes that in a year you could turn as much profit as it takes me 10 years to earn as a high school teacher; and if it crashes and burns you kiss the cash you’ve invested goodbye and move on to the next wild speculative gamble. To do it under the assumption that you could keep earning 5 to 6 times the median family income in the country for over a quarter of a century, without interruption, in a field (“tech”) which by definition advances and changes at lightning speed, shows either remarkable confidence, a reckless lack of caution, or both.
Back in my world I can’t help but think of what the $365,000 down payment alone could do. You could buy a pretty decent palace outright for cash, and have a good quarter of a million dollars left to do whatever. I’m sure someone in the tech field could find a pleasant job for $40-$50 grand a year and, with monthly home expenses in the hundreds of dollars, not the thousands, have enough to live whatever lifestyle you chose. And that’s understating the tech opportunities here; the Hartford, New Haven, Springfield metros actually are above average in that regard. I get that there’s much more to life than money, or even stability but, wow. Boston is an hour and a half away, NYC is between 2-3 hours away and there are a dozen trains going both ways every day.
But I get it. Middle worlds like mine are as imperceptible as a quark to people in the Bay Area or Toronto, in the same way the Bay Area and Toronto are as incomprehensible to me as the physics of an astral cloud or a black hole.
In my world even the ideas that a home should be up to 3x yearly earnings, or take up as much as 1/4 of your yearly gross income seem insanely extravagant. I read a piece last week at ZeroHedge recommending a 1x earnings test and, I think, no more than a 15% drain on net income: That seems more like it. But impossible. Unless you’re willing to live…in the kind of places the virtues, and vices, of which this website was intended to describe. I suppose a problem with San Francisco and Toronto is that there are no high quality “bad” neighborhoods left to move into; an idea I can’t comprehend as a resident of the greater Springfield area.
In all seriousness, Johnny’s post is one of the most interesting I’ve read in months, and I include my own! When I read articles at CityLab, Planetizen, ZeroHedge, or The New York Times about housing costs or homelessness on the West Coast I’m always concerned about the political slant of the author in trying to promote this or that agenda.
I can best describe my incredulity by mentioning the way network television covers snow storms here on the East Coast: Every one is this unprecedented disaster threatening the end of civilization as we know it leaving millions to suffer in the wake of its destruction! Except, no it’s not. It’s snow. You shovel it. They plow it. It melts. And it’s not only not a big deal, it’s pretty and it’s fun and you go sledding or build a snow man or you sit in the house for a day or two. I delivered over 100 newspapers on the morning of the Blizzard of ’78. It took me 4 times as long, but school was cancelled so, no big deal. My jet-black mutt Charlie followed me the entire time and we had the time of our lives, and everyone along Tiffany Street got their “Morning Union”.
But if regular people with regular jobs are plunking down 1/3 of a million dollars as a down payment for a nice little condo AND just outside the door there actually are people living in tents and defecating on the streets then I suppose I owe the editors of the aforementioned news outlets an apology. Wow. That really is crazy. All the tropes apply, “the market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent”, etc., but I can’t imagine NOT selling in that environment and moving…somewhere. Maybe not New England if culture and quaintness aren’t your thing, but at least Appalachia or Nebraska or something! Ohio or Indiana, right? Missourri!
Let’s go with, to me, the way too high crazy numbers and multiply the median income of a given place by three. Every nickel over that for housing costs is a bubble, sorry, even if it’s been sustained for 40 years, it’s going to crash. Get out…the call is coming from inside the house!
Our house. Purchase price, 2/3 our yearly gross income. Mortgage, taxes, insurance<10% net income. With a 15 year mortgage. The Springfield Strategy.
The holidays provide more opportunities than any other time of year to meet new people and get a feel for the zeitgeist, but I have to remind myself that if my goal is to do that kind of research I have to not ruin the sample by giving away my biases. Last night actually provided some really interesting information precisely because I came to a conversation late and closed my mouth throughout most of it. It revealed an extremely positive attitude toward Springfield the twist being that both families lived in “Long-mortgage”, the city’s wealthiest suburb, more at the wife’s insistence than anything else.
I’ve delved into these waters before: Women experience the city differently; women are given greater responsibility for child rearing and are judged more harshly regarding it; auto-centric suburban living facilitates the purchase and transport of consumer goods regarding which women are targeted by marketing. Beyond that, a recent article at CityLab noted that the most oft repeated Christmas movie trope on the Hallmark Channel is “woman leaves city for small town and finds true love”; the irony is that all of the romantic dating scenes are filmed in walkable urban locations which are defined as small town centers.
This brings me to yet another pop culture reference, albeit a more obscure one. (So obscure I can’t find it) it’s a video of a good looking guy in a bar who, while hitting on a girl, makes it pretty clear he’s been using social media and the Internet to stalk her; but he’s cute so his target responds positively. Seconds later a more average guy just says “hello” to the same girl and she sprays him with pepper spray and runs off as though she’s been attacked. That is in so many ways the status of the out of fashion city: its virtues are ignored and its vices are magnified or even just imagined.
On the bright side, it’s still true that visitors from out of town, especially performers who are in and out so quickly they don’t have time to realize that they’re not supposed to be impressed by the city, its streets, and its architecture, will express real admiration for the place. A Beatles cover band, the Classical Mystery Tour, did a show sponsored by MGM at Symphony Hall; it was the final night of a three day, three city New England tour. All three of the band’s front men took the time to mention how amazing the venue was, and how lucky we were to have such a beautiful space to experience their performance.
In a real change from just a handful of years ago when similar comments from performers actually were responded to with derision, and openly so, these comments actually were not only greeted with applause, but one brave soul (not me) actually shouted…non-ironically: “Wooo…Springfield!”
There may be hope after all. Happy New Year.