I have to be honest and upfront about this. I am thrilled that some rinky-dink website labeled Springfield as the worst place to live in the United States. Bragging is usually viewed as unseemly and indecorous, but when it comes in response to insult it can be forgiven as necessary.
So here goes. Not only is my hometown not the worst place to live in America, when practical considerations are taken into account, it may very well be the absolute best place to live. I…am truly mediocre. I am a public school teacher and, together with my self-employed wife we earn a solidly middle class income, nothing more. The lifestyle I am about to describe must be understood from that perspective or what I am about to express has no illustrative power whatsoever. The point I will strive to make is not that downtown Springfield is the most culturally rich, gastronomically diverse, and educationally advanced place in the United States, but that given the financial limitations most people live under it provides opportunities for at least as splendiferous a life as an average person could hope for anywhere.
Having recently refinanced my home and having shortened the term of the loan by 15 years my monthly mortgage payment has soared such that, together with my property taxes and insurance, it amounts to just over $1,000 a month. In an average month that’s over 10% of our net monthly income. Now, all that gets us is just under 4,000 square feet of French Second Empire Victorian brownstone at the intersect of the downtown and the South End neighborhoods. I have to put up with the immensely high ceilings, the chandeliers, the marble fireplaces, and the intricately designed hardwood floors that came with the original cost which set me back well into the five figures. I’m already starting to feel bad for those of you who pay more in property taxes than I pay for, well, everything.
You get what you pay for, though, right? Those property taxes go, among other things, towards funding the “awful Springfield Public Schools”. My experience and that of my children has actually backed up what any thoughtful analysis (Here, here, here, and here)of the data regarding the Springfield schools would show: that it is an excellent school system, perhaps one of the best anywhere, dealing with educating a cohort of young people who must overcome the obstacles of poverty and, in some cases, English language learning. My daughters who both recently graduated from Commerce High School, ostensibly one of the worst schools in the state, both received such generous academic scholarships to attend college that I have never had to make a single tuition payment. My stepdaughter entered Milton Bradley Elementary School last year as a kindergartener not knowing how to read a single word and now, two months into 1st grade, is reading Macbeth with no difficulty whatsoever. (Not an exaggeration)
Two years ago my stepdaughter would walk to preschool at the Community Music School of Springfield and, if she so chooses, she could continue right on walking to school every day until she walked out of A.I.C with her Ph.D 15 years or so from now. Aside from the schools, and apart from the amazing children’s room at the Central Library, all of the opportunities afforded by the museums, and the Community Music School and the programs on offer there for children of all ages, there are Dream Studios for dance and drama, and the YMCA for everything the YMCA does (and what doesn’t it do?).
Living where we do we have had a tornado clip the house and do a tiny bit of damage, and,like all of the region, we had to overcome the hardships created by the freak Halloween snowstorm of 2011. Well, truth be told, living in a place with all underground utilities we never lost power. Not for a second. Not even my clock radio was blinking. In the 5 years we’ve lived in this particular house downtown we have never lost power. For us the primary inconvenience of the autumn snowmageddon had to do with taking in those who live in the world of above ground power lines.
To get back to the other 90% of our income, the big question is, what to do with it? It’s more difficult a question than you might think. There are so many cultural and entertainment opportunities here that don’t cost a thing that we sometimes find ourselves paying even when we don’t have to. Case in point, the Springfield Museums. As a city resident I can go to any one of their museums absolutely free of charge, but my family and I have joined as members, you know, just because. The collection is free to observe, lectures are free, shows are free, arts and crafts activities are free…but sometimes we have to pay for special exhibits. Ouch! There goes 10 bucks.
Apart from those five museums there is the (also free, doesn’t anybody want my money!!!!) Armory Museum and its horribly under appreciated grounds and the not at all free Basketball Hall of Fame (Finally, somebody willing to gouge me). All of this is located in an area with a higher “Walk Score” (88) than New York City (87.5) or Boston (80) and some of the most beautiful buildings in the world.
That’s it? That’s all you got? 7 museums (only 6 of which are free to residents) and a few nice buildings? Not exactly. The MassMutual Center is home to two professional sports franchises, the Falcons and the Armor, whose games can be attended by a family of 4 for much less than a single ticket to see any team in Boston or New York. Yes, the Bruins and Celtics (maybe) could destroy “our” teams head to head, the difference is when they play here I can actually afford to see it! I go to at least a half dozen games a year and sometimes I pay for up to 10 other people…you know, like paying for one obstructed view seat down the right field line for a game at Fenway. If only the “Citizens Against Nearly Everything” hadn’t wrecked our chances of having a mini-Fenway instead of a gruesome strip mall in the North End!
Back to reality. The only other options for getting rid of our money in exchange for culture and entertainment are at Symphony Hall, City Stage, Theodore’s, and occasionally, the Paramount. The only things on offer there are plays, musicals, lectures, concerts, and the odd comedian or two. In the last month I’ve only been able to get to the Bill Maher show, the Springfield Symphony’s accompaniment of the 1931 version of Frankenstein, the Symphony’s gala opening, and Godspell.
Then there are the festivals: Mattoon Street, The Pancake Breakfast, The Parade of the Big Balloons, July 4th. Spectacular.
I completely forgot about the Thursday night concerts!
Dining options are limited. Among the three dozen or so establishments that I can think of off the top of my head we’re limited (in walking distance now) to Chinese, Italian, Cajun, German, Lebanese, Caribbean, Indian, and Mexican as far as ethnic cuisines go, a couple of steak places, a half dozen traditional American places, three (thank goodness only three) national chains,and at least 10 different places to get a sandwich. My recommendations are Lamb Boti Kebab Masala at Panjabi Tadka, Hummachos at Nadim’s, the house salad with any pizza at Red Rose, the shaved steak “burger” and the Brie plate at Plan B, the pho at Samuel’s, the fireball breakfast panini at Hot Table, the chorizo breakfast wrap at Mexitalia, the Bratwurst at 1600 Cerveceria, and almost anything at Chef Wayne’s Big Mamou.
Come to think of it, living the life I live on the salary I make doesn’t give me too much to complain about…and what fun is that? Living here does stink! Somebody get me out of this hell hole! Which way to Plano, Texas? I bet life there will give me plenty to complain about.