Springfield is the second gayest city in America. it is clear that the survey which gave this result was far from scientific, and it would be easy to quibble with both the methodology and the outcome, but it is a fact that the gay community in Springfield is active and significant.
I remember being in front of a roomful of high school students in Connecticut the day after the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision on gay marriage and having two or three boys in the class kid me about being from “The Gay State”. I told them that I had never been more proud to be a Bay Stater. A girl in that class later wrote in a paper which I had assigned that she had a girlfriend. Subsequent to that we happened to be talking and it became clear that my comment about being proud of my home state had let her know that she was free in my class to reveal that part of who she really was. It felt great. I can’t remember exactly what the assignment was, but inasmuch as it was a mid-level Spanish class I assume it was about “what you did last weekend” or some such thing and the student in question had spent the weekend in Northampton with her girlfriend.
I have a love hate relationship with Northampton, Massachusetts. It is a spectacular tiny little city just 20, oh! so destructive minutes from the charred remains of my (much larger, much poorer, much more ACTUALLY diverse) hometown.
When I was a kid Northampton was an inconsequential shell of a former small industrial city like Palmer, or Westfield, or any number of decaying northeastern industrial towns. When the genuine urbanity of Springfield was evaporating, and the challenges of adapting to the new demographic realities of the 70’s and 80’s were slamming into larger cities like Springfield and Hartford, Northampton provided a safe place for wealthy middle class white people to get their fix of urbanity and “safe” diversity. It may be that most struggling cities have a similar faux city in their periphery. I know Hartford has West Hartford at least. I would be very interested to hear if that is the case in Rochester, or Columbus, or Scranton.
Having said that, Northampton is a beautiful place. It really doesn’t have anywhere near as much of the stunning architecture of generations past as Springfield does, but what, mostly more humble, historic architecture it has is dignified and well maintained. Northampton benefited from benign neglect in the period from the 1950’s to the 1980’s when most of the damage that’s been done to cities was done. It is the inverse of Hartford, which as the capitol of a very wealthy state has been “developed” into near oblivion.
I have to admit here that I’m hoping to rile some of my readers. “Northampton is GORGEOUS”, its architecture is STUNNING”. Really? More than Springfield’s? Look up! Springfield may have lost more history than Northampton ever had, but it also still has more left. (There’s the “hate” in the love hate) Noho may not have caused Springfield’s decline, but it has profited by it and, more importantly, it now presents an obstacle to my city coming back. If people were a bit more starved for walkable urbanity in the region then, given the nationwide tendencies of gentrification and revitalization of mid size cities, there would be a much stronger push for the restoration of, for example, downtown retail.
The problem is it is exactly the kind of quirky unique retail that tends to be the harbinger of an urban renaissance which already has a showplace in Northampton. And it does it on a scale which suburbanites can handle, and without the racial and economic diversity that scares them to death.
On the other hand we have this survey which says Springfield is among the gayest cities in the United States. There are a number of factors which have made this so. One of them is Springfield’s proximity to Northampton. Too small to be considered a city by the publication which published the list it is, along with Provincetown and San Francisco, one of the most proudly gay communities in the United States if not the world. Springfield benefits from this now because it possesses an enormous stock of beautiful historic homes and condominiums available at dirt cheap prices. As someone who has been active in civic associations and boards I can say that the gay community is the bedrock of a substantial number of them in numerous neighborhoods throughout the city. I don’t know where these organizations would be without them in fact.
The truth is however that the presence of the gay community is also a symptom of the city’s decline. I do not mean that in any causal way let me be clear. I am firm in my belief that it is the perception of inadequate public schools, mostly a byproduct of what was a well intentioned but disastrous forced integration, which keeps the middle class out of the city. Given the fact that fewer gay couples have children this not only doesn’t discourage them, but creates the price disparity of which they can take advantage to live, as I do ” well beyond their means well within their means”. If the city of Springfield could be a totally healthy and vibrant community made up exclusively of gays…and the members of my family…I would be content. As I have stated before I really don’t care about the relative diversity or lack thereof in my neighborhood I just want to live in a healthy urban environment!
(For those who would say that it is diversity which makes a vibrant urban environment I would say go to Spain, Portugal, or Italy. In many cases plenty of vibrancy…almost no diversity. In the US it does seem that there is some correlation. )
The problem for the City of Homes (One of Springfield’s nicknames) is that the gay community is no different from the general population of greater Springfield: They disproportionally go to Northampton for dining, shopping, and entertainment. To achieve critical mass the city needs to “be” more and to “have” more. The demand can be induced perhaps, making the pie bigger as it were, but to the degree it is a zero sum game Springfield’s gain may only come at Northampton’s loss.