I found myself awake at an early hour this morning. With the plans my wife and I still have to attend the Big E I thought I might take advantage of the time and write another post this weekend. As I waited for water to boil for coffee and for Liz’s homemade bread to toast I stared out the back window; toward my garden, toward Main Street, toward the tower of the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, toward the Basketball Hall of Fame, and toward Six Flags New England.
I was contemplating the theme of my post which was to be, which is to be, on the signs of gentrification in the neighborhood. At that moment a small car, a hatchback I think, went rolling down Union Street toward Main Street. There is more early morning traffic on Sundays than there used to be before the opening of MGM, but not so much that I didn’t particularly notice this automobile. It’s an interesting thing that our mind will make every effort to connect what our senses perceive at a given moment whether or not they are connected for at the moment the car passed I heard, seemingly emanating from the vehicle I was watching, a loud pop; almost a bang.
Within perhaps 5 minutes there were two police cars looking, I assume, for shell casings in the parking lot behind the Ambassador and along Union Street. A gunshot then, and not a backfire. I’m the furthest thing from an expert on identifying gunshots, or car backfires for that matter but my guess is that the Shotspotter system the city has in place is able to distinguish one from another. The police cars have left. There is no apparent damage from whatever it was that transpired so, gentrification.
Two mutually confounding questions invade my mind. Is it possible to gentrify a neighborhood where an event like this is even moderately commonplace? How could anyone be against a process to transform a neighborhood where an event like this is even moderately commonplace?
For me the second question jumps out first. There are signs of improvement all around. Even the much belittled development of the new CVS is actually looking quite good, quite contemporary, which is to say not at all like a CVS. At least 4 multi-family properties within shouting (or shooting!) distance of my house (two more police cruisers drive by and a drunk carefully leaves the contents of his brown paper bag carefully against a tree in front of the Solomon Merrick building) are being rehabilitated, renovated and improved. Two of them look to be getting funds from the CPC for historic preservation and affordable housing, another historic building is getting some final infusions of cash from the same source before a multi-million dollar co-working project is continued.
It is the smallest of these changes which interests me in this post. The Mapleview building has been sold twice in the last few years without much change taking place. At least three families we have known for years were still living there, and a family we have come to know in the last two years was the closest neighbor to our garden. That has changed now, fairly suddenly. I have been inside a number of the apartments for varying reasons; apart from their size I was not impressed. They were run down, grimy, and everything from the floors to the appliances and the fixtures looked out of date. (Another cruiser with its lights flashing and some random shouting)
At just about the same time two of our neighbors announced they were moving out because the rent was going up, and this info with these photographs appeared on Zillow:
We had noticed the new windows getting installed primarily because one of the old ones had fallen from its position and crashed onto East Park Street. The 5 story drop made quite an impression.
Our neighbors from the first floor had been quite unique. The children were clearly intellectually disabled and the mother as well. The father seemed to function at a higher level. Collectively they were the most community minded family we had ever had here. They helped clear the ice away on East Park Street in the winter. They picked up trash around the block. They kept an eye on our garden. When we shared our cucumbers, our peppers, our lettuce, and our peaches with them the wife gave us tiny pots with scallions in them to transplant in our garden. They told us they were moving to the North End at the start of September. Their old appliances are out on the fire escape as I write these words; being replaced with stainless steel models eventually, but cleared out now to re-do the hardwood floors.
At least two other landings have old appliances on them.
Mapleview was deteriorating. This investment will only continue if people are willing to pay the $1,200 a month rent that’s being asked. Not crazy for a three bedroom apartment with heat and hot water included despite the lack of parking and the 5 story walk-up. Will a first floor unit fetch even more?
The father and I had a handful of long conversations. He wanted a garden like the one I had. He didn’t hate the neighborhood, but he wanted a more convivial atmosphere. He didn’t understand why people would complain that he would place a giant speaker on the fire escape hooked up by Bluetooth to a computer that would blast Christmas music in July (his daughter loved it), reggaetón classics, and, when we were out and about, classic rock from the 70’s and 80’s. We never complained despite the fact that at times I didn’t want to be serenaded with The Eye of the Tiger while watering the Swiss chard. My guess is others in the building complained, and not about the reggaetón!
They had lived in Puerto Rico, Bridgeport, and New Haven I think before moving here. Their remaining family moved in after Hurricane Maria. The grandfather was in a wheelchair and would shout abuse until he got his coffee, or his dinner, or whatever he might have dropped picked up. They let homeless people store their clothes on the fire escape and they would offer them coffee and tea when they came to change their clothes. They complained about people living under their deck, in the stairwell to the basement. They were good at drawing lines regarding acceptable and unacceptable behavior. They will be missed.
They certainly wouldn’t have been the first people I’d have removed from the block. Their past, however, would indicate that they weren’t long for this place in any case. If the new owners get renters willing to pay more than $1000 to rent an apartment in downtown Springfield it could mean that dozens and dozens of buildings which are currently undergoing demolition by neglect just might be saved. In a walkable neighborhood well served by transit. That could bring businesses to cater to residents with enough income to sustain them. That could bring infill development which would multiply all of these effects geometrically.
The alternative is no place left for anyone to live anywhere here, all of the resources used to develop these very productive places are wasted, and, given the otherwise dominant development pattern, more people will live in automobile oriented, sprawling horizontal developments.
It isn’t a zero sum game, but there can be net winners and losers. Government has funded and is funding the rehabilitation of thousands of affordable units within a 5 minute walk from my house. Now the market is engaged in doing the same thing, but with what could become so called market rate housing. Success is far from assured. $1,200 is a lot of money around here. There are lots of jobs, and lots of amenities, and the best public transportation in the region. Of course I have mixed feelings, but this process is a necessary one, at least from my perspective.
I wonder if the new neighbors will like peaches?