A prophet is not without honor, except in his own hometown? Perhaps, but sometimes a hometown is not without honor, except in the eyes of locals. In listening to a recent interview of Chuck Marohn with, as it turns out, a fairly local interviewer I was delighted to hear that Chuck, in describing the different challenges facing communities in the United States, was consistently placing Springfield in the position of being just the type of place that could be, in his words, “weeded, and watered” into becoming a truly “strong town”. This he compared with cities in California which would require a total reconfiguration and transformation.
In contrast the interviewer, who lives only a few miles away, did not ask even the briefest follow up question about what is by far the largest city in his own region. Not once. Before I delve too deeply into this I want to say that, although I had never before heard of Ken Rose I am deeply impressed with the depth and breadth of his interests as represented by the quality and quantity of interviews he has undertaken. The archives of the Ken Rose show are immense and I have listened to all or part of 4 other interviews since listening to his most recent conversation with Chuck Marohn. That said, I can’t imagine that an interviewer in Amherst, even a recent arrival, doesn’t have some knowledge of Springfield. He says that he has never been to the city, but Amherst does sit within the sphere of influence of Springfield. Local television, radio, and print media, cultural institutions, educational institutions, and commercial entities overlap one another between Springfield and Amherst.
At one point in the interview Duluth, Minnesota is mentioned. In a lot of ways Duluth is a Springfield of the western Great Lakes. It is a city which, though still significant, has declined in the last 50 years. As a matter of fact Duluth has lost 3 times the percentage of population that Springfield has since its peak. It seems to have a spectacular history which one can still find in its architecture, much like Springfield. On the topic of Duluth, the declining rust belt city thousands of miles away, the interviewer waxes poetic and claims to feel a fondness though, it seems, he has visited it only once: It is so much harder to love “the problem child” in your own neighborhood. He breaks your windows, tortures your cat, tips your trash barrels over. The troubled kid a few blocks over has the gleam in his eye, the energetic footfall of a person on a mission, and the sass of an independently minded person…and he’s going to tip over someone else’s trash cans.
As the interview progresses Chuck (for whom, yes, Springfield is the distant problem child) time and time again references the City of Homes. He points to it as an interesting place, a special place, a place at one extreme of the continuum of cities that will need to adjust to a new fiscal and energy reality. It is a city with few hipsters, like many a mid size post-industrial northern city, but with a rump of viable, practical hipster associated enterprises. The difference? These places sell cappuccino and espresso for $3 a cup, in a porcelain mug no less, a cannoli for $1.75, and a meatball grinder for $5. It’s affordable.
When he talks about Puerto Ricans creating viable economies in places abandoned by others he is referencing Springfield’s North End. The streetscape is rugged but people oriented. 1-5 story buildings, all with consistently appropriate ground floor uses, “second story-ness”, mixed uses and most importantly, a neighborhood which exists to provide for the needs of the residents of that neighborhood. It’s easy to miss it. Take a trip on street view from Memorial Square down Main Street until you reach the freeway underpass. There are some missing teeth, a few buildings which display too much automobile orientation for my liking, and some tell tale signs of extreme poverty, but that just makes the street’s inherent vibrancy that much more impressive.
It’s good to get a pair of fresh eyes on your town. It helps you see it anew. But if you’ve ever wondered and marveled at the qualities of the under-appreciated city you visited on business last April…perhaps there’s something similar going on right in your back yard.