The mistakes we’ve made in the last few years pale in comparison to the clusterfuck of the fifties through the early seventies, but just being better than the worst won’t be good enough to turn this thing around. It was preceding generations which chose to build highways on stilts through our downtowns and cut our greatest cities off from their waterfronts. They bulldozed entire neighborhoods of high quality buildings to replace them with a few artless rectangles only their architects could call buildings. They de-funded intercity and intra-city rail nationwide. Springfield didn’t make the decision to move the American economy away from manufacturing, a local strength, and toward financialization.
Locally, people cared more about backyard pools than maintaining public parks, they let the grand, historic schools that their parents and grandparents built with great pride rot and fester rather than pay another nickel in property taxes. I can’t blame them en masse for the effort to desegregate schools, but the consequences of that still ripple through our community whatever the good intentions of those who sought to promote it; the simple fact is that it resulted in schools that are no more integrated, and communities which are far more isolated.
We’ve been swimming against the tide for decades making mistakes no worse than most other communities while at the same time dealing with the movement of people from east to west, from north to south, and from city to suburb which has been taking place since the end of World War II. In fairness, a now much poorer city has schools, parks, and libraries in better condition than it did when I was growing up in the seventies. But dwelling on the past and pointing fingers won’t fix what needs to be fixed.
Whatever the mistakes which have been made, we are still left with the infrastructure, the architecture, the location, and the amenities of a top class provincial city. The Romans would recognize the genius of our use of local topography to facilitate the delivery of the highest quality freshwater to our citizens. In the balance of the classical and the vernacular in our buildings we have, if anything, such an abundance of the classical that more vernacular might well improve the aesthetic quality of our city. Not every neighborhood is blessed with the same level of excellence in terms of green space, but we have commercial nodes at all the right intervals and more than enough vacant land to correct the imbalance.
It is, as Lefty Gomez famously observed, preferable to be lucky than good; and we have been very lucky. We’re lucky that the needs of metro New York (primarily), and also metro Boston have preserved a rump of rail infrastructure which can be, and is being, enhanced and modernized to give us a leg up when the current glut of low priced fossil fuel energy so undermines investment in the development of the most expensive (destructive) and complicated of the world’s depleting petroleum, natural gas, and coal resources that energy prices soar to heretofore unheard of levels.
We are lucky to be situated at an edge of the East Coast megalopolis which places us close to some still meaningful and potentially spectacular agricultural land. The Eastern States Exposition, and the northeast regional farm bank were located here for a reason. The Connecticut River Valley, Vermont, New Hampshire, and the Berkshires are all among the leaders in developed and developing local, small scale, innovative food production. The city sits on the confluence of every type of transport network regional producers require.
We are lucky in that, not only did our community develop when the nation was at its best in terms of architecture, infrastructure, and design, but we have been growing at a snail’s pace at the same time that so much of what was being built was on a continuum from Potemkin cinder-block to expressions of useless esoteric novelty, both spread on a frameless horizontal moonscape.
We’ve mostly been spared this:
And then there are the good decisions we’ve made.
We haven’t exiled our civic institutions to the stroad-scape. Our City Hall, our courthouses, our central library, our museums, and our auditoriums are concentrated in the monumental center of the city.
We’ve preserved hundreds and hundreds of irreplaceable buildings throughout the city, and enough of the grandeur of Springfield’s past exists that new construction only needs to conform to the already established urbanism and not make any grand gestures toward modernism. We may be too eager to demolish older buildings when we’ve run out of ideas, but we’ve also redeveloped, at an amazingly high level of quality, older buildings in neighborhoods most had given up for dead.
We’ve maintained neighborhood libraries, we’ve returned to neighborhood schools, we’ve strengthened neighborhood civic associations, and expanded the city council to include neighborhood voices.
Finally, we’ve managed to somehow attract some very talented people to the city who see the potential we’ve had all along, potential that most city natives have never perceived because they’ve never known anything else. These people are often from parts of the country where people have been forced to do just as much, but with much, much less in the way of raw material. They know that if we focus on improving our places, on making every street we can a pleasant place to be, not just an easy place to get through, we can become once again the type of city that people are proud of, the type of city that can once again “publish” the modern equivalent of this: