Perhaps there isn’t a line between delusion and aspiration; it’s just that there are those with enough good fortune that their delusional beliefs align with reality, and those unfortunate others whose beliefs don’t.
It was unusual enough for me to spend three consecutive evenings going out with my wife, but what made it even more unusual was that we spent all three nights away from Springfield. We spent Thursday evening and Friday evening in Easthampton and Westfield respectively. Both are communities I have visited with enough frequency that I hadn’t paused to notice how thoroughly they have changed in just the time I’ve been writing about urbanism and downtown Springfield. While both communities have undergone remarkable transformations they seem to have been achieved differently, serve different communities, and have visibly distinct outcomes.
Easthampton is the new Northampton, with the latter not so much declining as it is undergoing a transition into a mature form of itself. 40 years ago Northampton stepped up when the region stepped away from downtown Springfield in terms of retail, dining, and entertainment, but now it is not at all an undiscovered, underdeveloped, and most especially, underpriced urbane alternative. Easthampton appears to be stepping into that role very successfully as its active retail storefronts and busy restaurants attest.
The impetus seems to have been very bottom up as even its snow removal efforts in the wake of our recent heavy snowfall were clearly seat-of-the-pants. I should have snapped a photo! Snow banks in front of numerous shops and eateries had hand written cardboard signs saying “No Parking, Snow Removal”. My wife and I parked briefly in a Rite Aid Pharmacy parking lot while she purchased some much needed medication, and I wandered the neighborhood looking for a place we could park while dining. I found a spot 3 blocks down from La Veracruzana, in front of a hardware store which was just closing down for the night but where the snow had already been removed.
Apart from the employees at the restaurant we did not see a single minority individual, although not being either crunchy or hipster, we certainly fell into a minority of sorts. If we owned any Nepalese headwear or perhaps a belt or a handbag made of hemp we might have felt a little more at home. There appears to be one stretch of the walkable downtown of the city which has had some pedestrian improvements imposed with bump outs, raised crosswalks, and decorative lighting, but the rest of the center does quite well and feels integral despite the aforementioned pharmacy, a rather large strip mall (with a dollar store!), and a 7-11.
Westfield is a town I knew well from my teen years. A friend of a friend lived near the downtown, and my uncle used to hang out at the donut shop just a block or so from Park Square. I finished my undergraduate studies and received my certification to teach through Westfield State College. I took the bus every school day through the center of town on the R-10: It left from a stop located half way between my apartment and my workplace, about a block either way, and it was free for students.
I never bothered getting off the bus, the runs were too infrequent to stop for a sandwich or anything and there was neither a uniqueness nor an energy which urged me to do anything grander than that. At some point a few years ago the downtown reached its nadir after a fire destroyed a large, beautiful landmark building in the downtown. That appears to have been a catalyst for a wholesale reimagining from the government side of the traditional center of the city. From the turnpike into the city’s core everything is resplendent, and sends a message of vitality and belief.
While the gap on Elm Street still exists, at the rear of the block is a brand new transportation center. Westfield seems to lack the nighttime energy of Easthampton, and there is a distinctly more car friendly vibe; Easthampton feels more pedestrian first for sure, at least along Cottage Street and parts of Union Street, Westfield looks great from the car, but requires a lot of beg-button pushing (“Wait, wait!”) to get around the square. The crowd in Westfield was definitively older than Easthampton, and as completely devoid of “crunch” and “hip” as it was of melanin.
Each of these cities, for cities they are, are not only within the Springfield metro area, but if Springfield were located almost anywhere else in the country they would stand a good chance of being part of Springfield proper. They present both the finest promise for my city of Springfield, and its greatest threat. If, for whatever reason, the region were to experience a renaissance of any kind the dozen, or perhaps even two dozen or more, of these fantastic walkable nodes would help the region avoid the type of issues that are plaguing successful regions today, particularly in South and West, where walkable areas are rare and demand for housing is high.
On the other hand, if the region continues to grow ever so slowly, or, even worse, if it started to shrink, it is easy to see how those “dozens of nodes” would provide easier, and let’s say “more comfortable” spaces for the *ahem* “middle class” to reside and invigorate. Not only does Springfield present the challenge of a diversity which goes beyond LL Bean versus 10 Thousand Villages, but it has a retail and pedestrian shed which requires much more to achieve critical mass. For a while I have aspired to being a catalyst for just such a critical mass being achieved. Whether or not this continues to be delusional thinking will be determined much more by the warp and woof of North American civilization than by my efforts, but as long as I enjoy the effort I see no reason to cease making the attempt.