I was 12 years old when my mom decided that she should get a part time job. The Leprechaun Shop had two outlets, one at the Eastfield Mall, and the other at Baystate West. There was usually money for bus fare somewhere in the house and I was free to use it to either go to the mall or downtown when my mom was there. As much as my inner urbanist might hate to admit it, I liked both places. Eastfield was about the cool t-shirt place, was it Woolworth’s? Baystate was about food, (the California pizza dog at Orange Julius or anything from the Cheese Store sandwich shop) and what today I might call the collapse porn of empty buildings and creepy alleyways; 12 year olds are pretty stupid, remember!
In the 1970’s everything but Farah Fawcett was ugly and downtown Springfield was no exception. Looking back on the pictures it’s hard for me to understand how we all didn’t just vomit when we walked outside if for no other reason than to beautify the place; but it was busy and packed with amazing, lively places. Two, that’s right, two enormous department stores in Steiger’s and Forbes and Wallace, a place called Johnson’s Bookstore that had to be seen to be believed: it went UNDER the the street into a different building…and there was an “honor system” used book nook in the street.
When the morning newspaper I was delivering started carrying headlines about revitalizing downtown the full color artist’s rendering captured my imagination and I have been a downtown junkie ever since.
In the 10 year period from 1978-1988 which covered my years in high school, serving as a missionary in Spain, going to Utah for college, and returning back to Springfield as a married soon-to-be teacher all but one of the city’s international style skyscrapers were built, dozens of buildings from factories and warehouses to older residential buildings and hotels were upgraded, modernized and turned into condos or yuppie apartments. 3 parks were created, 2 were upgraded, a dozen historic buildings were renovated and repurposed, and nearly every façade on Main Street was given a facelift.
A lot of people, the New York Times included as I recall, really believed that Springfield had overcome the post war dip and was ready to become a thriving mid sized metropolis once again. Full speed deindustrialization, the concentration of banking in larger cities (robbing the city of the entities which had given a damn and funded the aforementioned Renaissance), the crime epidemic of the crack era, and accelerated white flight all put the city back on its heels once again.
Enter this most recent pulse in downtown renewal. It’s not that from 1988-2016 nothing was done or nothing was tried. Some smaller (incremental!) condo projects were built, or half built, a downtown university center was attempted and closed, the museums transformed their courtyard from a parking lot into a park, some new, slightly downscale retailers were enticed into the mall, coffee shops came…and went, a new convention center was built, a new federal courthouse designed by a genuine “starquitect” was added, an old high school was turned into a giant back up computing facility for the state, and UMass opened a facility at Baystate West now called “Tower Square”.
All good stuff, nice ideas, a few of which, along with the great walkable urban core envisioned and designed (if badly executed at times…see Pynchon Plaza) way back in the 1970’s constitute the platform upon which tomorrow’s success can rest. It is cool that the incredible efforts by so many people but which seemed so insufficient to the task at the time can now be seen as making a real difference today in that they minimized what needed to be done to, potentially at least, achieve critical mass.
All of this is prelude to what I want to document now as our Great Leap Forward. This period of 2017-2019, whatever its ultimate success at “saving Springfield” will certainly need to be acknowledged as at least as great as the 1978-1988 effort, if much more tightly packed into a much narrower time frame. There are those elements which are the MGM project, those which have been funded and executed openly with MGM in mind, some which have been on the drawing board for a decade or more which perhaps coincidentally have finally been brought to fruition, and those which constitute a separate stream of progress.
My goal is to document the moment as deliberately as possible so as to communicate its scope, as well as to fully comprehend its potential impact. As an aside, it’s important to note that most of this sits within a 5 minute walk of my house, and all of it is less than a 15 minute stroll from where I sit writing these words. If you were standing at Court Square, the traditional cultural center of the city, all of these projects would be a half mile away or less and they would extend in all directions. With this comes a request, directed at my readers who live in similar communities; struggling mid sized cities. Tell me, would you welcome this into your town? Casinos are the joke of urban development, the sucker bet, the Hail Mary. Would you go for it?
(Much of the work is underway, some begins in the fall, Court Square just gets its benches back. Finally.)
The new Da Vinci Park
The old Da Vinci Park
National Armory Historic Site (Awesome and under-appreciated…but with new landscaping…thus the focus on the clouds in my photos…sorry)
City Hall Esplanade
The Loop (Free downtown trolley/shuttle)
Basketball Hall of Fame ($30 million in updates)
Park Streets Lofts
Maple Street Row Houses
Naismith’s (Residential and retail)
Holiday Inn Express
Library façade repairs
As strange as it may sound, what in some ways truly excites me about all of this is just how much more NEEDS to be done. Literally for every block that is already redone, restored and amazing there is another one which looks like trash and which desperately needs work. There are at least as many holes as there are places with blocks of underutilized and under developed potential, one way urban highways, vacant lots, and acres of surface parking. Stay tuned for an overview of all that!