A trip to The Drama Studio on Oakland Street from my home on the edge of downtown can be a history lesson if you know what you are seeing as you go by. My brother used to walk to his job with Social Security along much the same route in the 1970’s. You can’t avoid the valley, in Springfield jargon it would have been called a dingle, created by the Mill River.
Springfield is where it is because the Connecticut, the Westfield, and the Chicopee rivers come together to provide what was access to fur markets to the north, south, and west and access to markets along the Atlantic coast and Europe to the south. The Agawam Indians were willing to allow Europeans to settle on the east side of the Connecticut because it only provided a narrow strip of land for agriculture which backed on to swamp land, pine barrens, and some very steep hills. When industrial production, instead of agriculture and fur trading became the driving force behind settlement the steep drop of the Mill River to the Connecticut became a prized asset.
There are now two damns along just a mile or so from the Watershops to the South End. One was recently restored and provides power to the grid and is set up to run independently in conjunction with a neighborhood school to act as an off grid power source in case of emergency. The other one sits idle, hundreds of thousands of gallons falling uselessly over it every day. In between the river runs through one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. In the summer it used to reek at intervals depending on the ratio of water to sewage in the river. Improvements in the system have greatly reduced both the frequency and the intensity of the odors but every now and again you can still catch a whiff of some putrid air.
Johnny Appleseed Park (Jonathan Chapman grew up here) sits at the heart of the neighborhood with a nice playground backing onto the river, an unofficial swimming hole, and a classic and extremely well used (and maintained!) basketball court. The grand homes along Maple Street and on the right as you start up Dickinson Street stand in contrast to the workshops, apartment buildings and classic Springfield duplexes that sit at the bottom of the hill.
When I was in my early teens I came to this stretch of Mill Street from Locust Street on my upgraded (non Bike McCycle) ten speed. A crowd of Black kids on their bikes, much more used, much more worse for wear, but much more ably handled, surrounded me and stopped me. One kid grabbed my handlebars and asked me who I was and what I was doing there. I was asking myself the same question I’m sure, but I responded in a way which in no way masked my fear. My humiliation seemed sufficient for them to allow me to continue on…with my bike and everything…and that was that.
Bicycles have been part of teen culture in that neighborhood for as long as I can recall, but recently their use has skyrocketed and the young men riding them are more aggressive and more talented as riders than anyone I can remember from my generation; riding on one wheel, changing direction, and moving through traffic for entire city blocks. On Thursday just such a pack of riders flooded in front of the car as LuLu and I were on the way to drop her off for rehearsal at The Drama Studio; they decided to cross the street and I decided, very rationally, not to be a murderer. I was only going 15 mph since the intersection of Mill, Dickinson, Rifle, Orange, and Locust streets is as complicated as it sounds. I laughed. LuLu was amused. We continued our trip.
The behavior of these young men on bikes has become an issue of late. Drivers in the city have claimed that these riders have done damage to cars, and that their recklessness is a nuisance. Both claims are undeniably true, of course I would say the same claims hold true for the motorists but with much greater damage to property and infinitely more loss of life. Next to The Drama Studio sits the Forest Park branch of the Springfield City Library; my first library. On the very day in question what did we see taking place on its little sheltered plaza but this:
Our friends, Alex and Laura, running their weekly free bike repair event where Alex provides the tools and the know how and the young people repair their own bikes. LuLu was excited to see them and she had 5 minutes or so before rehearsal so we spent some time with Laura. Long story short, what a great way to open a dialog with these kids. Look, I teach high school, I know some of these young people will take the reasoned and measured advice provided by these kind and understanding young adults about safe riding and say to themselves quietly: “F that.” But others will listen and perhaps moderate slightly the most obnoxious of their on street antics.
I think I get it though. I mean, Forest Park is only a block away with miles and miles of roads and trails that could provide a real challenge to talented riders. That’s not the point. These young men yearn for recognition. They want to be seen doing what they’re doing. The point is to make the old guy driving his step-daughter to acting classes stop for them. The object is to put a scare into the soccer mom taking the kids to practice. There are worse things. I try to show that I’m duly impressed with my nods and my facial expressions. I think they’d prefer I scream and yell at them, but I can’t work up the anger for that.