(That’s two AHL inspired headlines this month)
I had the most interesting experience while hanging out at my favorite local farm last weekend. I was in conversation with a father who described how beneficial the experience of being on a farm had been for his “city kids”. As the family seemed clearly to be middle class my interest level ratcheted up quite a few notches. His wife corrected him: “Suburban kids”. As the gathering included friends and family, my family and I being in the former group, I had to ask where they were from; Rochester, New York I was told.
The conversation continued. I was eager to talk to people who so readily accepted a connection to a hard luck northern tier industrial city like Rochester, as those people are few and far between in the suburbs of Springfield. In that vein, and as the conversation continued, I made reference to just how similar Rochester and Springfield are. Not even his reflective sunglasses could hide that the comparison made my discussion partner cringe; I mean he literally, visibly, winced. “In population I suppose.” He then went on to proudly defend Rochester in a very measured but assured way.
With a facility indicative of experience in a classroom setting he asked me about Springfield’s economy referencing jobs in particular. I mentioned that most of the region’s major employers were in the city from Baystate and Mercy medical centers to the second largest corporation headquartered in Massachusetts, MassMutual, along with a handful of colleges, Big Y, and Smith and Wesson: “The problem is that the people who have the best jobs choose to live outside the city. The region is actually very prosperous” I concluded.
When we got home after the party I went right to Wikipedia. I was very surprised at what I saw. Instinctively I think of Rochester, and Syracuse, and Bridgeport, and Scranton and perhaps a dozen or more other cities in the northeast as being, essentially, the same as Springfield. Given the obviously strong visceral response I had seen when I compared Springfield to Rochester I assumed that I was going to find data which confirmed that perhaps my assumption in that regard was a bit hasty and inaccurate. Indeed it was. I’m sure the City of Rochester has a lot going for it, maybe as much or more than Springfield in ways that can’t be measured, but what I was startled to find was that Rochester is in pretty rough shape demographically, even when compared to The City of Homes.
People often perceive Springfield as having a violence problem; I was surprised to see that Rochester had over 3 times the homicide rate of Springfield. Springfield is thought of as poor; Rochester’s per capita, household, and family incomes are anywhere from 10%-20% lower than Springfield’s. In terms of population Rochester has lost roughly 1/3 of its population, losing 120,000 people since its peak; Springfield’s population loss has been around 10%, losing almost exactly 20,000, leveling off, and actually growing slightly over the last 40 years; Rochester has lost nearly 10,000 people per decade just since 1980.
I also found it interesting that Rochester’s 209,000 people are spread out over almost 90 square miles. If Springfield were to annex Chicopee and West Springfield it would still cover 15 fewer square miles but have a population of 238,000.
It sounds like I’m picking on Rochester, but that’s not the purpose of my post. What I want to know is, how does a place in such demonstrably worse shape than my hometown illicit such pride from its suburban inhabitants when I find it a challenge to find anyone, resident or suburbanite, who has a kind word to say about Springfield? It could be that I just met the only well-to-do people outside of Rochester who feel kindly toward it, and I just happen to be acquainted with only naddering nabobs of negativity in Western Mass, but I don’t think so. Is it just so much further from Boston and New York City that expectations are lowered? I’ve often thought one of Springfield’s biggest problems to be its proximity to two of North America’s standout cities and therefore expectations are too high.
In further conversation the family revealed that they live in a community which borders a community which touches Rochester. If we ever see a day when people in Southwick, Hampden, and Belchertown feel about Springfield the way these folks feel about Rochester it will be a marker of tremendous progress.