There were two tomes I took to Brigham Young University every autumn: Clyde Smith’s New England and his Enchantment of New England photo books. The trees, the green grass, the rolling hills, and the mountains of my little corner of the world reminded me that there was life on this planet, even if very little of it existed in the desert southwest. I understand the allure of New England’s countryside from the Hilltowns and the Berkshires to Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. In urbanist circles the small cities and towns of the region act as a sort of template for achievable American walkability when Manhattan or the European model seem unreachable.
It makes it that much harder then for a struggling industrial city in the post-industrial era to retain population. The alternative here isn’t all, or even mostly, suburban cul de sacs and generic townhouses swimming in asphalt. There are authentic small towns with traditions dating back to the colonial era, college towns brimming with youthful energy, genuine rural homesteads, and cottages on dozens of ponds and lake fronts. Add to that the fact that Boston and New York are a little over an hour, or just over two hours away and I suppose it’s hard for non-residents and residents alike to not come away with the sensation that Springfield is left wanting, not just in some way, but in every way.
There isn’t anything we have which someplace nearby doesn’t have more, better, larger, more impressive, more famous, more quaint, easier to get to, better run, or more accessible. Mattoon Street meet Beacon Hill. Forest Park, say hello to Central Park. Basketball Hall of Fame, have you been to Cooperstown?
What I find interesting is how this, I believe, has started to boomerang and have a really negative impact on the communities around Springfield which by and large not only take the city for granted, but actively loathe it. The last 30 years of almost complete stagnation here have finally begun to ripple through places which previously seemed impervious to our problems in the City of Firsts. The demographic reality seems to be that white Millennials who want a suburban lifestyle are moving south and west, and Puerto Ricans don’t feel any need to escape the city to get away from other Puerto Ricans and they’re the ones having children and staying put in, or even relocating to Springfield. District after district in the suburbs and ex-urbs are laying off teachers, closing schools, and trying to plug budget gaps.
The surge that’s taken place in the last few years here in Springfield’s densest neighborhoods has been remarkable. It’s hard to point in a direction where hundreds of thousands, or even millions aren’t being spent to build new schools, renovate apartment buildings and townhouses, rebuild parks, and create new institutions. The paradox is that housewives, teachers, town managers, realtors, and shop owners miles away, who will tell you that they literally go out of their way to avoid the city physically and probably spend even greater energy to wall off their minds from any concerns whatsoever related to Springfield, may have more at stake in these efforts than the residents of the city itself actually do.
The city is improving. The city has reversed its decline. The city is growing. The city has retained Mass Mutual. The city has a major new street car manufacturing facility. The city will be home to the brand new MGM resort. We will be better off. Will the city become strong enough once again to be at the heart of a revitalized region? That clearly remains to be seen. For decades people took advantage of the employment opportunities provided by the region’s largest employers and the business opportunities provided by the region’s largest population center without any thought for whether or how the city would continue to be there for them to exploit. They might want to think about it now.