If memory serves and, to be honest it probably doesn’t, the list I used to give my home search some direction was divided into “musts” and “prefers”. On the must side was a walkable neighborhood with access to public transit. The walkable thing ended up with me looking from the Main Street spine of the downtown and South End, up Fort Pleasant or Belmont by Forest Park and then down Sumner Avenue until just past the “X”. The Cozy Corner was, even with the housing price collapse of 2007, too rich for my blood, and there was something uncomfortably suburban for me about most of the homes my daughters and I looked at once we moved south of the Columbus statue.
My heart was downtown, and it was really only the park itself which drew me to the Forest Park neighborhood. Meanwhile downtown had the Quadrangle: I was single at the time and the constant parade of (what I hoped were) single moms was a draw. I was never a singles bar kind of guy, but I was glad that there were lots of clubs nearby too; the abstraction of their existence and my proximity to them was enough. Hockey was big. A handful of games a year was enough, but even at their low ebb the Falcons were significant to my decision making.
The Springfield Symphony and Symphony Hall mattered to me and filled a void. There was something about being in attendance at a performance of a particular piece of music and knowing that, at the scale of a symphony orchestra, this might constitute one of just a handful of times a work might be played this year or this decade even; it makes me feel a part of the story of a genre which has endured, but seems fragile.
What was missing was what I thought of even then as a missing middle. I can’t be so sure as to claim that invented the term, but I do recall that when I first heard it used by others in reference to housing in particular I knew that I had captured the concept when contemplating downtown Springfield. In retail there were Steiger’s and Johnson’s bookstore at one extreme of what was soon to become a nearly extinct form of multi story department stores in non superstar cities. At the other end there was CVS. Nothing in the middle.
Entertainment had the high-end made up of symphonies, some theater at city stage, the occasional big-time concert at the Civic Center and pro sports at one end and, well, getting drunk in the entertainment district on the other extreme; nothing middle brow like movies, or even bowling.
Even temporally there was a missing middle: On a Friday or Saturday there might be a handful of things going on, but heaven forbid you had some free time on a Wednesday evening, or just wanted a sandwich on a Tuesday after 5 p.m.. Lunch on a Sunday? Maybe there was a restaurant open at one of the hotels.
Housing seemed to be the one area with more that enough on both ends and in the middle: I would say homeless shelter through Loomis-Wesson mansion and everything from tenements, studios and one bedroom apartments through luxury condos and lofts pretty much covers the gamut. The price points are low throughout, except for the Section 8 stuff, I mean, if the tax payers are footing the bill why not charge a little more if you know you can get it?
This is where MGM comes in. As my wife and I were waiting to go into a burlesque show and I began to run through the…untruths…deceptions…falsehoods(?) embodied in the experience relative to what MGM said they would do in their negotiations with the city and the reality (a blogpost I’ve yet to find the energy to write): everything from the renovated (still empty) armory “castle” being “the centerpiece of the development” and the location of the “guaranteed to figure prominently in the design” skylight of the United Illuminating building being located at a corner of a lobby of an upper floor, to having to show tickets for an event on the premises where there would be “NO on campus ticketed events”(!) but I had to admit, apart from retail (which is a disaster of black hole proportions) MGM has completely solved the problem of the missing middle. Movies morning to night 7 days a week, food 24/7 at the South End Market, bowling and an albeit too small arcade, and ice skating for a few months a year.
From a very selfish standpoint I have to admit that, even when I wished for movie theaters, and I did, they were never located a block from my house! I ended up choosing the row house on Maple Street primarily because it ticked all the boxes on the “must” list, and was super cheap; but being near the center of a circle enclosing the Italian shops of the South End, my daughters’ high school, the Quadrangle, and the Mass Mutual Center, and Symphony Hall I thought, right, it isn’t IN any one of the best places, but it is proximate to all of them. Little did I know an EF4 tornado was about to open up a gaping hole that was just the right size to squeeze in a movie complex, albeit connected to a casino.
This neighborhood isn’t headed in any one direction. Its undulations are less like tides and more like what you get with a series of belly flops and cannon balls in a backyard pool. I’d be lying if I said I had any idea where we’re headed next. Maybe everything is headed for a little timeout, who knows? Boom or bust, the Wuhan coronavirus, Tom Brady leaving the Patriots, Bernie Sanders winning in Iowa? Anything can happen. Except having some useful, reasonably priced, locally owned retail establishments downtown. Let’s not get crazy.