My daughter, graduating from Smith College(see curly headed one waving at the camera!):
Revisiting the Curbside Chat, and Northampton, for the first time in a while was enlightening. Media reports of the decline of Northampton’s Main Street have clearly been greatly exaggerated; yes there are a few more cell phone stores and corporate outlets, but Noho’s commercial and retail district must still rank in the top 1% of America’s walkable downtowns. It had been three years since I’d seen “the chat” live and in person. There are two responses to the chat: An understanding of why the car centered post war horizontal development pattern doesn’t work; or the rejection of the premise based on critiques that come from a desire to perpetuate the status quo. I find it interesting that a Paul Krugman presentation entitled “What’s the Matter with Economics?” given at UMass the same day got so much press attention when I’m sure the best answer to the question was given at Smith College by Chuck Marohn.
The most predictable question given Smith College’s focus on issues of social justice in the post chat q&a had to do with Chuck’s revelation, from Joe Minniccozi’s data, that poor neighborhoods always subsidize wealthier ones when municipal taxes and services are analyzed. It was obvious that Chuck had heard the question many times before. His response was exactly what you’d expect from an engineer; succinct, precise, and devoid of emotion. While rejecting an intentional exploitative agency in this universal reality, he merely pointed to examples which demonstrated that the poor tend to live in more traditionally designed areas, built and expanded incrementally, and that their design lent themselves to lower maintenance costs.
Putting myself in the head of a student at the ultra left leaning school, I can imagine that the constant harping on fiscal responsibility, even the repetition of variations on the theme regarding how “local government” should do “business” were setting off alarm bells. I kept wanting to scream “He doesn’t mean what you think he means!” I know Chuck wants sound development practices, in part, so schools can have art and music programs, so the sidewalk outside grandma’s house can be fixed and she can walk to the grocery store, and so that the library can be open 7 days a week, but I worry that they hear a more sinister (ironically), more right wing message.
Returning to the theme of Northampton, I was surprised that Chuck asked me if I thought it was “true” that Noho’s prosperity came, at least in part, at the expense of Springfield. Absolutely. My lived experience is that hundreds of the best paying jobs in Springfield are taken by people who expressly state that they only drop below the Tofu Curtain to work. How many doctors at Baystate, professors at Springfield’s colleges, executives at MassMutual, and public service employees earn pay checks here and spend them almost exclusively up there?
Beyond that there is the fact that Northampton provided an option for “boutique urbanism” right at the time Springfield was attempting to reinvent itself as a city in the early 1980’s and that Springfield came up short in comparison. In the long run it may prove beneficial that we have Northampton…and Boston and New York…so close to us providing people with outlets for their desires to get an “urban fix”; in order to be viewed as an acceptable option we will need to be better than we are. That doesn’t change the fact that Northampton’s Whiter, wealthier, smaller, more integral walkable downtown supplied people with activities that Springfield’s emerging reinvented self couldn’t compete with, and that drew away what limited energy there was for urbanity in the 80’s and 90’s: Had there been no Thorne’s, how might The Marketplace have done? Had there been no Calvin, how might the Paramount have done? What if The Hempest had been on Bridge Street here and not Main Street there? Would Johnson’s had become Faces if Springfield had been the only urban option?
Remember, when I was a kid, and we are talking about the mid 70’s here, NO ONE ever talked about Northampton as a destination for anyone but lunatics, literally. As the home of the state hospital it was a byword for a place for the insane. Northampton was no different from Westfield, Chicopee, or Palmer in anyone’s consciousness apart from that. My first experience with it being anything other than that came around 1983 when a friend’s dad happened to be dating a lady who ran a store in Northampton. It reminded me of the boutique my mom had worked at in downtown Springfield in the 70’s, but which had closed after Forbes and Wallace had closed. He took me to a cool record shop…a lot like Belmont Records…which had closed in the same place for the same reasons.
Two Springfield kids who a decade earlier could have had the exact same experience in Springfield were now in Northampton.
With malls dying, big box stores closing, and chain restaurants struggling, there may be a bit more oxygen for walkable urban places to share. Springfield is trying to set itself up with the TDD and MGM to be, once again, the center of cultural life in Western Massachusetts. As always, there are rivals, and only being an option which rewards people sufficiently for the effort it does take to exit the automobile zone and enter the human zone will be enough to give us a reasonable expectation of success.