It was 40 years ago that I began to see the full color pages of The Morning Union newspaper proclaiming the renaissance of downtown Springfield. The closing of the Forbes and Wallace department store had frightened people. It made them take a serious look at just how bad things had become. It must have been surreal for people who had seen Main Street, and Dwight, and Chestnut, and all of the other downtown streets as endlessly vibrant and in an absolute sense, THE center of commerce for an entire region not only for decades, but for as long as anyone could remember.
It’s difficult, perhaps, to call the bottom when it comes to the built environment, but the cover of It’s TIME for Springfield presents a pretty pathetic picture:
Two enormous empty blocks right on Main Street on the corners of Court Street and Harrison Avenue, vacant buildings, empty storefronts, and pervading all of it that 1970’s “sense of style”.
While it may have been the low point for the city’s appearance, it was not for its utility and its usage by ordinary people. My mother was the furthest thing from a trend setter: she was a creature of habit. In the years before she started to drive, and she was never allowed to drive “my father’s car” despite it being the only car in the family, the X and downtown were the most easily accessed shopping areas for her and so, even after she got a car, we often came downtown. A lot of other people had coming downtown to shop in their DNA and the only stores they knew were down here, so here they came.
In the 80’s and 90’s those habitual users of the downtown faded as all of the establishments they frequented disappeared from Steiger’s to Johnson’s Bookstore. At that point the irony was not lost on me that so many people had done so many innovative things for decades here that it was an infinitely better downtown that was being completely abandoned than the one people had flocked to in earlier years: the new brick sidewalks were wider and cleaner, the streetlights brighter and more decorative, the admittedly vacant storefronts had bigger windows and friendlier doorways, and building after building which had been dilapidated and crumbling was now renovated and ready for use.
I volunteered one summer at Springfield Central, the organization that put together the master plan I had seen splashed all over the cover of the newspaper. I was nearing the end of my college career and thought that I might convince them that my language skills and Economics background might make me an attractive candidate for an entry level job with them. It didn’t, but it did give me some wonderful experiences and some great insight into what they had done and were doing.
They had local resources back then that people here today couldn’t even begin to imagine: hundreds of millions of dollars made available from “local banks” (There are no banks headquartered in Springfield anymore, there had been several) for development. Local developers turned dozens of commercial, industrial, and tenement buildings into cool condos, apartments, and mixed use spaces. They focused on bringing local restaurants downtown to make the city experience unique; unlike its mall counterpart.
In short, they were using the same strategies back then that people are using now.
What they did, Carlo Marchetti, Charlie Ryan, David Starr, failed if you look at their stated goals. But as I walked down the same sidewalks and side streets with Laura Masulis, and Jay Minkarah this last week I couldn’t help but think of the debt that we owe to those pioneers. What they did didn’t “bring Springfield back”, it didn’t “stem the flow” of retail from city to suburb; because it WASN’T time for Springfield. What it did do was buy some time at the same time it created a small cadre of believers in urbanism, myself among them, who fought tooth and nail to preserve a city worthy of the name between 1990 and 2010.
There’s nothing worse than being truly ahead of your time: to be too early being right is nearly indistinguishable from being wrong. I’ve read the “Springfield Experiencing Renaissance” headline too many times to remember in the last 40 years…and it has been incorrect every time. I’m not hopeful. I’m committed. Many of my best performances, on basketball and tennis courts, in the classroom, in life, have been in losing efforts. It was never about hope, it was about commitment.
I have seen this before. Today’s hipsters are yesterday’s yuppies. Innovation and Walkability, Meds, Beds, and Eds, Festivals, Craft Fairs, Art in the Empty Storefronts, Façade Grants, Silver Bullets. The difference, of course, is today is now and the past was then. If you keep predicting the same thing forever and it EVER happens, well, then you’ll be right! It has all been Cargo Culty: constantly imitating the outward manifestations of successful, vibrant places but willfully confusing cause and effect.
(All from 1978)
If cafés don’t bring innovation but, when successful, are rather the manifestation of the type of place where there are people who innovate, then what do you do if the way forward is to attract innovators? Successful places have great restaurants, but do restaurants make places successful?
Governmental policy, air conditioning, the automobile, and diffusion were going to make Phoenix, Houston, and Atlanta “successful” over the last 50 years. Those, along with deindustrialization and corporate centralization, were going to devastate Springfield, Rochester, and Youngstown. No number of craft fairs and cafés would have changed those outcomes.
There was an episode on the M.A.S.H. tv show (Kids, there used to be these things called tv shows…on this thing called tv…it was like a huuuuuge phone but you couldn’t text people with it.) where the entire army unit spent days preparing for the arrival of General Douglas MacArthur…who only noticed one thing: Would be “section 8” Kramer dressed up as a living Statue of Liberty as he rapidly rode through the polished and scrubbed encampment.
That is what we’ve been doing here for 40 years: cleaning and scrubbing the place in hopes that this is the generation (now Generation Millenial) which will actually stop here. We have two different strains of preparation going on right now: The MGM big money Silver Bullet, and the MassDevelopment “Transformative Development Initiative” in the North Blocks (Not to be confused with the North End). To its credit MGM is the first Silver Bullet (Baystate West, The Basketball Hall of Fame) to embrace rather than isolate itself from the downtown, and the TDI is the first attempt of its kind to narrow its focus, triage like, to just a few blocks.
I’m glad for both of them. It is folk wisdom that the people of a place know best what any given place needs. Our “folk” don’t. From MGM to Develop Springfield and MassDevelopment most of the wisdom has come from the outside and most of the idiocy from within. Thank goodness for the outsiders. Both projects may yet fail or succeed depending upon much larger, broader ebbs and flows of history, but both will be successful once again, as previous generations were, in maintaining the infrastructure of a place worth inhabiting once people decide to again inhabit places worthy of habitation.
Just as it is the person with the least vested in a relationship who has the power, the people who control the destiny of downtown Springfield are the people who do not give a damn about it. An innovation café can’t long exist filled only with people whose innovative idea is to open a café for innovation. Our movers and shakers, our pioneers and innovators, need to be joined by the hangers on, the coattail riders…you know, more of the posers like me who don’t really want to open the bookstore: we just want to visit the bookstore once someone else has done all the work to open it. The truth is, unfortunately, that it is the useful idiots who matter; if you build it they are the ones who need to come. Other people building other fields have their own dreams to worry about.