One of the maps I’ve seen dividing the United States into separate regions puts Springfield into the category of “recovered” or “revitalized” Rust Belt city. The study whose data created the map is a year old, and came from data covering the years before that. The takeaway from the report was that location was by far the most important factor in determining which cities succeeded and which failed at revitalizing themselves. Proximity to larger, vibrant metropolitan areas created positive growth pressure in housing and employment which translated into economic vitality. Conversely, similar cities which are more isolated or are located near struggling larger metro areas struggled to create jobs and retain population.
Supporters of the communities which have experienced the most success, and critics of those which have experienced the most failure would point to policies, initiatives, budgetary priorities and claim that this or that alternative decision would have drastically altered the outcomes in question; the reality is that most of what determined success or failure had nothing to do with these things but “true believers” will claim that their pet policy led to success or that its imperfect implementation led to failure.
Springfield sits in a very unusual spot; on the outer edge of two enormous and enormously vibrant metro regions and right next door to yet another struggling one. Culturally and logistically connected to New York, politically connected to Boston and neighbor to Hartford, Springfield has most certainly not been the most robust example of a revitalized or revitalizing Rust Belt city. If the trends continue, which is to say if prosperity continues to spread from New York and Boston then both declining Hartford and stagnant Springfield are next in line for major transformations.
The country’s newest commuter rail line, seeing its first day of service as I write this post, has the potential to be an absolute game changer in bringing Hartford and Springfield both closer to New York City, and closer to each other. Together the two geographically small metro areas are home to two million people, dozens of colleges, and a handful of major employers. The introduction of the service has pushed politicians from eastern Massachusetts to take seriously the idea of connecting Boston to Springfield by rail, the inland option to the shoreline corridor that’s always seemed surplus to requirements. Beyond that, the idea of connecting the Berkshires and Franklin county to this system could turn around the population declines of the two most rural counties in Massachusetts.
For me, these should have been priorities in Boston for decades already; not for reasons of altruism, but just to rid itself of some parasitic dependents.
So despite some really boneheaded people in the private sector and their attitudes toward auto-oriented development that place Springfield squarely in the 1970’s, the public sector has presented Springfield with one of the finest transportation hubs in the United States on its newest commuter rail line and, in two totally unconnected developments, a brand new rail car manufacturing facility, and a billion dollar resort casino including millions of dollars of improvements to public parks, sidewalks, pedestrian signals, bike lanes, and pavements. This enormous boost in investment, infrastructure, attention, and optimism may be the springboard that lifts the city out of its doldrums; certainly if this doesn’t do it then nothing will.
So, am I preaching urban Calvinism? Yes. The ultimate fate of your community is likely to be determined by powers much greater than any tactical urbanism, incremental development, or block by block strategy can hope to equal. But that was never the point, at least to me. Those things can, do, and will make your place better whether the fates dictate it be a winner or a loser in a broader perspective.
I bought this house, planted flowers, repaired the façade, planted an apple tree, cut back the shrubs, painted the fence, and picked up trash before there were plans to implement the New Haven to Springfield rail line, before MGM set its sights on the South End, and before there were Transformative Development Districts. The two historic buildings across the street from my house were empty and Develop Springfield didn’t even exist. As far as I knew I was rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. I may still be.
Anyone with the money, or access to credit, can live in a great neighborhood where all there is to do is enjoy the fruits of success. Watching a place transform, for better, for worse, fighting the good fight, winning some and losing some, is about as selfish an act as I can imagine. Savior or martyr it’s an interesting path to trod.