This may come as a surprise to some of my readers, but I like the countryside. The house where I grew up, while in Springfield, was nestled at the end of a 1/4 mile long dirt road wedged in between the 700 acre Forest Park and a 500 acre bird sanctuary. I like the woods, I don’t mind bugs, I enjoy camping and I’ve climbed the tallest peaks in 4 of the 6 New England states…maybe 5 of 6…does Rhode Island have a “tallest peak”?
My father loved to drive and by the time I was 10 I had been to over 40 of the 50 states; mostly in the backseat of a Mercury Montego MX. A 4th grade teacher at Washington Street School, Mrs Roper, wrote a note home to my mother chastising her, I guess, for having a son who was a liar because on a project in which we were to focus on the states we had visited I claimed to have been to 43. My mom wrote back that the actual number was 44. Amidst all that traveling I learned to love some landscapes more than others. Trees, mountains, rivers, and lakes were my favorite, farmland was nice as well. I never like deserts.
Prompted by a mention in a podcast I sought out an article in “The Atlantic” magazine on New England’s troubled suburbs. Frankly, I was disappointed by the lack of quality and insight of the piece: Residents in New Canaan are having a hard time selling homes for over $2 million, and almost no one is buying in the $4 million + category? Heaven forfend! Beyond that one throw away line in the article described Middletown, Connecticut as a suburb. I am very familiar with Middletown. My wife was living there when we met. It is a quietly surprising success story of New England urbanism with one of the most beautiful and in tact main streets in the United States, a healthy core of dense housing, a stunning university campus, and a real riverfront. Some people may very well live there and commute to Hartford or New Haven, but it is an authentic city in its own right.
Beyond that, though, I was disappointed in the missed opportunity that The Atlantic piece represented. There is a crisis in rural New England, but it has nothing to do with New Canaan or Middletown. That problem stems mostly from rural New England’s antipathy for the city. In the future, a future resting somewhere between Kunstler’s World Made by Hand and John Michael Greer’s “Retrotopia“, the relationship between any given city and its rural environs will be of paramount importance and out of necessity symbiotic, but in today’s world rural areas are exurbs, and exurbs are totally dependent upon their economic partners the cities. What jobs there are are either in the cities or are dependent on the ones which are.
Just yesterday a chimney sweep who was “called in special” to tackle the problems that my complicated 4 fireplace 6 flue chimney presented to the installation of a wood stove informed me that “he hated cities” and tried to avoid them if at all possible. How many of his suburban and rural clients get the money to pay for his work with money earned in a city? I would say most. The all time #1 best selling rock band from Springfield, Staind, has a former lead singer who has made a new career of singing of his love for his rural New England “country” roots and even doing benefit concerts for rural schools. His newest songs contain abundant references to Massachusetts…but never Springfield.
That same performer hosts a benefit for rural schools suffering from the troubles caused by steeply declining enrollment. I wonder if he ever considers how the decline of his former hometown is impacting his present one?
Springfield is struggling, that’s for sure, but it’s not dying. Springfield has more children in the public schools now than during the height of the baby boom. Literally billions of dollars are being invested right now in water, sewer, energy, and transportation infrastructure. Just this week I toured a building with 33 units of magnificent loft apartments, across the street from me a business park made of formerly vacant buildings is taking shape, I met with a developer looking to building a brand new $17 million development between my house and the $950 million development being built by MGM.
But rural towns around Springfield are shrinking. (Here, here, here, and here) I think that average resident of western Massachusetts would be extremely skeptical of Springfield experiencing a renaissance, whatever the national trends or even the latest national recognition, but they would be hard pressed to explain the struggles of our admittedly breathtaking rural communities; not understanding that the fractal undulation of decline begun in Springfield, Holyoke, and other valley cities 60 or more years ago has finally reached their beloved hill towns. I believe that new realities will keep all but those really willing to actually provide for their own needs from living in those communities in any significant numbers for the foreseeable future…and beyond.