The Tofu Curtain

Hampshire County is in the northern part of the Pioneer Valley, and Hampden County is in the more populous southern area. I have become intrigued by the division between Hampshire and Hampden Counties for several reasons:

  1. In eastern Mass, no one really cares about county boundaries, but they are still somehow relevant here in the PV;
  2. Artificial political-geographic divisions are tenacious, creating perceived boundaries that almost seem like real physical walls. But the boundaries are largely arbitrary (see Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson for more on that);
  3. There really are stark differences between Hampshire and Hampden Counties, which I’ll explore below.

The boundary between Hampshire and Hampden Counties is often referred to as “The Tofu Curtain.” This term is pervasive enough to have made it into the Urban Dictionary, which furnishes this definition:

The Holyoke Range, a relatively small mountain range in western Massachusetts, USA, which separates the Pioneer Valley from the Springfield metropolitan area.

This name reflects the juxtaposition of the areas to the north and south of the range. The relative wealth, educational level, smugness and quality of life of Northampton and Amherst, Massachusetts to the north – and the urban decay, teen pregnancy, street violence, drug use, and poverty of Holyoke, Chicopee, and Springfield Massachusetts, a mere ten miles to the south.

A Tofu Curtain may exist in other areas, such as Princeton, New Jersey and New Haven, Connecticut (home to Princeton and Yale Universities, respectively). However, this is the most dramatic example of a physical barrier which approximates the socioeconomic divide.

E.g.: Northampton is a happy liberal utopia. If you want a teen hooker and an 8 ball, you should cross the Tofu Curtain and go to Holyoke.


In case you want a precise map of the division generated from ArcMap, here you go:

Tofu Curtain

The Census Bureau confirms the differences between the two counties. I pulled this information from the 2014 5-year American Community Survey estimates:

Tofu Curtain table


As usual, Urban Dictionary was right. Hampshire County is significantly wealthier, better educated, and less diverse than Hampden County (though I didn’t search for the numbers on drug use, prostitution or smugness). This leads me to two questions:

  1. Why is that?
  2. Why should I care?

My gut tells me the answer to question 1 lies with the five colleges located in Hampshire County, and the answer to question 2 has to do with fundamental issues of equity, social and environmental justice, and an un-American generational opportunity gap. More on that later.

Anyway, the Tofu Curtain does exist, and it is a mighty curtain indeed. We just need David Hasselhof to play at the old Mount Tom Amusement Park, and maybe it will inspire us all to lift the Tofu Curtain.


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