The Geography of Somewhere

The inevitability of moving to the Pioneer Valley was by no means a given. My wife and I knew that we wanted to leave the Boston area (for a variety of reasons, the cost of housing being first and foremost among them), but there were a lot of different places we could go.

My wife grew up in New Mexico, and I was born and raised in Kentucky. We have lived in New England and the Pacific Northwest, and so had experienced many different parts of the continental US. Each part of the country has something to offer: climate, or culture, or affordability, or agreeable politics. But in the end, a crucial factor for both of us is something lacking in a lot of the country: place. 

Nowhere

James Kunstler wrote his book The Geography of Nowhere about the increasing uniform blandness of our urban spaces. We’ve all seen it – a stroad with generic chain stores lining each side, a streetscape that could just as easily be in Tallahassee or Topeka, Tacoma or Trenton. This is what Kunstler wrote so scathingly about, and what we wanted to avoid.

nicholasville rd
Nicholasville Road in Lexington, KY. Source: Google Maps

The above picture is a great example. It happens to be from my hometown of Lexington, Kentucky, but it could be from literally anywhere in the country. A McDonald’s on the left, a gas station on the right, and eight lanes in between. There isn’t even a sidewalk on the left side because, who walks on this street? (The answer, of course, is workers at these businesses who can’t afford to drive.)

We wanted more out of the place where we planted roots, the place where we call home. We wanted to live somewhere.

Somewhere

Holyoke has a lot of drawbacks, but it has a major advantage compared to those post-war-building-boom cities – good urban bones.

Substantial brick buildings line the downtown. Canals crisscross the Canal District, with turn-of-the-century mill buildings  built up along the waterfront. When I stop to look at the architecture, I am struck by how lavishly this community drips with place.

gateway city arts
Above: Gateway City Arts, Canal District. Below: Fairfield Avenue Historic District. Source: Google Maps

Two examples of this that immediately spring to mind are Gateway City Arts and the Fairfield Avenue Historic District, pictured above. Fairfield Avenue is a historic boulevard lined on both sides with late 19th- and early 20th-century homes. These homes are enormous, and (I assume) originally housed the owners of the paper mills that made them (and Victorian Holyoke) rich.

Closer to the river, Gateway City Arts is  a flexible co-working space designed for artists to have an affordable place to create and display art. I got to see it last weekend when some friends joined my wife and me down at the Holyoke Winter Festival’s dog show, Best in SHOlyoke.

Tom Brady
Left: Matching Tom Brady dog and owner. Right: Best in Show
The crew
From left to right: My better half, Tara, Noelle and Nick (who wasn’t ready for the picture)

Gateway City Arts is exactly what I was looking for when I moved to the Pioneer Valley – all of this legacy built environment just waiting to be utilized. This sort of thing would be so much harder to create in the Boston area because A) The mill building would have already been converted into luxury lofts, and B) if it did happen, the tickets to the event would be $50 and it would have been sold out a month ago.

Latent Potential

Of course, this is not to gloss over the serious disinvestment I mentioned earlier. There are a lot of blighted properties in Holyoke, and the prospects of finding investors interested in resurrecting them is a long shot at present. But as I said above, this architecture is amazing. If these buildings are torn down, nothing nearing their character will ever be constructed in their place. A fast food restaurant, or a gas station, or a parking lot – the most likely replacements.

Two examples:

Brick
Architecturally amazing boarded up building, featuring my thumb.
Theatre
Victory Theatre, which I really wish weren’t abandoned. Downtown needs a theatre (or even a “theater” would do).

Unfortunately, these are just two examples out of scores of abandoned buildings which I dream of being used to their full potential.

The somewhere-ness of Holyoke is tangible. I am enveloped by it as I ride down Cabot Street on my way to work, or walk to the grocery store, or grab the bus on Maple Street. It’s why we moved to Holyoke. Cities like this are few and far between in America, and aren’t ever going to be built again. I’m so glad to be here, and hope to see this city’s bones spring to life again.

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