Will Hampden County Ever Gentrify?

Since moving to Hampden County, I’ve thought a lot about economic development, about why Holyoke and Springfield have so many blighted, abandoned structures, and about what we can do to fix that. But then a discussion I went to last Tuesday evening, “Places that Matter,” turned to the topic of gentrification, which was surprising. Surprising because when I think of Holyoke, I think of a place far away from even the prospect of gentrification. And yet a spirited conversation ensued nonetheless. 

The gist of the meeting was that some Architecture and Planning professors at UMass-Amherst had developed an online historic preservation tool. The tool pulls posts from Twitter and Flickr and then places mentions of specific Holyoke places on a map. Based on the number of mentions a certain place gets, it is ranked as an “important” place in the city. Ultimately, this could be a tool to help inform where historic preservation efforts should be targeted, rather than the traditional method of a Historic Preservation Commission and perhaps a few community members at sparsely-attended evening public meetings deciding what places are historically significant.

I was impressed by the diversity of the crowd at this presentation – it was about half white folks and half non-white, primarily Puerto Rican. Toward the end of the event, we discussed how we would like to see these “important” places marked, preserved, or otherwise commemorated.

At first, people suggested typical things – wayfinding signs, maps, plaques, etc. But then the question came up, who are we creating these designations for? And that led to a discussion about how do we ensure that the primarily non-white and/or Latino community residents benefit from this new attention to historic or “important” places in their neighborhoods, and not just “tourists” or “visitors.” Which, it quickly became obvious, “tourists” and “visitors” were code for “gentrifyers.”

The Broken American Economic Development Model

As far as I can tell, America basically doesn’t have a good economic development model for cities.

The model seems to be basically this: Wait around until a blighted area becomes desirable, at which point developers build luxury condos and boutique dog pedicure (“peticure”?) businesses, and just accept the skyrocketing housing costs. Residents, especially those who rent, get pushed out of the neighborhood while homeowners benefit from an incredible windfall that they more or less lucked into. This has happened in Boston’s South End, New York’s Williamsburg, Washington DC’s Columbia Heights, even here in the Pioneer Valley’s Northampton.

And then there are those areas which never gentrify, which is most of them. According to an analysis by Governing Magazine, only 8% of census tracts gentrified since the 2000 census. In those places, the millennial white collar hipsters never appear. Here in Massachusetts, think Fitchburg, think Orange, think Springfield, and yes, think Holyoke.

boston census tracts
Map of gentrified Boston census tracts since 2000. Source: Governing Magazine

So given the fact that there are basically two pathways for an impoverished neighborhood with blighted buildings and a lack of services (skyrocket into unaffordability or languish in poverty and disinvestment), economic development efforts leave residents – especially poor residents, especially people of color – with only bad options. But time and again, I have seen residents opt for the status quo because at least they won’t be displaced. And who can blame them?

Will Hampden County Ever Gentrify?

Of course, I’m not sure that Hampden County is going to be struggling in any significant way with gentrification in the near future. There may be certain places, like Longmeadow or maybe Atwater Park in Springfield or the Holyoke Highlands where housing affordability is a widespread issue.* But the population in these urban areas has declined from their record highs, meaning that the housing stock far exceeds the demand for housing. And then there are the numerous redevelopment opportunities for housing afforded by the abandoned mill buildings sprinkled all over the valley.

In short, I think there will be enough housing to keep prices pretty low for a long time.

population chart
Population of Springfield and Holyoke. Source: US Census Bureau

So I was glad that we went through the exercise of identifying important place. And I’m glad that we thought about how to mark where these important places are. And I’m certainly glad that we’re already thinking about what it will mean if we succeed and the “secret” of Holyoke gets out (that it’s a wonderful, diverse community with many excellent cultural, architectural, and natural resources). Gentrification is a legitimate concern. However, and I could be wrong here when I say this, but I think we’re a long way off from needing to deal with it in any big way here in Hampden County. 

*I should note that housing affordability will always be a major issue for households in or near poverty. When I talk about gentrification, I am specifically referring to housing affordability problems expanding beyond households in poverty to impacting middle-income households as well.



Poverty is Killing Hampden County

Hampden County is sick and losing years of life. Hampshire County is healthy and living long.   

That’s the conclusion of a recent county health rankings report released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s County Health Rankings and Roadmaps project. Hampden County ranks dead last in the state for health outcomes (how healthy people are right now) and health factors (how healthy people can expect to be in the future).

health outcomes
Health Outcomes – Hampden County Ranked 14th
health factors
Health Factors – Hampden County Ranked 14th

I dove into the data and on the following measures Hampden County ranks last (asterisked) or second-to-last (typically behind Suffolk County):

  1. High school graduation rate
  2. Teen birth rate*
  3. Smoking rate*
  4. Years of potential life lost due to poor health*
  5. % reporting fair/poor health*
  6. Chlamydia rate*
  7. HIV prevalence rate
  8. % Diabetic*
  9. Income ratio, highest earners to lowest earners*
  10. % kids with free or reduced lunch
  11. % children in poverty

It’s especially striking in contrast to the health outcomes of Hampshire County, which ranked third for health factors, and fifth for health outcomes (out of 14 counties). What is Hampshire County doing right, and Hampden County doing wrong?

Hampshire_Hampden Counties health table

When I ran some correlations across all counties, I was struck by the relationship between poverty and negative health outcomes (insert the usual caveat that correlation is not causation). These are the following correlations for child poverty:

  • 0.83 for fair/poor overall health
  • 0.78 for teen birth rate
  • -0.88 for high school graduation rate
  • 0.90 for firearm fatalities rate

Also, Chlamydia rate, HIV prevalence, and infant low birth weight rate all also have strong correlations.

That’s bad news, because poverty is tough. Most of all for the families struggling through it, but also for the communities trying to solve the problems that come with it. Incomes have stagnated among the lowest earning households, and public programs haven’t been able to fill the gap. Cities are left with an incomplete tool set to address poverty – tinker with the school budget, or increase law enforcement, or offer incentives they can’t afford to redevelop blighted properties.

And I’m also reminded that the most common tool cities use, out of a lack of other good alternatives, is to just push out poverty (also known as displacement or gentrification). This is usually accomplished through zoning that restricts multifamily housing and mandates lot sizes that only the affluent can afford. In hot real estate markets, abandoned buildings are torn down and luxury condos are built in their place.

Poverty is a deeply cyclical problem, intertwined with race and racism, and I continue to be vexed by the limited things cities can do to lift its residents out of the cycle. Historically, state and federal government have taken the lead through welfare programs, Medicaid, food stamps, Section 8 and public housing, and Head Start, just to name a few. All of these programs have stagnated over recent years, and are threatened with being slashed in the near future.

The fact that Hampden County residents are going to live shorter, sicker lives than their neighbors in Hampshire County underscores the life and death urgency of figuring this out.


What Does the County Sheriff Do?

The big primary race this year in Hampden County was for County Sheriff. A long-time Sheriff was retiring, opening up the seat for a newcomer. Lawn signs sprouted up all along my commute route, based upon which I predicted that Nick Cocchi would win (I was right). It seemed like a lot of people cared about who’s elected County Sheriff, which led me to two embarrassing questions: 

  1. What does the County Sheriff do?
  2. What does the county do?

Embarrassing questions, because I consider myself a guy who cares a lot about how government works (and, also, I recently wrote a blog post about why local politics are so important and why we should pay attention to them…). So since I didn’t know, I’m guessing at least a few others don’t either. Here’s what I found out.

What the Sheriff Does

First things first, a quick dive into what the County Sheriff does.

Historic Hampden County Courthouse, with the newer, uglier Hampden County Courthouse inset in the bottom left. Sources: Mass.gov and Wikipedia

Looking through various “About Us” pages for County Sheriff Departments across the state, I can see that they are basically in charge of the County Jail – serving summonses, transporting pre-trial defendants, managing inmate populations, etc.

Here is what MassLive says about the Sheriff’s office:

The sheriff is responsible for overseeing the main men’s jail in Ludlow; a women’s jail in Chicopee; an addiction center currently located in Holyoke, but soon to be relocated to Mill Street in Springfield; an after-incarceration program serving 3,000 former inmates annually; and a day reporting center which monitors 50 to 70 people on GPS bracelets per day who are on probation or parole.

The sheriff also oversees a “serving office” with about 15 deputies serving legal papers on behalf of attorneys and other parties.


Other interesting facts for Hampden County Sheriff:

  • Salary: $151,709
  • Term: Six Years
  • Annual Budget: $75 million
  • Staff: 850
  • Inmates: 1,400 – 1,500

So the Sheriff oversees the county jail. Sure that’s important, but a pretty narrow realm of responsibility. Given the limited scope of what the Sheriff does, why do people seem to care so much?

I get the impression that it mostly stems from the opioid crisis sweeping over western Massachusetts; a lot of soundbites focused on how the candidates would address that. But it’s also the only countywide elected office (so far as I can tell), and so I wonder if it draws attention on that basis alone. If you have any other reasons, please post them below!

What Counties Do

This leads me to the next question: If the County Sheriff is our only county official, then why do we have counties? What do they do, anyway?


A Map of Massachusetts Counties. Source: geology.com (with annotations added by author)


The National Association of Counties has a brief history of counties. Basically, the idea is that back before the railroad made traveling great distances quick and easy, national, provincial, or colonial governments couldn’t effectively govern the full expanse of their territory. So they divided the territory into smaller chunks, and called them counties. 

In Massachusetts, counties are mostly vestigial. In other states there is a lot of rural land administered by counties; in Massachusetts, there is no unincorporated land (that is, land outside of a city or town boundary). This means all governing functions are taken care of by either the state or the municipality.* Thus, almost all counties have lost governing authority, with the County Sheriff being the only remaining elected official.

Why we have County Sheriffs reminds me of the kid who asked her mother about birthday candles.

“Mom, why do we have birthday candles?”

“Well, if we didn’t, what would we put on top of the birthday cake?”

Counties are tradition. And traditions die hard.


*As a side note, counties can also act as a way to incorporate a regional perspective into decision making processes. This is one area where Massachusetts lags, with all decisions taken at either the local or state level, and very little in between. One outcome of this hyper-localism is that zoning decisions are made locally, while transportation decisions are mostly statewide or regional. This means that transportation facilities are often trying to catch up with new large commercial developments, rather than being coordinated from the get-go through regional land use planning.