I Refuse to Believe that Northampton is Suburban

I remember when I was a Freshman in high school living in Lexington, KY, I had a major chip on my shoulder for being a “boring middle-class suburban kid.” I basked in the Sturm und Drang of this, and in fact wrote a short poem called “Suburbs” when I was 14. As luck would have it, I still have a copy of that cathartic masterpiece:

by 14-year-old Price Armstrong

A bursting dam of lunacy engulfing the premises
Insanity shrouding the land like the smell of homemade biscuits
a madhouse of a town we call suburbia
a misspent youth of misspent money of misspent power
handed down to you on a silver platter
thoughtless spending all on the things you’ve never wanted but need to have
a blindness inflicted by your own ignorance
a judgement clouded with material possessions so thick
you can’t see your hand.
Oh look! A tree! You must care about the environment!
look! He gives to the poor!!
Nothing but ratty old shoes and shirts promoting last years fad
no thanks, I think I’ll stick to downtown
where the people don’t care
but at least they don’t pretend to

Good Lord, this poem hits all the usual critiques of the suburbs: conspicuous consumption, environmental devastation, hypocritical judgmental neighbors, and it ended with a shout-out to downtown. I’m cringing as I read this for so many reasons. First, the pretense that I spent any amount of time “downtown” when I was 14 is hilarious; when I wrote this poem, I spent 99% of my time miles from downtown Lexington, mostly because downtown was so dead back then (things have gotten better). Second, the scorn that I dish out is so laughable, as if I were doing more than just trying copy the cool kids’ angsty rejection of the mundane middle class. 

lexington neighborhood
My childhood neighborhood growing up circled in red, downtown Lexington starred in blue. I guess I used to live in the suburbs…

Nonetheless, my antipathy toward the ‘burbs never really changed – it just got deeper. The movie American Beauty became one of my favorite films; I loved the commentary on the banality of suburban living. My distaste for the auto-dependency, the social isolation, and the environmental devastation of suburban sprawl only grew, albeit in an incoherent, intuitive way. Until I became an urban planner, that is. 

Who knows, maybe those adolescent rebellions against the status quo (in this case, this suburbs) were what led me to the urban planning field. Most planners today recognize the value of human-scaled architectural design, of mixed land uses, of transportation options. They agree with Kunstler’s criticism that most post-war residential development is the “Geography of Nowhere.” These values tend to be urban values, and – as much as I hate to admit it – jibe with my angst-filled adolescent scorn for what I considered “suburban.” 

So you can imagine my displeasure when someone referred to my current city of residence, Holyoke, as a “suburb.”

Suburban vs. Urban

One of the reasons that my wife and I ended up in Holyoke had to do specifically with not wanting to end up in, what I referred to as, “The middle of nowhere.” Downtown Holyoke has a lot of multifamily housing, indistinguishable from what you’d find in the Allston/Brighton or Jamaica Plain neighborhoods of Boston. In fact, even though we live in a single family home, just around the corner from us are two- and three-family homes.

allston vs holyoke
Can you tell which one is the Allston neighborhood of Boston and which is Holyoke?

Furthermore, Holyoke has excellent transit service, is extremely diverse, and has an entire district dominated by heavy industry (admittedly a lot of it sitting abandoned). If you go downtown on a summer evening you will see people out in the streets, keeping cool while their kids run around and play. 

Finally, not that this is a desirable thing, Holyoke has a lot of the problems that bigger cities have – a high poverty rate, drug trafficking, property crimes, blighted structures, etc. When I think of a “suburb,” basically all of the attributes I just described don’t fit the mold.

So why would someone refer to Holyoke as suburban?

As much as I don’t want to, I can think of a few reasons: 

  1. As the Pioneer Valley has deindustrialized, more and more people commute elsewhere to work – especially Springfield and Amherst, even down to Hartford. Northampton, Holyoke, Chicopee, etc., are no longer the employment destinations they once were. 
  2. The population has only modestly grown over the last fifty years, but the urban footprint is much bigger. While brick multifamily residential structures downtown have burned down or been neglected to the point of collapse, single-family housing has spread ever further into the country.
  3. Much of the new commercial growth in the region has been around the malls and highways, and malls and highways are perhaps the most defining features of a suburb. Recent new businesses near the Holyoke Mall include a car dealership, a Chipotle, and an Applebee’s.

So, despite my best efforts, did I end up accidentally living in a suburb?

Defining the Suburbs

As with most things, people smarter than I am have already thought about this issue. I found a meta-analysis reviewing how the suburbs have been defined by other researchers, with most using some combination of the following:

  • Location – Where the suburbs are located
  • Built environment characteristics – Development patterns, architectural style
  • Transportation – How people travel
  • Land use and zoning – How land uses are integrated or segregated (e.g. single-family residential zone, commercial zone, etc.)
  • Political boundaries – Whether the area is a separate community
  • Socio-cultural – Class, race, cultural heritage, etc.
  • Styles of building, design, and planning – Who is building what and how the development process takes place
  • Time – How new is the development relative to other parts of the metro area
  • Critical assessments – Value judgment critical of the suburbs and implicit values and sensibilities that led to their development
  • Indices – Quantitative analysis resulting in some index, like a Sprawl Index.

Reading this paper made me realize the incredible challenge of defining whether Holyoke, or Northampton, or even parts of Springfield can really be called “suburban.” One of the challenges is that suburbanization typically is thought of as a post-World War II phenomenon, but the Pioneer Valley was developed well before this period. Holyoke was incorporated in 1850 and reached its zenith in 1920; Northampton was established in 1653 and, like the rest of the region, had its heyday during the pre-war era.

Each community developed with its own city center, its own economic hub, its own identity. Transportation was difficult and expensive before highways, and even more difficult and expensive before the trolley. By necessity, most Pioneer Valley communities developed with their own economic base, their own sense of identity, and had transit-oriented, mixed use centers. Holyoke and Northampton and Chicopee have a history beyond being just suburbs of Springfield, whereas Levittown could not have existed without New York City.

PV cities
Represented by stars, each community had its own economic base and its own identity. 

New England is really old compared to a lot of the country, and urbanized earlier than the rest of the eastern seaboard. It is probably this unique history which throws a wrench into the dichotomy of urban/suburban.

Sure, it’s just semantics. Sure, a rose by any other name smells just as sweet. But as a matter of pride, as a matter of identity, and in order to live up to the standards set by the 14-year-old version of myself, I want to state for the record that I do not live in a suburb. I refuse to believe that Holyoke or Northampton are suburbs of Springfield! 



50 Years of Highways and the Decline of Springfield’s North End

Back in December, I went to a MassDOT public meeting on the long term vision of the I-91 corridor from the Connecticut line up to Holyoke. Eventually, the Springfield stretch of I-91 is going to have to be totally reconstructed, and this is MassDOT leading the effort to think about what we want that major arterial roadway to look like.

History on I-91

For those of you unfamiliar with I-91, it is the major north-south connector between the Canadian border, down along the New Hampshire-Vermont border, and then along the Connecticut River to eventually connect up with New Haven.


I have heard that the original plan for I-91 was to run along the west side of the Connecticut River for the entire length. This was altered for one of the two following apocryphal reasons (or both): Continue reading “50 Years of Highways and the Decline of Springfield’s North End”

Lewis Mumford’s Phallic City

Lewis Mumford, that grandiloquent titan of the urban planning field, detailed urban development in his magnum opus, The City in History. In it, he wrote about the transition from Neolithic villages into the modern day human settlement, the city.

Neolithic villages, Mumford wrote, were architecturally rounded, or womb-like – essentially feminine. Replacing those settlements, the modern city brought:

. . .male symbolisms and abstractions now become manifest; they show themselves in the insistent straight line, the rectangle, the firmly bounded geometric plane, the phallic tower and the obelisk. . .

In Mumford’s view, the feminine design of the neolithic village was a vessel for life. This was overtaken by the masculine drive for dominance and power, as expressed through the ziggurat, or bell tower, or modern day skyscraper.

My daily bike commute takes me from the North End of Springfield up through Chicopee and then to where I live in Holyoke. Along the way I ride past two city halls, and am not too far from a third. Mumford’s words echo as I whoosh past. Continue reading “Lewis Mumford’s Phallic City”

Why Does I-391 Exist?

Before moving to Holyoke, I noticed that there was a short-haul urban highway, I-391. It is a 4.5-mile highway spur that runs on the east side of the Connecticut River through Chicopee, crossing the river into Holyoke where it abruptly terminates. I remembered thinking, this must be a highway planned and built during the Eisenhower era – back when Springfield, Holyoke, and Chicopee were just beginning to lose manufacturing employment, and transportation planners thought the best way to “save” these cities was to build modern highways right to/through their hearts.


I get an image of an old-timey post-war news reel of black-and-white footage showing cars zipping along freeways, aerial establishing shots of the skylines, and the narrator saying something like:

“Ah, the mighty Pioneer Valley. Home of Springfield, Chicopee, and Holyoke – titans of manufacturing, jewels of Massachusetts, and bustling metropolises in their own right. Together they make up a rang-a-clang citizenry of over a quarter million, but experts predict that by 1980 the population to more than double. Through efficient, ultra-modern ‘through-ways,’ high-capacity motorcar arteries will connect these three cities and ensure their bright futures.”

Here is what I imagine the roadmap of the future looked like to those planners:

1950 hwy plan

I’m not sure if it hits quite all of the low-income neighborhoods or leaves any shreds of undestroyed downtowns, but it’s a start.

As far as highways go, I-391 is baffling. It serves to connect Springfield and Holyoke, but Springfield and Holyoke are already connected via I-91. It seems like it was built to serve the residents of Chicopee, a city of just 55,000 people. It really should be called “The Chicopee Expressway.” But given how expensive highways are (around $30 million per mile in urban areas), it’s unbelievable that such a relatively small city would get its own highway.

When I did a little bit of research on The Chicopee Expressway, I discovered that it was, indeed, planned during the high-water mark of highway planning, the 1950s. It was included in the Master Highway Plan for the Springfield Metropolitan Area, which I unfortunately couldn’t find a digital copy of. But, as described by by Bostonroads.com:

By the 1960’s, it became clear that Chicopee and Holyoke, two old industrial towns facing decline, needed freeway access to improve traffic circulation and reinvigorate their economies. In 1965, these towns received their wish: the Commonwealth of Massachusetts received approval from the Federal government for a 4.5-mile-long spur from Interstate 91. The “Relocated Route 116” also received a new designation: I-391.

The article goes on to explain how the planning and construction of this highway took a full 15 years, beginning in 1967 and finally being completed in 1983. Finishing it seems to have been a real force of will, overcoming construction material miscalculations, labor disputes, and ” the theft of 40 tons of steel from a construction site.”

It is interesting to note a few things about this highway and its intended goals:

  1. If the intention was to revitalize the economies of the three communities served by the highway, then it seems to have failed. The 1980s and 90s were particularly hard on these cities, as evidenced by the continued loss in population (I’ll look at the numbers in a follow-up post).
  2. If the intention was to relieve traffic congestion, then I would anecdotally say it has succeeded tremendously. Though I don’t know if that was through added capacity, or destroying the businesses and neighborhoods around it, or a combination of both.
  3. The through lanes, viaducts and bridges constructed for this highway are going to reach the end of their useful lives in the next 15 or 20 years. We should think hard about what to do once that happens.

I’ll finish this post with a suggestion: Tear it down.

The Chicopee Expressway might have made sense in 1953, but it makes no sense today. We should just get rid of it and work on stitching back together the neighborhoods in Chicopee that have for so long been cut off from the rest of the city. As I’ll demonstrate in future posts, the negative impacts from urban highways are no less severe in the Pioneer Valley, and this highway is low-hanging fruit for removal.