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! 



Rail Options Suck, But I’m Not Sure They’re Worth Improving

Politicians in the Pioneer Valley really want more intercity rail coming through the region. At an MPO meeting that I wrote about several months back, Mayor Sarno of Springfield commented that building an east-west rail link to Boston would open up the city’s affordable housing stock to Boston, which has a housing affordability crisis. Meanwhile, north-south rail improvements would improve access to Hartford, New York City, and Montreal, better integrating Springfield into an interior northeastern route. These same sentiments were described more fully in a recently released report, Northern New England Intercity Rail Initiative (NNEIRI) Study

northern new england rail
Proposed NNEIRI route. Source: NNEIRI study.

And it’s true, right now rail options suck in the Pioneer Valley. We have the Lake Shore Limited, which goes east-west one time per day, and the Vermonter which goes north-south one time per day. Even though both these routes could serve commuters traveling between Worcester and Springfield, or Hartford and Springfield, the schedule makes them useless to anyone other than an intercity traveler.

Writing about rail transportation in Springfield, I am reminded of a few years ago when Chris Leinberger, a real estate expert, came to visit Springfield and provide thoughts about how to improve the economic performance of the city. A point he hit a couple of times was that we have got to build a streetcar; the city would be transformed by it. Score another endorsement for rail! 

What’s amazing to me is the persistent dedication people have to rail transportation, despite the fact that it has so many apparent disadvantages relative to rubber-tire service. In brief:

  1.  It is really expensive. The proposed track upgrades to connect Boston to New Haven via Springfield would be at least $554 million, not counting operating costs (see table below); this route would need to be subsidized at $145 per trip, which doesn’t include capital costs. As for streetcars, the most celebrated American streetcar in Portland, Oregon cost several hundred million dollars to construct and carried 3.9 million riders last year. Meanwhile, the top-of-the-line bus rapid transit line in Cleveland cost only $50 million,  and boasts 5 million trips per year
  2. Also, it’s really expensive. The cost of riding the train from Springfield to New York, for example, is $47 and takes 3.5 hours (depending on freight traffic). The cost of taking a bus is $27 and takes 3.5 hours (depending on highway traffic). So it gets you there no faster, though is nearly twice as expensive. 
  3. Did I mention that it’s expensive? It’s usually more expensive than we expect. Planning studies for rail projects tend to have ridership projections that are too high and capital cost estimates too low (also known as The Pickerell Effect). A good example is Albuquerque’s Rail Runner commuter rail, which has continued to underperform in ridership since it started service in 2007.
estimated costs table
Estimated costs of rail upgrades in New England. Source: NNEIRI Study.

The reality is that bus transportation, while not as efficient at moving people as rail, tends to be much more flexible and affordable. So why are elected officials stuck on rail? I have a few theories:

  1. It’s undeniably sexy. Even Ayn Rand made the main character of her celebration of fierce individualism and greed, Atlas Shrugged, a railroad tycoon. There’s something about the iron horse which connotes power, industry, and sophistication (while a bus brings up images of people coughing, yelling, and spilling Big Gulps on you).
  2. It’s expensive. Yes, I realize that I listed that as a drawback. But one person’s expense is another’s income. I wonder if the high price tag does not in fact invigorate elected officials to embrace rail because it will do what every elected official wants  – it will create jobs! Just this past week, Massachusetts mucky mucks were in Springfield to celebrate the completion of the factory that is going to manufacture new $2 million subway cars for the MBTA.
  3. It’s perceived to be an economic development engine, probably for two reasons. First, it attracts higher-income riders, and in so doing funnels these high-earners into a narrow corridor that businesses want to occupy. Second, it cements the route to a particular corridor, whereas bus routes could change at any point. Although, in the case of the DC streetcar, the economic development transformation took root well before the streetcar was finished – suggesting that we should just announce streetcars and then never actually build them. Hmm… developers might eventually catch on.

I guess I’ll close by pointing out that I’m not necessarily anti-rail. I would love to be able to hop on a high-speed train to get down to New York City in 90 minutes, or down to Washington in four hours. But I am a strong proponent of using tax dollars wisely. And for the most part, rail just doesn’t seem to pencil out when driving is so cheap and easy.

So who knows, maybe someday I’ll take one of the added trains on the Inland Route to get to Boston or New York City from Springfield. Honestly, I’d be happy to do so. Until then I’m content hopping a Peter Pan bus and working my crosswords as the road passes by my window. At $27, that’s not too bad.

Springfield, The 5th Most “Normal” American Town

I just saw this article on one of my favorite blogs, FiveThirtyEight: ‘Normal America’ Is Not A Small Town Of White People. The gist of the article is that we usually think of Smallville, or Grover’s Corners, or some other predominantly white small town as the quintessentially American setting.

Think again.

America is increasingly diverse, and the most “normal” cities in America reflect that. Here’s the top 10 list that they put together.

most normal cities
Source: FiveThirtyEight

That’s right, Springfield, with its robust Hispanic population, is number 5 on that list. Hartford is number 3. It turns out I am living in a really “normal” part of the country.

This is especially important in the national political conversation for what it means to be “American.” During his candidacy, Ted Cruz mocked Donald Trump’s “New York Values,” implying that they were somehow different from “American values.” But as the list above shows, “normal” America is urban, diverse, and working class – something that describes much of New York quite well.

If the perception ever catches up to the reality, I look forward to national political candidates flocking here to the Pioneer Valley to show the median voter that they are just like everyone else – going to the Big E, checking out the Basketball Hall of Fame, and eating a big heap of mofongo.

“Are You the Police?”

Today I had a major reality check when I decided to take my lunch break in nearby Calhoun Park in the North End of Springfield. I had been there a few times before, but today was by far the nicest day I’d had the opportunity to enjoy it.

The North End of Springfield has a reputation for being one of the more dangerous parts of the Pioneer Valley. It was highlighted in 60 Minutes, likened to a war zone where “counter-insurgency tactics” are being used to fight gang violence. So, despite having several large office parks in the area, I never see any business suits or ties.

When I got to the park, I saw a group of young men, probably in their 20’s, hanging around one of the sets of benches. Keeping in mind the neighborhood’s reputation, and knowing that I would find their music and chatter annoying, I chose a bench on the other side of the playground from them.

Painfully aware of my “otherness,” I started reading my magazine. I’m a typical Anglo-looking guy in a heavily Hispanic neighborhood, and the only person wearing any business casual clothing. Before long, one of the young guys came up to me.

“Excuse me, don’t take this the wrong way, but are you a police officer?”

I must have looked really puzzled – I don’t consider that there’s much about me that exudes the authority of a police officer.

“Uhh… Why do you ask?” I countered.

“Because you’re new around here, and people like you don’t usually come to sit and read.”

Ah, people like me. I smiled, and said, “No, I’m not a cop. I just work down the street.”

He laughed, and said, “I figured,” as he walked back to the other four or five guys who were back at the other benches. Meanwhile, I was seriously confused and more than a little uncomfortable.

After thinking about it a little more, I realized a few things from this encounter:

  1. As uncomfortable as I was around a group of young Hispanic men hanging out by those benches, they were also uncomfortable with having a white guy sitting in their neighborhood park;
  2. really stand out in that neighborhood. Like, way more than I thought;
  3. It’s unbelievable that my presence is such a curiosity. As I mentioned, there are several large offices nearby. I guess all of the (mostly suburban) office workers are too scared to walk around, even on a nice day?

I honestly don’t know if those guys are members of a gang, or if there was some other reason they wanted to know if I was a police officer. Given the national notoriety that police have had lately when it comes to relations with low-income residents of color, I can understand why that guy would want to know. I would want to know, too, regardless of whether I was doing anything illegal (though I might not go up and ask).

That’s not the first time I’ve been asked if I’m a cop, but it’s usually by a little kid as I ride by wearing my day-glo vest. Those times it’s happened, it’s always been when I’m in a low-income neighborhood. I hate to think that the quickest association in low-income neighborhoods of “white guy – day glo vest” is “police,” but that seems to be the case

I contrast this with my other park-sitting experiences, in Boston and Belmont. In the Public Garden or Belmont Common. I feet so generic on the street, I completely blend into the scenery like a garden-variety shrubbery. The North End of Springfield truly is a world away.

I guess I’ll close by pointing out the obvious: this is one of the most tangible examples of my privilege that I’ve experienced. I walk around this Springfield neighborhood oblivious to the social dynamics of the area – I didn’t even give my presence a second thought. And, indeed, I only got sideways glances from the residents because they guessed, a white guy like that? He must be a cop out to bust someone. It was only my perceived power over them that made them at all on edge.

And that’s a really weird feeling.

*Author’s Note: This is an especially poignant piece for me given a recent racially motivated assault on a close friend. She was in the streets in Manhattan with her two small children when a person screamed racial slurs and attempted to pepper spray them. The person was restrained by passersby and arrested, but it still underscores the currents of racism, power dynamics, and privilege – even in an urbane, diverse city like New York. 

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.