The Springfield Strategy

42 thoughts on “The Springfield Strategy”

  1. “Most people load themselves up with massive amounts of debt in order to live the way they believe they’re supposed to. You wouldn’t want to put your kids in a substandard urban school with the wrong element. You wouldn’t want to buy a house that never appreciated in value. You wouldn’t want to have to explain to your friends, family, and co-workers that you live in a slum with poor black people and Puerto Ricans. And where do you park?! It’s so much “better” to soak yourself in debt to buy your way in to the thing you believe you can’t live without.”

    One more factor about the Northeastern US. You are close to everything. Boston, NYC, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, DC. You can go to the Cape, Maine, Vermont, NH, CT shoreline, rural areas, mountains, small towns, big cities. There are other industrial towns waiting to be rediscovered too. Places like Paterson, NJ and Poughkeepsie, NY.

    But looking at your photos of your friends, I have one other question:

    Why are all Americans dressed head to toe in black these days? You should pull out some old 1950s, 60s and 70s photos and ponder this question.

  2. If you are driving through the Northeast, it might be worth checking out the Stockade area of Schenectady. Beautiful place.

    But it floods. And the police chief was convicted of being in league with the drug dealers not long ago.

  3. How *are* the schools in Springfield, Mass.? It has been my experience that parents’ overriding concern about schools is that they are safe. Yes, some people may wrongly decide whether a school is safe by looking at the demographic make-up, but we should not discount a parent’s concern about what is most precious to him/her when selecting a home.

    1. Diane,

      Yes, children are precious and delicate little creatures that need all the special precautions parents can possibly afford. I’ll be blunt. I’m tired of hearing about how the only acceptable place to raise children is in a sterile car dependent suburb. My parents moved us out of Queens New York in the early 1970s (a place I loved) to a soul deadening suburb in southern New Jersey so that life would be better for me. It wasn’t.

      I actually don’t care where families with children live. Go off to the cul-de-sacs and procreate all you want. And while you’re at it wall off your district to keep out “the wrong element.” I just don’t care. For the record, I went to school with all those extra precious unique and cherished kids and they just aren’t as special as you think.

      1. ROFLOL This so hits home (as in I was the nerdy, unathletic, poor social skills bookworm that these precious children of the Upper Middle Class picked on so mercilessly.

        F&^%$ Chad and Tiffany and Rebecca.

        1. I’m not just being bitchy here. Half those suburban kids spent the bulk of their time smoking pot, drinking beer, and having sex. They’re no different than the poor brown kids suburban families are terrified of. The split comes when Biff gets caught with cocaine by the police or Heather gets knocked up and resources are available to make the problem go away. Poor kids just go to prison or have their lives drastically changed for the worst. People pay extra for the outward appearance of respectability.

          I’ve also noticed that the public schools around the corner and down the street from me here in San Francisco were once considered beyond the pale when this was a poor immigrant neighborhood. Now? Middle and upper class people who pay $2.9M for a fully renovated Victorian near the park have decided it’s not so bad. Spot the difference?

      2. Easy there, cowboy — I agree with you that people have a lot of crazy and counterproductive ideas about school districts, but there’s no need to beat up on Diane about it. As for Diane’s question, Steve has actually written a lot about the schools in Springfield, where he sent his daughter (and he’s a teacher, so he does know a bit about it). Start here: http://rationalurbanism.com/its-the-schools-stupid/

          1. Well, I agree with you that all schools have their fair share of dangers. As young-adult author Scott Westerfeld once wrote, “The success of ‘Uglies’ [his book] is partly thanks to high school being a dystopia.” That is why many parents turn to private schools and homeschooling. In selecting a neighborhood for our home purchase, we considered many things, but the is-school-safe issues for us were these: 1. Can our children walk to school safely? (included in that was pedestrian safety from cars) 2. Is the school small enough that the principal knows every child in the school by name? (thus hoping that school bullying could be minimized) We live in a different part of the country where housing prices are much lower; we paid $76,000 in 2001 for a 1,100-square-foot mid-century modern house that was within 2 miles of work, school, and shopping in an outer-ring suburb.

  4. Hi,

    I’m sorry to say this is a somewhat selective view of Springfield. It showcases the gentrified areas of Springfield. Yes, there were a few token photos of some of the not so nice parts, but Springfield, unfortunately, has a long way to go. I was there today (and I’ve been there frequently over the course of 35 years as I live in a nearby town) for a Climate March in solidarity with the march on Washington and many other cities around the US. We walked through the area you were in as well as adjacent areas a block or two away that are just the opposite. Development is very uneven and, unfortunately, the city center is about to be overrun by an MGM casino.

    Springfield has the potential to be “a real gem” as an earlier poster put it, but it is not there yet; far from it. This post seems below your usual standards of thoroughness.

    1. Fair enough. I take your point.

      I could easily have written a story that showed Springfield at its worst. Check out my recent post on The Woo. It wouldn’t have been difficult to switch the perspectives and done opposite slants on each of these neighboring towns. “The Woo is charming and livable and Springfield has lost its way.”

      How about we take the endless smear of suburbia that radiates out across New England from Connecticut to New Hampshire. I could take photos of the prosperous well maintained split level ranch homes on manicured two acre lots and upscale corporate office parks. Or I could highlight an endless cavalcade of depressing half empty strip malls on pot holed eight lane arterials. Those two realities co-exist simultaneously.

      1. Johnny, you took the words right out of my mouth. If you had passed through Springfield on the way to visit a nice couple in Worcester the posts would be “The Spri” and “The Worcester Solution” with the caveat that Worcester is in better shape demographically in socio-economic terms but doesn’t present as much of a cost savings both due to proximity to Boston.

        Also, don’t worry about the lack of balance in your essay, we all know Springfield is still a shithole, thank god we’ve avoided a wave of uncontrolled optimism. That IS the real problem of course: Not enough focus is placed on the negatives in places like Springfield! (The whole point, of course, is that one CAN choose to experience the great things we have and live very inexpensively.)

        We did miss the North End of Main Street which in my mind is Springfield’s diamond in the rough. I also didn’t get a chance to take you to ANY of Springfield’s wealthiest neighborhoods: East Forest Park, Forest Park Heights, and Sixteen Acres(boring). We did see all but one (the North End) of the poorest. I live at the junction of Six Corners and the South End, and we went through the center of Mason Square. My neighborhood (Maple-High) has a median household income of $14,000 a year…if that’s gentrification perhaps I misunderstand the concept.

        The greater Springfield area is not a hard place to find work, actually. There are lots of high paying jobs and plenty of people making lots of money in the city; they just take the incomes they’ve earned and live in whiter, wealthier, more suburban places with a much higher cost of living. If there is an employment problem it is, as much as it pains me to say it, finding qualified workers. Simply put, most people don’t WANT to live here: it’s cold, it’s wet, our cities (outside Boston and a few boutique places like Northampton) are declining and are filled with lots of poor not-so-white people. People who are capable of finding work “anywhere” generally choose to take their show on the road unless family or something holds them here. Our population is only stable due to immigration and the high birth rates in our Hispanic community which balance out a strong domestic “out-migration”.

  5. Or Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester. The only problem is the job. Or rather the second job, if you need to change and you don’t want to move. Or the spouses job, if you can get one. It helps to be part of a cluster of people doing similar work and creating their own economy.

    In the 1980s housing bubble I fully expected we would live Upstate, but when the bubble deflated and some other things happened in our lives we ended up staying in Brooklyn. (The rest of my generation, after perhaps spending some youthful years in NYC, moved out). The bubble, of course, re-inflated twice more.

    Having researched the Upstate cities, however, we identified the problem — perhaps just one job for each of us. Could telecommuting help? Someone who works for our firm does so from Rochester.

    We’ll see what the next generation does. While we were doing college tours, we stopped by Holy Cross in Worcester Mass. At the presentation, the person giving the talk, who gave up in Worcester, started trying to ally fears about the city. Yeah it was really bad in the 1970s when I was a kid, but it really is better now! She was probably speaking to those in the audience from metro Boston, but coming from NY we had no prior opinion of Worcester.

    After the tour, we had lunch downtown, and my daughter asked me what was wrong with Worcester. I explained that there were all these small and mid-sized cities that had once been manufacturing and trade centers, but all older cities went into the decline in the 1970s, and only some of the big office and cultural centers recovered. She decided that perhaps college in the big city or the small town would be for her, crossing places like Union (Schenectady), Lehigh (Bethlehem), Lafayette (Easton) and Holy Cross off the list. But my kids will have a hard time living on their own in Brooklyn.

    Perhaps no place has fallen as hard as Hartford, down the road from Springfield, once the richest city in the country.

    1. My brother “overspent” a bit in retirement and needed to go back to work for a spell. He tried doing it in Seattle and couldn’t find anything over a period of more than a year. Came back to Springfield for the first time in decades, got a good corporate job with full benefits at 65(!) in weeks and rented a loft apartment, all utilities included, for under $1,000 a month within walking distance of a bunch of great restaurants.

      I bet his employer would have preferred to hire a 20 something… I’ve seen it over and over here. If you come across as normal, middle class, and you have a degree, you can get a job that will EASILY set you up to live like I do.

      1. Glad to hear that. So Springfield is not a failed town after all, it only has a downtown problem? I am getting a bit confused…

        1. I’ll chip in here…

          Our currant narrative is that respectable middle class people live in comfortable suburbs and inner cities are slums, or in select markets… hipster bubbles of gentrification. The reality I witness all over the country is that almost all suburbs everywhere are bifurcating. Some (the minority) are becoming increasingly upscale and exclusive, while many more are declining as the American middle class continues to experience diminished circumstances. Our cultural imagination isn’t keeping up with physical reality. So a place like Springfield with both serious problems and amazing stuff is more like the suburbs than people are willing to acknowledge.

        2. It’s the city versus the region. The city is a functional place filled with a high percentage of dysfunctional people as opposed to a suburban periphery of functional people in dysfunctional places. This region is not like areas in other parts of the country where there are no jobs and no resources.

          I’ll link to some posts that flesh this out more later. It’s really very interesting.

          1. I’d like to refine this perspective.
            “Functional” people have jobs and can pay bills. In 1955 any able bodied man who managed to scraped by and graduate from high school and could keep his drinking under control until the factory whistle blew at 5 PM was “functional.” Today most of those folks are living in a cardboard box under a bridge.

            More and more college graduates are also finding it hard to secure meaningful full time employment unless they have specific kinds of technical or social skills. The idea that a place fails because the people are failures places all the onus on the individuals and assumes that the larger economic and cultural environment is incidental. That’s simply not true.

            1. I don’t have a problem with that definition. My point in this context is that there is a difference between regions where the overall opportunity level is low regardless of the skills one has, and a region which has retained a healthy economic situation; no, not compared to the days when there were dozens of huge factories employing thousands upon thousands of unionized workers (Uniroyal, Diamond Match, Breck, Spaulding, American Bosch, Westinghouse, Package Machinery, to name a few) but enough that none of my friends and family have ever been unemployed for any serious amount of time if they’ve been able to get to work on time and put in a full day of work. I have family members who fit your 1955 definition of functional, and they rent decent places in the city.

              I never meant to imply that this or any place was failing because of its people as opposed to larger forces. The fact is, however, self sorting and cultural preference and peer pressures have pushed those who are more successful in the current circumstances to the periphery of the region (areas where public transit would be unworkable, where infrastructure is costly, cars a necessity) leaving a core which has a potential to be much more functional in terms of energy demands and the like.

              1. The issue is, how many of the jobs that aren’t local services — the ones that bring money into the area — are associated with the cluster of higher education, established there in better times?

                That’s the economic base one finds in many similar places. It’s stable for now (that student loan bubble and the internet make me wonder) but won’t grow.

                And whereas in some places the university of college is located in the city, in Springfield it is located outside, which may explain where the non-poor live.

                Thus the need for something else.

              2. Another point. Some time ago my father told me how when he was growing up in Brooklyn, men who had “lousy jobs,” working behind the counter at a local store for example, could raise a family, whereas that would be impossible today.

                Oh yeah, I replied. What kind of car did they have? None. How big was their house? They lived in a one-bedroom apartment and the kids slept on the sofa bed. Where did they go on vacation? Coney Island.

                A trap has sprung closed between rising expectations of the material lifestyle required to be “functional” and the amount of pay required to afford it. Which is why debts are soaring, life expectancy is falling, but Hispanics — recent immigrants as yet undoctrinated even if documented — seem immune.

                Back then, of course, the rich and poor were part of the same local tax breaks, which meant that local government services such as schools, parks, libraries, transit, etc. were an equalizer rather than exacerbater of inequality. And the minimum wage isn’t what it used to be.

                Except that at the time, people working in stores — a large share of workforce in fact — was not covered by the minimum wage.

                http://r8ny.com/2007/08/21/thin-edge-of-the-wedge/

                1. Yep, my father – A man who grew up in an inner city under circumstances probably very close to what you describe – Can attest to this.
                  “We went to the beach (1h20mins train ride) during summers. And a friend of my father’s worked at a soda factory (free lemon and soda for him and his friends at some days during summer breaks from school)”.
                  No one owned cars (that was for rich folks!), no one had more than a rented apartment of a diminutive size (he had five siblings), some people next to his family raised pigeons and rabbits for meat etc. (is that even legal in most of NYC today?)

                  “A trap has sprung closed between rising expectations of the material lifestyle required to be “functional” and the amount of pay required to afford it.”
                  – Yep, those who started this trend started from a very low baseline, they didn’t inherit a lot of stuff. But it has since become integral to the economy at large.

  6. Those interior pictures at the beginning made me a little sick. I live in a loft, by choice, and have lived in similarly austere spaces for many years but now I realize I miss all that detailing. Not so long ago I would have scoffed at all that wainscoting; not anymore. Funny how architectural tastes change with age, too.

    As for Springfield, the problem is the jobs: nothing is affordable, no matter how cheap, if there isn’t a source of income nearby. The cancerous growth of a handful of major cities (both in the US and in Europe) that suck the life from the rest of the country is a huge and seemingly intractable problem.

    1. Your understanding of the economy is simplistic and flawed. Every city in our region has a healthy, growing economy and none of the cities are “major”. There are hundreds of successful companies in any mid-size or larger city. They aren’t publicized like Wall Street or Hollywood or Silicon Valley, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t real.

      1. Greg, if every city in your region regardless of size sports thriving companies, then your region must be special. Perhaps the north-east is such a place indeed: it is after all the oldest and most densely populated part of the country, but my impression is that this is not the general case. In Europe where I live and I suspect in much of the US third-tier cities (defined as neither international metropolises nor regional capitals) are definitely croaking and that’s a fairly recent phenomenon.

  7. Great post–very interesting to get your perspective on Springfield after reading Steve’s blog for years. Thanks!

  8. OMG. I was actually born while my parents were living at 45 Matoon St. back in 1952. So glad to see the address in one of the first photos!!

  9. The great thing about what is happening in Springfield is that there are hundreds (thousands?) of these delightfully well-conceived second and third tier cities justing waiting to be re-imagined. Some, like Springfield, are well underway. Great article!

  10. Collinsville CT, which much smaller than Springfield, has done something similar. A dying factory town with an ax factory by the Farmington River has some nice stores, restaurants, and the abandoned factory has people and stores moving into it. It has a genuinely nice vibe.

    I grew up near there in West Hartford. Really good to hear Springfield is coming back. I hope Hartford does too one day somehow.

    1. Excellent overall discussion here.
      There’s a very interesting book on Collinsville that I happened upon some years ago — I noticed it because the front paper cover has a short review quote by John Stilgoe, and another on the back by James Howard Kunstler. The Last Undiscovered Place, David K. Leff, 2004.

  11. Fascinating post! My husband is originally from Springfield but left after high school in pursuit of better job opportunities, as did many of his peers. The first time I went back with him to visit his family, I was shocked by all of the gorgeous, historic architecture in total disrepair. It’s humbling to think that our current​ city could be in a similar state of decline a few decades from now.

  12. Hydro power for hydroponics, maybe?
    This is a fantastic post, Johnny. That town looks like a real gem, and at least some of the people there realize it. Maybe there’s hope for us yet?

  13. Absolutely awesome Johnny! Love it, and wish I could move there (I’m not in the US)! Hydroponics have never made sense to me, but if they’re as cheap as that, I can see the advantage. Especially if coupled with renewable energy and a battery system.

    1. All those “low head” dams that used to provide mill power, next to all those old mill buildings, can definitely power and house food production. The key advantage in “micro-local agriculture” is always in cutting out all the layers of logistics between the field in California and the customer in (wherever). Places with solar, wind, or waterpower will have an advantage.

      But remember, this is high-end produce. They’re not growing the $1.29 iceberg lettuce and $2/lb. hothouse tomatoes sold at Kro-Tar-Wal Mart. They’re selling leaf lettuce for $3 and probably heirloom tomatoes.

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