I just enjoyed an adventure in Springfield, Massachusetts with Steve Shultis and his wife Liz of Rational Urbanism. Steve does a far better job of describing his town and his philosophy than I ever could, but my interpretation can be summed up with an analogy about an old college room mate.
At the end of my first year at university I was approached by an engineering student who asked if he could be my room mate next year. We didn’t know each other particularly well and didn’t have much in common, but he seemed harmless enough. I shrugged. Sure. We went our separate ways over the summer and in September he appeared at my door. After a few months of successfully sharing accommodations I asked him why he came to me when most guys in his situation would have gone in a very different direction. He explained.
The average college freshman tends to have an adolescent understanding of what a good independent life might be like. Young men are motivated by peculiar impulses and the siren song of the frat house calls. Beer. Parties. Girls. Sports cars. The prestige of hanging out with rich kids, athletes, and really popular older guys. He said that was usually a big mistake. The furniture is made of plastic milk crates. The place smells like a locker room. People eat ramen and cold day old pizza out of the box. They wear flip flops in the shower because no one has ever cleaned the bathroom. Ever. And when you bring a girl home there are a dozen bigger richer guys with fancier cars than you hovering around. You sit there trying to get your romance on with posters of naked women taped to the walls next to a collection of empty bottles. And you pay extra for all this… It’s just not a great situation.
Then he made a sweeping motion with his hand indicating our apartment. A pleasing mixture of antiques and modern pieces. Smells like lemons. When he brings a girl home I’m in the kitchen cooking brisket and home made bread. Soft lighting. Ella Fitzgerald is playing in the background. No competition. And it’s cheaper. For him, doing the unorthodox and socially uncomfortable thing was just… rational.
Back to Springfield. Steve took a version of the same strategy. He and his family live in a gracious four story French Second Empire mansion. The place is huge and everywhere you look there’s a level of detail and quality you can’t find in any home built today. There’s a legal apartment on the lower level that they use as a guest suite. I looked up the address on a real estate listing site and he paid less for this house than many people spend on their cars. His family has a quality of life and a degree of financial freedom that none of his suburban piers can comprehend.
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.
A walk around the block brought us to the family doctor, numerous great places to eat, and one of the best little Italian grocery stores I’ve seen in years.
A few more blocks and we arrived at the civic center, museum district, and numerous pubic parks. Like most older downtown areas Springfield experienced decades of depopulation and disinvestment with white flight to the suburbs and out migration to the sun belt. As the years passed and the economy shifted once again some downtowns boomed, but it was a winner-take-all scenario in Boston, New York, and San Francisco that hasn’t touched second and third tier towns farther afield. Springfield is half empty, but the full half is amazing and spectacularly affordable.
If you’re looking for a large fully detached home with a yard Springfield has an abundance. These elegant homes are right on the edge of downtown within bicycle distance. This is an excellent alternative to suburban living for families with children who appreciate urban amenities. Homes like these close to Boston sell for millions. In Springfield they sell for pennies on the dollar.
I like to poke around the ugly parts of town in search of hidden nuggets. The most interesting people tend to need two things: affordable property and a lightly regulated environment. It helps if absolutely no one with any authority cares about the location.
Gasoline Alley is the old industrial corridor that supplies Springfield with fuel and associated services. More than a few of the older buildings are no longer viable for their original purposes. Lo and behold, the void is being filled with good music, food and drink.
As much as I appreciate the “creative class’ and the importance of “third places” at the end of the day towns need to be productive before anything else can be supported. Local indoor food production is a viable business model in Springfield. It costs 56¢ to grow a head of lettuce hydroponically and it sells for $3. At first I questioned the level of electricity and other inputs associated with this kind of cultivation. Isn’t it just cheaper and easier to grow things in the ground with sunlight? Turns out… not so much most of the year in Massachusetts. The alternative is bringing veggies in from California and Florida in refrigerated trucks. That involves far more energy and creates a critical dependency on systems locals have no control over. This particular entrepreneur can’t keep up with demand for his products.
That takes me to another point that no one seems to be talking about these days. Towns like Springfield were once the economic engines of their day. They managed to engage in national and international trade while doing so in an intensely local manner. The primary resources used for commerce and industry were readily at hand: hydro power from rivers, wood from abundant forests, and minerals from local quarries. And raw materials and finished products were transported along the canal system using nothing more than a mule pulling a barge. If you’re looking for an environmental, renewable, durable, and resilient economic base you could do a lot worse than re-inhabiting the mothballed facilities in a place like Springfield.