Some Straight Talk
Myth of Northampton:
Poor See It Differently
By Edward Shanahan
A stream of sociological palaver and planning blub-blub washed over participants at the recent three days of public hearings and workshops organized around the issue of “Northampton Your Voice & Our Future.”
Organized with the help of a grant from the American Institute of Architects, the over-arching focus of discussion was “sustainability” — how the community prepares for its long-term future.
Sitting in for portions of the discussions, I ran into a cameo appearance by three brave women from Casa Latina who took time out from their lunch hour to share in extremely blunt language some unpleasant truths about how “poor people” and “people of color” regard Northampton.
Pull their punches they did not, at a session whose subject was affordable housing.
Northampton and the “Happy Valley,” one woman said, prides itself on diversity and acceptance, but that is a myth. “Things are worse here than living in Holyoke where class and race issues are out in the open.”
In the Five College community, and again specifically in Northampton “when you talk openly about these matters, white people get uncomfortable.”
“Let’s be upfront,” she said, “this town segregates poor people and poor people of color. They don’t even know the downtown. The message is ‘you don’t belong there, you can live here as long as there is no visibility,’ ” she said.
Most of us around the table were surprised by such candor, as accustomed as we are to a certain smug self-congratulation at how fortunate we all are to be able to live in this welcoming, progressive small city.
Making their points with clarity and unusual economy, the women’s critique ranged from the deplorable conditions at the two public housing projects — Florence Heights and Hampshire Heights — and its “ghettoization,” the lack of adequate transportation for people without cars, and meager job prospects that might enable those at the bottom of the ladder to continue to live in Northampton.
On the jobs front, there was a clear implication from the women’s comments that there is a sizable chunk of the work force in the kitchens of the city’s many, many estimable restaurants made up of “undocumented workers” who fear for their jobs if they complain about their status or make waves of any kind.
This undocumented population is made up of Hispanics, Asians, and African-Americans whose actual numbers in the community are badly understated, which limits their influence.
According to the testimony of the women, they did not want to be too specific about the issue of undocumented workers because of concerns that identifying employers might invite reprisals against the workers.
Aggravating the lack of “affordable rental housing outside of Florence and Hampshire Heights,” they said, is the “class of people” who are buying up low-rent units and fixing them up to make a profit from the more well-off tenants. This does not even include the number of apartments that have recently been renovated and converted to high-end condominiums.
Even poor people who grew up in Northampton have to go to Chicopee or Springfield if they want to buy a home, the women said. And those who are able to get better jobs in Northampton and save a little money can’t afford to lose their public housing subsidy. So they remain at Florence Heights or give up the goal of homeownership.
Putting the size of the Hispanic student population in Northampton at more than 10 percent, the women said “Latino families need more support from their schools. Our kids are leaving school when they get to the age (they can ) … people at the schools should speak both languages to help our kids … we’d like to see change.”
And then as suddenly as they had launched this uncomfortable conversation, they were gone, having returned to their jobs at Casa Latina.