Northampton’s River of Time Concludes
De-industrialization, Gentrification, Speculation
Spawn Entrepreneurs, Entertainers, and Artists
By BRIAN TURNER
Seventh and Final Part
The de-industrialization of Northampton has never stopped, but a few cornerstone firms such as Kollmorgen remain, sustained by military contracts. More typical of start-up businesses are research and development firms such as Millivision, Millitech, or Telaxis, associated companies that have risen and fallen and risen again depending on the availability of venture capital. The city’s mayors have wooed high tech industry and service firms with mixed results. An Industrial Park off Damon Road, open for decades, remains sparsely populated. The grounds of the abandoned State Hospital off Route 66 are also open for development, though as yet takers have been few.
Real estate developers have arrived here in swarms. The early 1980s spree of redevelopment inspired the term, “gentrification.” The guru of downtown real estate, Sam Goldman, showed that historic buildings could be restored and made profitable by converting them into condominiums. Over the decades Goldman’s example has inspired many to follow suit, some successfully, some not. Tax incentives of the early 1980s and the bank deregulation that followed hit the real estate market like an injection of steroids and property values spiked.
The “drug of choice,” socially approved, has been Northampton’s real estate, and today property values are rising at an astonishing rate. As with most addictions, real estate has occasioned economic anomalies and ethical lapses. A spectacular instance of shortsightedness was the fall of the locally-based Heritage Bank, a savings and loan institution. Heritage made a public stock offering that netted $55 million upon which it was obliged to show a return. Ready or not, its loan officers "put money on the street" for projects that too often proved unwise.
One doomed development was Cummington Farms, underwritten for millions by Heritage on behalf of a business group whose members included local realtor and politician Patrick Goggins and former Valley Women’s Center leader Patricia Sackrey, quite disparate people united by the 1980s property boom. Once that development failed, no less a personage than Peter Laird of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle fame came to Heritage’s rescue when he bought the farm (for cash) and turned it into a cross-country ski resort. Even Laird’s deep pockets could not save the ski center from failure.
Through the boom times, the giddiness of the go-go market poured through downtown like an elixir, part cure-all and part snake-oil. Poor investments and half-baked business schemes were accompanied by outright criminal behavior. In 1998, Michael Smith, former Heritage lending officer, pled guilty to accepting bribes and committing fraud. Upon the news that Smith was being dismissed from the bank, many of the local businessmen and speculators upon whom he had showered loans showed their appreciation by feting him at a grand banquet. After his trial and his guilty plea, however, no further celebrations were held. (For more on Northampton’s real estate shenanigans, see the articles by Mike Kirby in the Downstreet.net archives.) As long as money can be made on development, our small pond will continue to attract its share of fish, both big and small.
When Worlds Collide: Hamp vs. Noho
Although downtown was a shell of itself for much of the 1960s and 1970s, Northampton’s wide curving Main Street, its cohesive architecture sustained a sense of place and character that invited revitalization. In a great stroke of luck, Urban Renewal's bulldozers passed Northampton by. To imagine what might have happened to the city’s greatest asset, its downtown, it is instructive to visit Springfield’s “North End,” or North Adams, which is closer to Northampton’s size.
Those who came here in the sleepy 1970s asked for little, to walk to a movie, then to a workingman’s bar—Pleasant Street Theatre and Sheehan’s. Ultimately, Sheehan’s would vanish in a struggle between local businessmen, rare book dealer Jeffrey Dwyer and Sheehan’s owner Dick Piccicuto, an episode that brought credit to neither man. In the 1970s, “Hippie capitalists” bought downtown buildings at bargain prices and opened shops that kept agreeable hours and retained a casual charm. Up to the last several years, withthe arrival of the CVS drug store, Starbucks, or Quiznos, the city did what it could to fend off large national chains, directing behemoths such Wal-Mart to the “strip” along Route 5, King Street. In time, however, the funky Mom & Pop establishments of Northampton’s renaissance gave way to sleeker, more market-savvy specialty stores.
One long-term success story is Thorne’s Marketplace, located in the building that once housed McCallum’s Department Store from 1873 until 1973. Floyd Andrus, a local businessman, renovated the building, subdividing it into smaller units. In 1977, Andrus sold the building to Brinkley and Gordon Thorne, Mazie Cox and Anne Woodhull. This close-knit family of “outsiders” (well-heeled enough to have lived almost anywhere in the world) used the property to create a place for businesses to incubate, as well as providing the A. P. E. performance space on the upper floor for artists to display their paintings and sculptures, where No Theatre staged experimental plays and dance companies performed. Thorne’s Marketplace has functioned as the cornerstone of Northampton’s downtown renaissance. In quietly, steadily pursuing their business vision over the decades, the Thornes, Cox, and Woodhull are exemplary figures, bridging the era from the Go-Go 1970s to a more stable 2005.
Northampton has become a city of restaurants, whose antecedents go back to the boom in consumerism after World War II. In 1904, the Northampton City Directory listed seven restaurants, four of which served lunch only. Fifty years later the number of restaurants increased sevenfold to 50, of which only the Bluebonnet Diner and Wiggins Tavern continue to operate today. Now the number of restaurants approaches 70, but rather than offer familiar American fare, the restaurateurs serve up a variety of culinary styles, including a surfeit of sushi. Of particular note is Claudio Guerra, who operates four quite different restaurants that range in price from the high end, such as the Del Raye, to fast food, such as Spoleto Express, thus assuring Guerra his share of all demographic strata of the local market.
In addition to its night life, Northampton has also become renowned for a varied street scene. As visitors traverse Main Street they can encounter street musicians, groups of teens in generational regalia, or followers of the Nation of Islam hawking newspapers. Not everything is light-hearted. Deinstitutionalization, a euphemism for state hospital closings, released heavily medicated mental patients into the city, where they contributed to Northampton’s reputation as “unusual.” State budget cuts and shrinking revenues constrained social spending, in effect abandoning the mentally ill to the streets. Today annual battles are waged over the opening of new homeless shelters, low-income housing, and single-room occupancy apartments, in which the forces of “Noho” and “Hamp” are at war. The phenomenon, one that unites unlikely political bedfellows in temporary coalitions, is known by the acronym “N.I.M.B.Y,” or “Not in my backyard.”
An unsurprising outcome of Northampton’s service economy is a large, floating population of social-service providers, non-union waiters and shop clerks, low-wage workers who enjoy few benefits. This population reflects the divide between well-paid professionals and the underpaid workers who pour their coffees and serve their meals, a trend not unique to Northampton. As long as Northampton’s prosperity depends upon restaurants, shops, and entertainment to the degree it does, it is difficult to predict how the city would adapt to an economic correction or shift in the allocation of natural resources, such as an interruption in the supply of cheap foreign oil, upon which the nation’s economy depends.
A Lively Music Scene Emerges
Northampton’s reputation as the outdoor food court of Western Massachusetts has been complemented by its reputation as a center for live music. The Iron Horse, started in 1978 by John Riley and Jordi Herold as a smaller, more intimate venue for folk and blues, and which attracted acts from across the country, ultimately becoming a famous way-station on the region’s music circuit. In the 1980s, Pearl Street night club provided a larger venue for nationally renowned acts ranging from Ray Charles to the pioneers of Rap, Run DMC. Now that the Calvin Theatre has been restored, no less than four music venues are owned by Holyoke tee-shirt magnate Eric Suher, whose mini-empire drew the attention of Fortune Magazine. Like Guerra, Suher has consolidated his hold over a distinct part of the entertainment market. Whether such a business strategy can be sustained in a market as small as this one remains to be seen. Suher has tread upon Guerra’s turf by opening a restaurant, and we will know that a “war” has broken out between these two kingpins if Guerra responds by opening a music club.
From “Clean Living” to “Dinosaur Junior,” Northampton has never quite lived up to its hype as the “music capital” of western New England. Nonetheless the city has had an active music scene, one that has nurtured its share of bands and performing artists in venues such as Sheehan’s or the Bay State Hotel. The area has also provided a relatively inexpensive place for young musicians to live as they traveled long distances to play gigs, though the high cost of real estate and rising rents have forced many musicians (and artists and writers) to seek housing in less costly communities such as Easthampton.
One of Northampton’s enduring qualities is the balance it strikes between welcoming innovation and honoring the past. Even punk has its antecedents, as Tim Erickson (of the band "Cordelia’s Dad") showed when he compiled Northampton Harmony (1993), a collection of shape-note music from the era of Elias Mann. (Another resource on the subject is Paul Ragatz Osterhout’s 1978 dissertation, Music in Northampton to 1820.) The practice of shape-note singing faded here, but such singing endured in the American south, and has now returned to Northampton. Each week shape-note singers convene at Helen Hills Chapel to keep the tradition alive.
Northampton’s reputation as a music-friendly city attracted extravaganzas such as the Warped Tour, a cross-pollination of skateboarding and hard core rock. So, too, the Loud Music Festival came here, but each festival encountered resistance from the residents of Fair Street who did not wish to have their lives disrupted. In general, Northampton has been more tolerant of arts and crafts festivals or film festivals, though even these more genteel and sedate enterprises have had difficulty paying for themselves.
The Arts, High and Low
Henry James’s tart judgment of Northampton’s suitability for high art may no longer apply, at least not to the extent it once did. Renowned sculptor, artist and creator of art books, the late Leonard Baskin lived and worked here; it is true that he lived other places as well, but in 1958 when Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath taught at Smith, so did Baskin. Baskin and Hughes collaborated, most famously on Crow. Only this year, Baskin’s widow, Lisa donated the correspondence between Baskin and Hughes to the British Library in London, an act of generosity that caused a stir on both sides of the Atlantic.
Under Baskin’s supervision, Gehenna (“hell” in Hebrew) Press employed artisans and book-binders, many of whom opened their own presses and binderies. Harold P. McGrath was Baskin’s local printer, and his reputation as a craftsman of his trade remains strong. In Paradise Printed & Bound (ed. Barbara Blumenthal, 2004), Smith School trustee David Bourbeau recalls meeting McGarth and Baskin, an encounter that changed his life. Whether creating his own art or inspiring others, Leonard Baskin’s contribution to Northampton cannot be overestimated.
Another artist of note, working in a similar field, is Barry Moser, designer, printmaker, painter, illustrator, and author. Moser’s Pennyroyal Press continues to flourish. He has reinvigorated the Apiary Press, a Smith College student press started by Baskin for the very courses now taught by Moser.
The Northampton school of painters, called “Northampton Realists,” formed around the late Gregory and Frances Gillespie in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Randall Diehl, another member of the group, has painted scenes such as Sweets in a hyper-realistic style, but without the surreal juxtapositions that the Gillespies favored. Other painters in a Diehl portrait of the “Northampton Realists” are Jane Lund, Robin Freedenfeld and Scott Prior. Prior has embraced representation, and his reassuring portraits of domestic life are very popular.
Also popular were the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, who grossed several billion dollars, some of which trickled down to Northampton. Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman became acquainted when Laird ran The Little Used Bookstore beneath a stairwell at 56 Main St. Eastman and Laird left here in the early 1980s, then reunited in New Hampshire in 1982, at which point the Turtles were conceived. The earliest comics were issued from Sharon, Conn., and then the pair moved back to Northampton in triumph and opened Mirage Studio in 1984, whereupon they licensed a global deluge of Turtle merchandise.
Eastman used his millions to purchase Heavy Metal magazine and to start Tundra Press (now defunct). When Tundra foundered, Eastman bestowed the press upon an established independent comic book publisher Denis Kitchen, who moved to Northampton from Madison, Wisconsin. When Tundra went bankrupt, however, Kitchen also lost his own business, Kitchen Sink Enterprises. Undeterred, Eastman sank more millions into financing a little-seen action movie featuring his second wife, “scream queen” Julie Strain. Eastman sold his share of the Turtles to Laird, who continues to put out Turtle-related materials and also markets guillotine-like bagel cutters and cartoon-inspired condiment dispensers. Like a latter day Oliver Smith, Laird dispenses modest grants to independent comic book artists through his Xeric Foundation.
Northampton’s Story, Told and Told Again
To paraphrase Mark Twain, you can’t swing a dead cat around your head without hitting a writer in Northampton, and some have made the city their subject. Northampton has provided a setting for novels from Henry Ward Beecher’s Norwood (1867) to Elinor Lipman’s The Way Men Act (1992). Tracy Kidder’s Hometown (1999), a non-fiction work, portrays a Northampton that keeps its secrets with good reason. Kidder’s reticence is complemented by Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors (2002), a bitterly funny memoir, in which every secret of growing up in Northampton is revealed, including secrets some might not wish to know.
Many other authors have lived and worked here, from Grace and Hilda Conkling, a mother-daughter poetry tag-team of the 1920s, to Jonathan Harr, whose prize-winning A Civil Action (1996) was made into a movie. Marilynne Robinson lived here when she composed her much-admired debut novel, Housekeeping (1980), also made into a movie, and Robinson, who no longer lives here, has won this year’s National Book Award for Gilead (2004). Some of Northampton’s many promising writers may have been neglected, but Cynthia Propper Seton and her contemporaries, Zane and the late Norman Kotker, have added to the rich literary heritage of a town whose first author was Jonathan Edwards.
One novel about Northampton has yet to appear, written by a native son who has endeavored to portray Northampton whole. Brian Kiteley lives in Colorado and has published two novels, including Still Life with Insects. His third, The River Gods, starts in 1993 with his brother's death from AIDS, then moves back in time for a thousand years. He calls it “an idiosyncratic history.” Calvin Coolidge and Jonathan Edwards make appearances, and the Mill River Disaster is dramatized. Will The River Gods, a work of fiction, tell Northampton’s truest story?
The story of the city never ends, of course. Local history is subject to revision by the community of researchers and writers who live here. A few of the historians who have made contributions have already been mentioned, such as Allison Lockwood, the late Dick Garvey, Steve Strimer, Paul Gaffney, Jim Parsons, and Kerry Buckley. Others include Elise Feely and her reference staff at Forbes Library; Jim Bridgman, teacher and compiler of historical items from the Gazette; archivist Marie Panik of Historic Northampton; Barbara Pellisier, avid consumer of the microfilm collection at Forbes Library, who shares her knowledge freely; Greg Hayes, who has studied the history of music in the city. Many local women and men are working independently and in collaboration to tell Northampton’s story. The work of each historian is a tributary feeding into the greater body of history, which in its ceaselessness resembles our Connecticut River, “the long river” as it was known in the language of Northampton’s original inhabitants, all of whom are now gone.
Brian Turner teaches composition at Smith College. He has co-authored The Hurrah Game: Baseball in Northampton, 1823-1953 (2002) and History of the United States Air Force (2004).
Downstreet.net editor Edward Shanahan prepared the series of articles for publication.
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