Out and About
By Edward Shanahan
Ambling through Pulaski Park not long ago on our way to visit a couple of downtown galleries on Arts Night Out, we spent more than a little time examining the enticing “public art” installation in the park.
While doing so, we bumped into Joseph Krupczynski, chair of the public arts committee of the Northampton Arts Council, who suggested we move into Memorial Hall where Lara Lepionka, the creator of the temporary installation, was about to give a talk.
Forty-five minutes later, we emerged and took another tour of the five works in the park, better informed about what Lepionka was up to and what a surprisingly generous present she and the Arts Council have given the city.
On hand for the talk and the tour were Rich Cooper who is linked to one of the installations and Danny Crawford, whose work in the community is represented by an array of bright silver trash cans next to the Academy of Music.
What impressed me about Lepionka’s works was her fascinating description about how she first became involved in imagining and executing “public art” when she was working and living in Chicago.
She seems to have a great affinity for workers, as opposed to bosses, and she sees enormous value in what their repetitive daily tasks contribute to our lives and community, such as hundreds of thousands of cups of coffee that Ina Kapitan served to her customers during more than three decades waitressing at the Miss Florence Diner, or the generations of art students taught by Barbara Kellum at Smith College or the volume of landfill saved by the recycling material hauled away by Crawford for Duseau Enterprises.
Thus the title of the installation - Hidden Value – now on display. It is a visual statement of the importance of unsung labor, accompanied by detailed text – statistical information based on Lepionka’s extensive interviews with her subjects – artfully embedded in the materials – a book case and faux books, a grocery store conveyor belt, a row of old-fashioned school desks, a dozen trash containers and a circle of stainless steel and red vinyl-covered diner stools.
Lepionka acknowledged during the talk her debt to Studs Terkel, one of the journalists, interviewers and writers I most admire. He too toiled in Chicago and is a legendary oral historian as Lepionka clearly is. Her talent is multiple - she is able to go beyond conception, interview, assemblage and finally installation, until what she has produced is history as art or maybe it’s the other way around.
Either way, she has enhanced – in a very fleeting but tangible way – our appreciation of the “hidden value” of life in this small city, which also nurtures bold ideas.
My interest was more than just curiosity as I operated a used bookstore in part of that space for more than eight years, situated mainly in the small attached wing occupied now by Collective Copies. At one point, as part of our expansion we punched through the wall on the second floor into the sprawling main building, which once provided housing for transients but which had been abandoned for nearly 50 years.
Based on our quick tour, we were impressed with the scale of the renovation and the resulting living space. These definitely are not funky loft units that evoke their previous gritty heritage, but extremely upscale 2,100, plus or minus, square foot condos, with every modern touch, including pleasant views and an up-to-date price tag of $499,000 per unit.
She said the expected buyers of the condos would be young “professionals” who would not be put off by the extremely vertical nature of the building. A new entrance, along with carports, will be provided in the rear to eliminate the need to climb the nose-bleed-inducing front staircase that leads to the four condos, two on each side of the building consisting of three floors of living space with skylight and views at the very top.
For a geezer like me, even in decent shape, these units, while impressive to behold, require young legs, robust lungs, and a strong heart. Installing an elevator, we were told, would have put the project way over a budget, which has been costly enough.
Some have speculated that the renovation might have cost as much as $2 million which works out to precisely $500,000 per units. So if each unit sells at for the $499,000 asking price that would produce revenue of $1,996,000, for a profit of $4,000.
Still, along with the new Coop bank building, the busy Cup & Top café. Side Street Café, renovated Go West Building, the Lilly Library renovation and Civic Center addition, Florence is definitely getting a major facelift.
Since coming to Northampton in 1971, one of my favorite streets is Ward Avenue, which is off the beaten track. Many of the older homes situated on ample but not large lots overlook the Mill River floodplain and have views and gardens in the rear.
During my running days, I regularly made a point of traveling along Ward Avenue to enjoy its peacefulness and aesthetically appealing homes and landscaping. Doctors and dentists and academics peopled Ward Avenue in those days and even then it was certainly the high-rent district of Northampton, although not as flashy as some of the Elm Street residences.
But in recent years, and even more recent months, as the older families die out the neighborhood is changing as armies of tradesmen are at work expanding already very large homes into even larger houses through the combination of tons of money and inventive designers and busy contractors.
A trip down Ward Avenue the other day revealed all is in great flux – the Thorne-Cox home at 48 Ward Ave., assessed at $620,000, is under contract and likely will result in a $1 million sale, the late Dorothy Stahl’s house next door has been torn down and a new foundation poured, ready for development; renovations are underway at 19 Ward Ave., also ongoing at 20 Ward Ave. Meanwhile, the former Tatlock house at 16 Ward Ave., which sold to Dr. Edmund L. DeLacour and Nancy Lustgarten last year for $883,000, according to records at the Registry of Deeds, has been treated to a massive renovation .
And at the very tip of Ward Avenue and James Avenue sits the former Grace Coolidge home, which also is on the market for $1 million plus.
All in all, something seems to have happened to the pleasing scale of the old Ward Avenue; something has been lost. Top heavy with renovation and physical expansion and improvements, one has to worry about the estimable Ward Avenue neighborhood eventually sliding down the hill into the Mill River below.
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