‘Back Row, Back Ward’
Dogged Reporter’s New Book Examines State Hospital Reuse
By Edward Shanahan
One of Northampton’s hardest working writers, Mike Kirby, has recently published yet another in his series of investigative works, which shine much-needed light on some badly understood stories in this small city.
He has already tackled the rise and abrupt fall of the once sturdy Heritage Bank, previously known as the Northampton Institution for Savings, and the related accounts of the machinations surrounding the buying and selling of the Hotel Northampton and the parallel failed Cummington Farms development.
His newest book —handsomely self-published —runs to 60 pages and is titled “Back Row, Back Ward, the Redevelopment of Northampton State Hospital.” You can get it at most local bookstores.
As is his usual approach, Kirby, a social worker/political activist and dogged news junkie, relies heavily in his reporting for this work on testimony at an endless number of public meetings, and the fruits of Freedom of Information requests for access to official reports and piles of public documents he has examined. It is wearying and time-consuming work, which is why not many others engage in this kind of labor, especially at the local level.
Based on his research, Kirby then asks a lot of pesky, even impertinent questions of the principals in the story, which is why he is regularly dismissed as a pain in the ass, or merely obsessive. What especially annoys the establishment figures he reports on —for example, local real estate man and developer Patrick Goggins and Edward Etheridge, all-star lawyer for many local institutions such as Smith College, Look Park, Cooley Dickinson Hospital, etc. —is Kirby’s penchant for drawing conclusions about personal motives and the political and economic influence that they are able to exercise.
Kirby has done a good deal of reporting for downstreet.net, and I deal with his work as I would with any reporter —challenge his facts, ask to see the documentation, and copy edit the stories word for word until they are posted on the Web site. He is always responsive, not necessarily happily, to editorial challenges or direction.
The latest book is well worth the few hours it takes to read, especially for those of us who have been hearing about the huge benefit to the city that the development of the State Hospital property promises. The story is told in a straight forward manner, beginning with the laying of the cornerstone for Old Main building in 1854, through deinstitutionalization and the final effort by the city to gain local control over the property for its reuse.
We revisit the political struggles between city officials and state bureaucracies over how the property should be developed, what the shape of the planning should be, who will carry out that redevelopment and have the loudest and final voice in each of the decisions along the way.
The process is not a pretty one and it has now been going on for some 20 years, spanning three mayors, an endless parade of consultants, architects, planners, developers, builders, citizen advocates, and a rotating membership on the Citizens Advisory Council.
Good plans and bad plans have been studied and rejected; only to be revised and discussed some more. Commercial development was favored over housing for most of the time, because it offered a bigger tax revenue payoff. But it also might be the least feasible way to use the land, given its isolated location and lack of access, and the resistance of downtown businesses.
Battles have been lost more often than won, in Kirby’s view, but he continued to follow the tale year by year, meeting by meeting, from one misstep to the next. He reluctantly comes to the conclusion that his best hopes and those of others for reuse, especially of existing buildings at the state hospital property to provide affordable housing, have been routinely frustratcd by formidable political and economic roadblocks.
His view at this point in time – updated versions of the book are likely in the future – that to attempt to gain consensus on a grand development plan should be halted. “What if we could forget the development of the site in the conventional sense, and, instead, have the state throw open the streets to traffic, post For Sale signs on all the buildings, hold public auctions and sell most of the property off …”
“Hospital Hill … would develop faster if it wasn’t a development, if the city and state would just cut the red tape, and start selling its buildings for mixed use, and open up building lots along existing streets.”
An irreverent challenge to the planners and politicians, state and local. But Kirby is nothing if not irreverent as this small volume attests.
downstreet.net©2001. All rights reserved.