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Northampton, Mass.: The Politics of a "Layer Cake" Town

Shel Horowitz examines the politics and ethnicities of Northampton, a small New England college town.

I think of Northampton as a layer cake. The top layer, most visible to the casual eye, is hardcore 80's Yuppie. Fueled by the antics of a few real estate developers who bought and sold each other's property and priced almost all the mom-and-pop stores out, downtown is full of glitzy little boutiques, upscale galleries, fern-and-butcher-block eateries serving such fare as Cajun pasta, asparagus with bleu cheese, even homebrewed beer. Per capita, Northampton has more restaurants than New York.

Bubbling near the surface are the artists, back-to-the-landers, former students, and other refugees from Boston and New York. A lot of them don't live in town anymore, since the developers engineered a tripling of rents in the nine years I've been here. But they're still in the area, and they've fueled an explosion of galleries, performance spaces, New Age healers, and vaguely counterculture retailers. There's even a group of nationally known painters called the Northampton School.

Slice the cake a little deeper, and find three layers of academia: Northampton is home to Smith College, and an easy commute to three other private schools and the University of Massachusetts. The Smith women mostly live on campus, nestled in dorms a block above downtown and spending freely in Benneton or Chona. Their teachers, and professionals from the other schools, live in well-appointed eight and ten room homes along the tree lined boulevards and narrow sidestreets of Northampton's more elegant downtown neighborhoods; they bought in the late '70's and early '80's, when a professor's salary was enough to buy a terrific house. The houses they bought for $40-80,000 back then would fetch $150-300,000 now, except that nobody's buying right now.

The students from UMass and Hampshire crowd together in run-down rowhouses or dilapidated absentee-owner duplexes on the other side of the tracks—my neighborhood. They don't buy fancy clothes, but keep all the nightclubs and bars hopping. The sound of heavy metal music blasting from porches is often louder than the freight trains in this part of town.

Bonducci's, the last refuge of the alienated punked-out teenagers, gave way a couple of months ago to an expanded version of Bart's, one of several homemade superpremium ice cream stores in town. The exposed brick is still there, but the dark clouds of existentialism have given way to over-bright green wall panels. And the customers' fashions now favor flowing, all cotton garments of turquoise or magenta. Now the punkers—many of them children of the academics and professionals—take their black leather jackets, tri-color hair, skateboards and cigarettes to the steps of City Hall, or the town common, named for General Pulaski.

Pulaski Park, along with all of Main Street, is cleaned and maintained by the Honor Court, a cross between a secret society and a slave underclass—a public works program using recovering court-referred alcoholics and drug addicts in unpaid labor. The program's director is the local state representative's father: a highly volatile character who reacts to even mild criticism by throwing public tantrums and halting the free labor on which the town, struggling under severe state budget cuts, depends.

Underneath all of this, the foundation on which the visible spectrum rests, is a bedrock of old time working class residents. These are the people who worked at the toothbrush plant, the soda bottling company, the corn, tobacco, and cucumber fields, or the Miss Florence Diner; they were raised here, and many of their parents live in the various elderly housing projects around the city, or in a spare room in the family homestead. The elders saw their children raise another generation of children here and send them to public schools—only to see them leave in droves for the big cities a few hours away. You wouldn't guess it by looking, but people from this group are the ones who really run the town.

Even here, though, there are stratifications. An old timer told me in 1987, "You're Jewish; I'm Polish. We're both Eastern European, and we have to stick together against the Irish—they run this town." I didn't ask what he thought of the small influx of Puerto Ricans and Cambodians and even smaller numbers of blacks, who keep Northampton from dying of whiteness.

Maybe he had a point. There are nine people on the City Council. At the time my Polish friend made his statement, six of the nine were Irish, and only one councilor wasn't born here—Northampton's first deaf officeholder, Kevin Nolan. All nine were conservative to moderate.

In 1983, a group of peace and housing activists had put together a slate of four candidates for city council, and also backed two left-leaning incumbents. The new candidates included an openly gay socialist and a man whose speech and gait are distorted by cerebral palsy. It was the first time anyone can remember non-native progressives making a serious attempt at impacting local politics. None of the newcomers won, though both incumbents did.

The last Pole on the council—a native in his early 20's—won his seat that year, against the gay socialist and three other candidates (two Italians, one French, one Irish); he chose not to run for a second term. One of the other successful candidates in that election was an incumbent who ran on a platform of stopping the annual lesbian and gay pride march, which has filled Main Street one Saturday every spring since 1982. Since he made his promise, the march has grown from 500 to 2000 participants, in a town of 29,000.

One of the progressives who ran in 1983 often said privately that it would take ten years of hard struggle to have an impact on Northampton electoral politics; it only took six. After the 1987 election, there were four Irish, two WASPs; two councilors could be called liberal or progressive. Nolan lost to the person he had ousted—Bill Ames, a native progressive who's been on the council for most of the last twenty five years—but Mary Ford took his place as the token non-native: the only woman now on the council, she defeated the homophobe.

After the dust settled and the 1989 election returns were counted, four progressives were on the council: incumbents Ford and Ames; Mike Kirby, the director of the county homelessness program; and John Morrison, the owner of a local art movie theater. Today, three councilors are Irish, three WASP, and one each are Pennsylvania Dutch, French, and Jewish. Only six of the nine were born here.

There has never been a person of color elected to anything in Northampton, although a black woman ran a credible race for school committee three years ago.

Centers of power here are amazingly accessible. The mayor is a five-term incumbent, former state trooper, born here, Italian. He walks through different neighborhoods in the city every day; everyone knows him by sight, and he seems to know at least half of the people he sees. I got an appointment with him once when I was contesting an unfair parking ticket. I've also had private meetings with my bank president, a major real estate developer, and the police chief; such meetings would be unthinkable in New York, where I grew up.

The real estate market in Northampton went soft a little over two years ago. A house in my neighborhood went up for sale in August of 1988, just after the feeding frenzy trailed off. The owner's still trying to get a 1987 price, and the house is still on the market. For the first time in years, not just one or two, but several stores are vacant on Main Street.

But rents haven't come down and the cost of housing outpaces many people's ability to pay. I don't know anyone in their 20's or 30's who has bought a house without help from their parents, except for one person who bought in 1982, and I know quite a few people who moved out of town just to find a place where they could pay the rent.

In 1982, the first homeless shelter opened in the county; now there are about half a dozen. In April, one of the homeless shelters closed for the season; nine homeless men and Mike Kirby, the city councilor who ran the homelessness program, slept in the city council chamber. After a month in a temporary shelter, the homeless and some of their friends (though not Kirby) started sleeping in Pulaski Park. After a week, they were ordered out, but didn't leave. During that week, Kirby got a layoff notice; there was no more money to fund a homelessness program.

In 1983, good houses started around $60,000; a three bedroom apartment might have cost $250-$400 a month. Decent starter homes peaked at about $135,000 a couple of years ago, and are down to about $110,000 now; some blocks have three or four "for sale" signs. The same apartments might bring anywhere from $600-$900 today. But a person making $14,000 back then is only up to about $19,000 now—or else is out of work.

A lot of people think city government is partly to blame for rents and real estate prices that jumped so far ahead of salaries. For seven years, housing activists have been proposing various initiatives that would keep prices lower on at least some units, such as setting aside a percentage of all new developments at a lower price, capping equity growth on city-assisted housing so that the homes would still be affordable the next time they were sold, or providing tax breaks for landlords who keep their apartments up to code and below market rate. And the city even put together a blue ribbon planning taskforce which identified affordable housing as one of its two main goals. But the city council was paralyzed, first by its internal conservatism and more recently by a feeling that the housing market is shaking itself down without help. Only one of the taskforce's recommendations has been put into effect: a law that makes it easier to build an accessory apartment on an existing house, but doesn't address rents at all.

So the patterns intermingle and continue to spread. The native kids run off someplace else as soon as they're out of high school, and their places are taken by refugees from other places. Buildings at the old state hospital for the mentally ill, which once had 2000 patients and now has fewer than 200, stay vacant and crumbling. Homeless men sleep in Pulaski Park and men who used to be homeless clean it. The city puts block grant money into new sidewalks and a home repair program, and not toward a pilot plan to renovate abandoned buildings for homeless people at the state hospital. Developers gobble up farmland for fifty-lot subdivisions of $200,000 homes that no one is buying. Downtown merchants kicked in $16,000 to host a bicycle race sponsored by Coors beer and Donald Trump, and when the homeless took over Pulaski Park, some of the same merchants came around with food.

(1990) by Shel Horowitz.

Shel Horowitz, Editor of Global Travel Review and owner of FrugalFun.com, is the author of the e-book, The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook, and the creator of the Ethical Business Pledge campaign.


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