Walking America, part 1: Springfield, Chicopee, and Holyoke

First in series of pointless long walks, where I take pictures, think thoughts, drink beers, and talk to whoever.

Springfield, Chicopee, and Holyoke are three Massachusetts towns on the Connecticut river caught in the intersecting tangle of I-90, and I-91. Over three days I walked between them and around them, roughly forty-five miles. Each day I walked a slightly different version of this route (see below) from one McDonald’s to another.

From a car whizzing by on I-90, the three blur together as a chunk of the urban bleh that fills much of America. One filled with fast-food franchises, strip malls, failed urban renewal projects, and with residents who need to work harder, get more education, and do less crime.

But walking forces you to slow down and talk to the people living there. You get to see beyond the bleh, and watch the endless string of tiny dramas that make up a city, and most people’s lives.

Doing that you see three different cities, each a variation of a community trying to cope with a quickly changing world that doesn’t value what they value. That no longer values making the low tech stuff that fill our houses, no longer values close communities defined by a shared culture and religion, and no longer values just living to, you know, live.

Of the three, Holyoke is where I ended up spending most of my time. Like my other favorite cities (Reno, El Paso, East LA, Buffalo, Lumberton, to name a few), it has a real sense of place and a warmth. You know you are in Holyoke, and not anyplace else, when you are in Holyoke.

Part of that comes from being a minority majority (Puerto Rican) town, which immediately separates it from much of the US. That alone isn’t enough, since there are plenty of Puerto Rican communities across the US. Holyoke however, is also an old New England Mill town, which makes for a place unlike any other in the US. It is like the South Bronx and Worcester, Mass had a child.

Walled in on one side by the Connecticut River, and then sliced and intersected three more times by broad canals lined by huge warehouses, the result is a stunningly beautiful, unique town, with the feel of an enclosed community.

At the street level it is a Puerto Rican town. There are Pentecostal churches pumping out song after song, there are food vendors clustered around parks filled with semi-pro baseball games, there are groups of men in folding chairs drinking Coors, there are flocks of pigeons being flown from rooftops, there are beauty salons, nightclubs, decked out Accords throbbing with Reggatone, families dressed to the nines headed from church to the McDonald’s.

In Holyoke lives are lived out in public, in a way that most well-to-do, well-educated Americans find embarrassing.

It is a wonderful city, and yes I know it has plenty of problems, some of which I heard about first hand (crime, shitty jobs, corruption, poverty, etc). All of these problems you can google and read about. There are plenty of very concerned articles in very serious periodicals about them, filled with suggestions that the residents themselves know little about.

But that isn’t what I want to focus on, because I walk to see beyond those problems. Because the residents of Holyoke, like in any “run down town”, continue living and doing their best despite them. Seeing that, and being reminded of that, is why I walk.

People build the best lives they can, with what is available. They do the best to lift themselves above the mundane, no matter their surroundings. In Holyoke they do that in spades, made easier by the natural and architectural beauty of the town.

There are plenty of examples of that, but it is the smaller examples that strike me the most. The slightly run-down house, its porch sagging a little, in a harsh industrial neighborhood, with small ad hock Halloween decorations. People keep trying, despite it all.

Or the church in a shop long gone under. Life goes on, the best it can.

“Sense of place”, “elevating life above the mundane”, and “filled with soul” — Technocrats, city planners, Neo-libs, don’t like these squishy phrases. To them they are sentimental nonsense.

They like terms you can define, evaluate, and adjudicate with math and science. Numbers they can jam into a spreadsheet. Like GDP growth, or commuting times, or total cycle route mileage. They like towns engineered into lifeless places that all look the same, filled with roads that efficiently get people from point A to point B, so they can work to their maximum effectiveness in drab buildings, that minimize cost, and maximize X, Y and Z.

Think Battery Park City. Safe. Clean. And as soulless as they come.

Springfield feels a bit like that. As if the technocrats, politicians, and city planners have gotten a hold of it and tried to reform it, over and over and over. Each mark of their attempts is stamped on the city — an empowerment zone here, a convention center there, a downtown renewal here, a public works there.

The result is a city that can feel dead at times. That isn’t Springfield’s fault. The people I met in Springfield are just as good as the people I met in Holyoke. Just as committed to building a meaningful life. But the venue that drama takes place in is different and drab, and consequently feels like a different play

Springfield has also been dealt a hefty blow by the technocrats of the 50s and 60s. The brutality of I-90, I-91, and their newer child I-291, falls heavily on it, slicing and dicing it into neighborhoods stuck in the shadow of massive concrete and steel roadways.

That doesn’t mean Springfield is a lifeless bureaucratic hell. People don’t stop living, praying, and having fun just because the buildings are drab and the interstates around them are loud, smelly, and suck. But it feel different. It is and can be depressing.

Between the two, geographically and spiritually, is Chicopee. Like Springfield, it was dealt a heavy blow by the interstates, which intersect in the middle of town, ripping it into various sections, cut off from each other. It is hard to image any town surviving that. Yet it has.

The parts of Chicopee I walked through were largely white and older, especially compared to Holyoke and Springfield, making it feel like a time capsule from when working class America was less diverse, and more European. That isn’t a value statement, just a fact.

It feels like the end story of the stereotypical white working class town. One that had good solid manufacturing jobs that someone could walk out of high school into. Jobs that gave them enough stability to buy a small home with a perfectly manicured lawn, and wile away the decades by filling it with kids, grandkids, family photos, religious paraphernalia, and various knick knacks, while decorating the outside with flags and seasonal motifs.

All of which is to be handed off to a son or daughter on retirement, while they drive around the US in an RV larger than the home.

Now though, a lot of those kids and grandkids have moved away, to either Boston or Florida, because most of the good jobs have gone to Mexico, the home is too small, and the church is outdated and dumb.

All that is left is us old farts and them Puerto Ricans moving down from Holyoke.” That isn’t an exact quote, but it captured the spirit of a few conversations.

Of course all these generalizations are just that. Generalizations from only three days walking around.

Holyoke isn’t all great. Springfield isn’t all drab. Chicopee isn’t all white working class. The lines are not that clear, and each blur and overlap with each other. Chicopee has a great Latino bar. Holyoke has real problems and some good Irish pubs. Springfield has, uh. Springfield has the basketball hall of fame.

While I wasn’t sure what exactly to expect from my days walking, I knew the area was part of “Back Row America,” and wasn’t surprised with what I found. Both the good and the bad.

I also knew I would be reminded just how dramatically removed from each other the front and back row are. How little the front row gets these types of places, in a lived reality way, despite making claims to, and how little these places understand (or care about) what drives the front row, in an aspirational way.

Still, these aren’t just an back row towns. One of the most front row parts of America is just a few exits up the interstate. Holyoke, Chicopee, and Springfield are only miles away from a nest of elite colleges clustered around Amherst.

Yet in my three days I never once saw any sign of those colleges in Holyoke, Chicopee, or Springfiled. No t-shirts, no bumper stickers, no “my kid goes to X,” no hoodies, buttons, or badges. Nobody I talked to mentioned, or referenced, those colleges. Nobody mentioned them as places they aspired to.

I saw no vans or buildings with the college logos, no night schools supported by X college. If those colleges (many loudly and nobly dedicated to eradicating inequality and to social justice) are doing anything to eradicate the inequality and addressing the injustice in their very backyard, like community service and outreach to their poorer and less educated neighbors to the south, they are doing it quietly. Or I just missed it. I hope I missed it. Please let me have missed it.

To be blunt, as much as I enjoyed my brief time in Holyoke, Chicopee, and Springfield, I ultimately left with a mixture of sadness, frustration, and anger. Few, if any, outsiders care about these towns. Beyond seeing them as problems that need to be solved.

Nothing from my last ten years would have expected me to find anything different from that. I am used to seeing just how cut off from each other we are, yet seeing it first hand, once again, is still depressing.

(But but but.. But actually, the percentage of manufacturing jobs in Holyoke post blah blah blah act of 75….. Hey, If you want a policy substack. This isn’t it. This is me walking and making rash generalizations. And it is free. Ok. I don’t fact check for free.)

A few Geeky points for the hard core walkers out there:

  • All three cities had surprisingly good sidewalks and right of ways, even under and over the many interstates, off-ramps, and access roads.

  • Drivers in the area are generally mindful of pedestrians, at least compared to most of the US. Although that isn’t saying much. (i.e. Nobody flipped me off)

  • The bus system in the area is fantastic. If you worry about getting over-extended, there is always a bus stop within reach and it costs like only a $1.50.

  • On long walks, for bathrooms I usually go with tactical dehydration. But here there is a McDonalds’ every few miles. There is also enough bars scattered around, if you are not shy about asking.

  • Is the area safe to walk around in? As usual I dress simply, carry little, and try to be as respectful of local norms as possible. Yet there were a few empty stretches, industrial parts with few people, that felt a bit dodgy, but I have honestly lost my ability to judge what others consider safe. I would guess some people will get freaked out by parts of Holyoke, but everyone I dealt with was super cool. The most I got asked for was a smoke. And my views on Jesus. But hey. That is life.