A tale of two valleys

Holyoke tries to grab some of the happy vibes from its college-town neighbors to the north

The first signs of life downtown are at Open Square,
a renovated mill complex.

The pioneer valley of western Massachusetts is not one valley but two. To those who think of it as Amherst or Northampton, it is a land of cafés, bookstores, and lively public spaces. Pedestrians swarm the sidewalks, bicyclists wait patiently at traffic lights, and inline skaters cross the rail trail bridge over the Connecticut River. Sometimes referred to as the “Happy Valley” for its starry-eyed idealism, the area takes its cultural identity and economic strength from the member schools of the Five College Consortium: Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, and Smith colleges, plus the flagship campus of the University of Massachusetts. Together these schools educate about 33,000 students a year and provide employment for a good share of Hampshire County’s year-round residents. Many who have settled in the upper portion of the Pioneer Valley originally came as students and never left, charmed by its natural beauty, relative safety, and high-quality public schools.

Hampden County, along the river to the south, is another story. Anchored by Springfield and Holyoke, the Lower Valley has been losing its industrial base for generations, prompting many of the region’s most educated offspring to leave. Springfield may be the more visible struggling city—it is now operating under the supervision of a state-imposed Finance Control Board (“Under Control?” CW, Summer ’05)—but Holyoke is equally poor. Its median household income in 1999 (the last year for which Census figures are available) was $30,441, the seventh-lowest in Massachusetts and far below the state median income of $50,502. (Its standing has not likely changed since; the state’s Division of Unemployment Assistance pegged Holyoke’s average weekly wages at $634 during 2005, compared with a statewide figure of $963.) It also has one of the state’s highest rates of subsidized housing—27.9 percent when vouchers are taken into account, a figure that includes nearly half of the city’s rental units, according to the city’s community development office.

Northampton club owner and Holyoke
native Eric Suher says it’s not easy for the
city to go upscale.

In the predominantly rural western third of the state, Holyoke is also unique in its ethnic make-up. Some 36 percent of the population claims Puerto Rican ancestry, higher than in any other mainland US city. An additional 5 percent claim other Hispanic heritage, according to 2000 Census Bureau data, and 3 percent of residents are African-American.

Over time, Holyoke has become the beneficiary of a plethora of publicly funded health and human services, along with grants to combat its problems with gangs, teen pregnancy, and school dropouts. But local officials are now looking for ways to use public dollars to help the city do more than scrape by. Their goal is to salvage something that was left behind by the industrialists who helped develop the city more than 150 years ago: a canal system originally built to power paper and textile mills by harnessing energy from the Connecticut River.

Construction of the long-awaited CanalWalk—a revitalization effort in the works for more than a decade—is finally slated to go out to bid this fall. Many see the two-mile promenade as a catalyst that will transform Holyoke’s image and economy by bringing its largely abandoned downtown industrial area back to life. Roughly $5.6 million has already been secured in federal budget earmarks and state matching funds for the first phase of the project. It could take as long as a decade to complete all three phases, but the CanalWalk will eventually include a walkway, bike path, and benches, and it will link local attractions such as a children’s museum located within the Holyoke Heritage State Park and the former Wistariahurst Mansion, now a museum. Construction could begin next spring.

Holyoke could have an identity beyond crime, poverty and despair.

The first signs of life downtown can already be seen at Open Square, a renovated mill complex that’s now home to more than 50 businesses, including several high-tech firms. The building’s developer plans to create 80 artist’s lofts in the space, along with six to eight restaurants, numerous retail shops, a hotel, and a theater. Mill conversions have a good track record in the Pioneer Valley, where they’ve already played a role in transforming Northampton and Easthampton into destination spots for the arts-minded.

Indeed, that success could help push the college-town prosperity of the Upper Valley into the Lower. Rising real estate prices in those cities are now pushing homebuyers into Holyoke’s leafy Highlands neighborhood, on the city’s northern edge. And as momentum builds in the canal district, young people have begun casting an eye in that direction, too. Even the colleges themselves are discovering Holyoke, making use of Open Square space for meetings and studios.

It would be premature, to say the least, to call Holyoke a city on the mend. But it does raise the possibility, for the first time in decades, that Holyoke could have an identity beyond its current association with crime, poverty, and despair. Still, for local officials as well as hopeful developers, the question about downtown Holyoke remains: If you build it, will they come?


Theatre director Priscilla Hellweg:
“There’s more that can happen.”

Not surprisingly, many of the area’s cultural and recreational offerings are concentrated in the Upper Valley. When Hampden County residents want to see an East African drum ensemble or enjoy an artfully prepared meal, they get on I-91 and drive north. The traffic rarely goes the other way.

It’s not that Springfield and Holyoke have nothing to offer their neighbors to the north. These cities have museums, performance halls, attractive parks, and ethnic restaurants and festivals. Yet rarely does one hear of plans to head into either city except, perhaps, for work.

“Sometimes the Holyoke Range seems like the Berlin Wall,” says Tim Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, referring to the mountain range that divides the region. “It’s not just a physical barrier, but also a psychological one.”

To see how that barrier might be coming down, look to the Hampshire County town of Easthampton, revitalized in large part because of the Eastworks mill conversion in 1997. Situated between Holyoke and Northampton, Easthampton was regarded, not so long ago, as an unremarkable working-class community. Now Eastworks, at the former site of the Stanley Home Products factory, is home to several dozen businesses and can’t develop its condo space fast enough for eager buyers. The town is now considered an ideal place for artists and young families who find it difficult to enter the housing market elsewhere in Hampshire County.

Still, Holyoke is not Easthampton. “Easthampton was pretty vacant and depressed,” says Bronwen Hodgkinson, a partner in a multimedia business at Holyoke’s Open Square, who grew up in Easthampton before that city’s renaissance. “But it was never perceived as dangerous.”

Holyoke is perceived that way, though efforts to combat that perception, and the underlying reality, are under way. Just before his inauguration in 2000, recalls Mayor Michael Sullivan, Holyoke was rocked by 12 murders over an 11-month period. And just two hours after he was sworn into office, two young men were shot dead in front of a 6-year-old witness. Sullivan quickly began focusing on aggressive intervention efforts for youth at all levels and launched what he calls a “peace initiative,” meeting monthly with leaders of faith-based organizations, law enforcement, schools, and community partnerships to discuss ways to address the needs of the city’s young people.

The next year, Anthony Scott took the helm at the police department. Police Chief Scott’s “take-back-the-streets” approach has made a show of wresting control of the city from Holyoke’s criminal element. In addition to conducting dramatic drug sweeps, officers under Scott have arrested or fined citizens for lesser offenses believed to erode the quality of life in urban centers: drinking in public, playing music too loudly, and leaving trash and abandoned vehicles on their property. Scott, who is African-American, made the national media two years ago when comedian Bill Cosby, a UMass– Amherst alumnus who owns a home 40 miles away in the town of Shelburne, called Scott personally to praise his efforts to restore a sense of order on Holyoke’s streets.

There are debates over whether Scott’s approach—which includes a quixotic one-man crusade against the Bay State’s lifetime-appointed judiciary, with Scott calling for judges to be confirmed by popular vote, based on their sentencing and bail-setting records, after they have served six years on the bench—is more showmanship than substance, but violent crime seems to have leveled off. In Scott’s first year, Holyoke had six murders, says Sullivan; last year, there were three. Scott reports that between 2001 and 2005, Holyoke saw a 17 percent decrease in major crimes (a category that includes homicide, rape, assault, burglary, and auto theft).

What’s more, says Sullivan, the crime that does take place in Holyoke poses little threat to visitors or law-abiding residents. “There is very little predatory crime down here, as opposed to gang- and drug-related crime,” says Sullivan. “The reality is, if you’re going to die of anything in Holyoke, it’s going to be of boredom.”

Hodgkinson is an ardent believer in Holyoke’s revival. After graduating from Mount Holyoke College, she lived in Northampton while she worked as a Web designer. Unable to buy a house there, she purchased a home in the Holyoke Highlands in 2002.

Mayor Michael Sullivan launched a
“peace initiative” to deal with violent crime.

“I have to admit, I was even resistant to look in Holyoke initially,” she says. “Those old vibes are hard to shake off.” She’s leaving the city now for a condo in Easthampton, but her business will remain at Open Square.

“Some people still think we’re crazy for being down here, that it’s a war zone downtown and they’d get shot if they came,” says Hodgkinson. “But it’s just deserted, is what it is. I’d be intimidated to walk around here at night, but I’ve never felt threatened working here.”

Sullivan says it’s the empty landscape of the downtown industrial area that breeds fear, but that fear is what keeps downtown empty. “More activity is what makes a place safer, but it’s a chicken-and-egg thing,” he says.


In the 1960s, Holyoke took the lead on a number of social welfare initiatives. It was one of the first cities in the nation to participate both in the school breakfast program and in Head Start, the federal anti-poverty program for children, according to Sullivan. He says that several years later, the Holyoke Health Center also began offering free health care to the uninsured. And as Sullivan sees it, the city has been in the business of providing services for the poor ever since.

‘If you are in another town struggling with a drug addiction…you would probably wind up in Holyoke.’

“If you look at Holyoke and Northampton in 1960, it’s like a mirror image,” says the mayor, adding that it wasn’t long before the two cities became more distinct. “Northampton didn’t offer these services. Holyoke did. So people who needed services gravitated to Holyoke.”

Indeed, over time, social services became the city’s main industry. Last year, the education and health care sectors accounted for 33 percent of the city’s jobs, compared with 24 percent in Massachusetts as a whole, according to state figures. Developed as a “planned industrial city”—the first investors built a dam and canals to direct power from the river to the paper and textile mills in 1849, and plotted out a street grid at right angles that are unusual for New England—Holyoke began losing its industrial base in earnest about 45 years ago, when its population stood at about 53,000. Urban renewal funds poured into the city, expanding the stock of low-income housing and bringing in a wide range of social services. Today, with a population of 40,000, Holyoke is home to many of the offices and programs of the state health and human services agencies that serve the broader region, including a number of drug intervention programs. Sullivan points out that his city has 96 units of housing for the homeless, but he says no more than 10 shelter residents became homeless while living in Holyoke.

“If you become homeless in Granby, you can’t stay in Granby’s homeless shelter, because they don’t have one,” he says. “You come to Holyoke. If you are in another town struggling with a drug addiction and things are spiraling downward in your life, you may need to find affordable housing and a rehab program, which means you would probably wind up in Holyoke.”

Recently, the mayor has heard grumblings from officials outside his city about “Holyoke’s guns and drugs” finding a way into their communities. “Let’s be clear,” says Sullivan. “These aren’t Holyoke’s guns and drugs. There are no poppy fields in Holyoke.”

Still, when serving the needy is what a city is known for, it’s hard to gear business and residential development to a more upscale demographic. “The city of Holyoke is in the business of being poor,” says Eric Suher, a Holyoke native who breathed life into a number of successful music venues in downtown Northampton—including the renowned Iron Horse Music Hall, the Pearl Street nightclub, and the Calvin Theatre. Suher also owns property along Holyoke’s canals. “You can’t just shut that business down to start a new one.”

But at the Open Square mill complex, architect and developer John Aubin is trying to get Holyoke into a range of new businesses. In doing so, Aubin is carrying on a family legacy of innovative development in the valley. In 1965, his father, William Aubin, was developer of the Echo Hill neighborhood in Amherst, a forward-looking mix of single-family homes, private townhouses, and shared recreational spaces, including ponds and a field. One of the first such “cluster” developments on the East Coast, Echo Hill was featured in Better Homes and Gardens in 1971.

William Aubin bought the former paper mill that now houses Open Square in 1969, 20 years before his death. It was that project that brought John Aubin back to the area in 1999, following 10 years as a practicing architect in New York City.

About 15 percent of the 700,000-square-foot space has been renovated so far. Open Square launched with six tenants in 2000 and now has more than 50, including several attorneys, a venture capital firm, and a deli/café. Aubin hopes eventually to have about 100,000 square feet of retail space, including several restaurants, a 75-room hotel, and a black box theater or movie theater. About 5 percent of the space will be developed as studios for professional artists. He also wants to develop 80 “live/work” spaces, 24 of which he hopes to have finished within the next five years.

These would be among the few market-rate residences downtown. The only other major residential development nearby is Lyman Place, a federally subsidized project with 167 units of low-income housing. But Aubin, who now lives in downtown Holyoke himself, says living in New York gave him a different sense of the possibilities for economically mixed urban neighborhoods.

“This region doesn’t know what a city is anymore,” says Aubin. “Our [target] market is made up of people from outside the area or people from the area who have lived in urban areas and come back. This is an area for people who like diversity. The college professionals are a good base, as are people who graduate from colleges in the area.”

‘A lot of the artists…are used to cities. They’re not scared.’

So are artists and craftspeople, says Suher, who hopes to develop his canal district property into rental units or condos. “It’s a lot of the artisans who are used to cities or mixed neighborhoods,” he says. “They’re not scared.”

But in Aubin’s calculations, jobs are as important as housing units. He thinks more graduates of the local colleges would stay in the Pioneer Valley if there were greater opportunities to work here, and he hopes that Open Square will serve to foster a community of entrepreneurs that will spawn new jobs.

“I don’t see Holyoke as depending on the regional economy,” says Aubin. “It’s in a natural position to be restored as a leader. In terms of size and density, Holyoke is one of the best-planned cities in the US. You’ve got a layering of density and a tremendous housing stock. We’ve targeted businesses with good growth potential and high wage potential and have created at least 50 jobs. Several of these businesses started from scratch.”

Open Square developer John Aubin:
“This is an area for people
who like diversity.”

Brennan, of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, says since small firms have become the backbone of the technology- and service-oriented New Economy, the creation of small businesses is a sign of vitality. And these days, he says, 85 percent of businesses in the valley have 20 employees or fewer, while 75 percent have 10 or fewer.


Aubin’s building is home to a renowned educational theater company and a classical ballet academy, not to mention numerous high-tech firms. Yet it seems the most talked about business is a café and deli called the Black Sheep, which opened late last year.

A landmark in Amherst Center since 1986, the Black Sheep offers freshly baked artisan breads along with gourmet food and coffee. The menu at its second location, at Open Square, includes a Holyoke-inspired sandwich called the “Highlander”—Black Forest ham, goat cheese, tomato, and red onion on sourdough.

It’s not that everyone in Holyoke has been pining for fairly traded Peruvian coffee. But having this sort of business in town has become, according to the mayor, a source of local pride.

“Right now you hear people who don’t have any idea of what the Black Sheep really is, saying, ‘Did you hear there’s a Black Sheep in Holyoke now?’” says Sullivan. “You can tell they don’t have any idea where the Black Sheep is, either, but they know enough to understand that it’s something cutting-edge here in Holyoke.”

Hodgkinson says she hears the same thing outside the city. “A lot of people from outside Holyoke say, ‘Wow, if the Black Sheep is taking a chance on Holyoke, then the city can’t be that bad,’” she says. “And that’s huge.”

Black Sheep owner Nick Seamon viewed his Holyoke expansion as a low-risk venture. He had a customer base among workers in the building, as well as Amherst customers who worked in Holyoke and needed someplace to eat lunch. He also knew that UMass–Amherst employees were buying houses in Holyoke because of the reasonable prices.

“I don’t look at Holyoke as a depressed area,” says Seamon. “It’s an underserved area. There are a lot of people there who have money to spend but can’t get what they want.”

Right now the Black Sheep is only open Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., but plans are under way for a monthly weekend brunch. “We were talking to people in Holyoke about it,” says Seamon, “and what they told us is that whenever they want to get brunch, they have to drive up to Amherst or Northampton to get it.”

Black Sheep’s Nick Seamon says
Holyoke isn’t depressed, it’s “underserved.”

Seamon thinks downtown Holyoke would benefit from a major national retailer like Ikea or Crate & Barrel, a place that would draw people from across the region. But he doesn’t buy the local image of Holyoke as a city perpetually in decline. After all, when he opened the original Black Sheep, he was told it would never take off in such a sleepy college town. But as more people began moving to the area from places like Seamon’s native New York City, the Black Sheep was one of the only places in Amherst where they could find what they were looking for.

“What happens in a town is that people can’t see beyond their own past,” he says. “They only see the negative. But the regional market is still underserved, Holyoke in particular. I’ll be the first on the block, and I can grow this if I want.”


For all its deficits, Holyoke also has assets. It’s situated at the intersection of the Massachusetts Turnpike and I-91, and surrounded by 15 colleges and universities.

“Institutions of higher education tend to be hotbeds of ideas and culture,” says Brennan, of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission. “So having such a high number of them gives you the raw materials to make the creative economy a bigger component.”

Right now, Holyoke Community College has an art space at Open Square, and several nearby colleges hold daylong departmental meetings in the building. At one point, UMass was looking to move its art department there, according to Aubin, but that didn’t pan out.

Mount Holyoke College, in South Hadley, rents a studio for a professor in the building, and last year the college’s Water Works arts event had shuttle buses running between the college and Open Square. Several hundred students and professors from the Five Colleges attended and had a chance to see the site firsthand. In May 2005, the college’s communications office touted Mount Holyoke’s new “reach into Holyoke,” based on a search for “the kind of studio space the College does not have,” quoting art professor Joe Smith. Mount Holyoke officials looked for space in South Hadley but decided on Open Square. “It had the most rehabilitated space, it was clean, well-lit, and had a generosity of space we were looking for—30,000 square feet per floor,” according to Smith. “We also wanted a safe building protected by alarms and security guards.”

One of the first tenants to take a chance on Open Square was an educational theater company called Enchanted Circle, which works with schools and social service agencies. Executive director Priscilla Hellweg, a graduate of Hampshire College, joined the group a few years after it was founded as a nonprofit organization in Amherst, in the 1970s. The organization has maintained a student internship program with Hampshire College for 20 years and also works on projects with the sociology department at Smith. Two years ago, the group moved into Open Square.

“The five colleges have huge potential to bring people here, and there’s great crossover potential,” says Hellweg. “It is being tapped. But there’s more that can happen.”

Like others, Hellweg thinks events of all kinds, college-sponsored or otherwise, that bring outsiders to Holyoke will help people become more comfortable in the city. She recalls that after one performance opening, Enchanted Circle held a champagne reception that drew patrons from all over, including, she says, “people from Amherst and Northampton who said [they had] never been to this part of town before.” And when Mikhail Baryshnikov performed at the War Memorial Auditorium in Holyoke two years ago, she recalls, “There were people who came to that who hadn’t set foot in Holyoke in years.”

For all the cultivation of the arts and hopes for upscale development, Holyoke is in no danger of losing its identity as a tough, industrial city, even as it becomes post-industrial. Aubin, for one, plans to make the most of the commanding architecture of his former manufacturing buildings even as he develops them into something very different.

“There’s a certain modernism,” he says of the mills along the canals. “It’s actually one of the striking features, having these large geometrical features. It blends well with contemporary design. I’m trying to infuse modern design into the bones and the materials of the historical buildings.”

Walking the route that one day will be the CanalWalk, Mayor Sullivan points to an old steam pipeline that will remain visible even after the project is done because it would cost $1 million to bury it underground. Not everyone is happy about that, but it’s OK with Sullivan.

“You can’t hide the fact that this is an industrial area,” says Sullivan. “You can’t gentrify this place to the point that it will satisfy everyone’s sensibilities.”

Meet the Author
From the rear of a decrepit building, Sullivan takes in the view of the canal district. “There is a grittiness, but it’s a kind of beauty,” says the mayor.

Melissa DaPonte Katz is a freelance writer in Amherst.