Scouting neighborhoods

The Thinker by Rodin

When you haven’t moved in 21 years, moving becomes a big deal. It becomes a bigger deal when you are selling a house, moving out of state, moving into a new home and moving for pleasure all at the same time.

Essentially my wife and I have been planning to move for about a decade now. That’s how long we’ve been examining communities we’ve traveled to for retirement potential. It turns out that the more communities you look at, the larger the possibilities and permutations become. There are plenty of communities that would suit us, plenty even when we considered that we could not afford to live in all of them. There were plenty that she liked and that I did not, and visa versa. Eventually we either had to choose something or stay where we were at for the rest of our lives.

We chose the western Massachusetts area last year, sort of tentatively. This week we are back in the Northampton area of western Massachusetts, this time for scouting neighborhoods. Last year we checked out four candidates sites including Watertown MA, Ithaca NY and Burlington VT, and the Northampton area won. Deciding to spend four nights here by the banks of the Connecticut River shows our intent and seriousness. Our base of operations is a place called the D. Hotel, close to the River, technically in nearby Holyoke but essentially in Northampton. It’s a great hotel, and probably the nicest in this area, with two quality restaurants literally next door.

Among our first investments now that we are here is a street map. Yes, it’s also available in Google Maps, but a street map is still essential for this sort of analysis. It takes a lot of work to find candidate neighborhoods and study how it all connects into a larger infrastructure. Finding housing that we were interested in was facilitated principally by zillow.com, the real estate web site, which showed us potential neighborhoods that had what we were looking for: essentially very large condominiums. Most of these are marketed for people our age: 55+.

We have more than two decades caring for a single-family house, and we’re sick of it. Sick of cutting grass, repairing roofs and shoveling snow. With a condominium, a condominium fee handles all the exterior maintenance. Interior changes would still be our responsibility, but that is more manageable. Here in snowy western Massachusetts, these sorts of houses can be found, but they are a tiny share of the total market. The ideal condo though should have some extras. I wanted a mancave, or more specifically a man room, something with a window and that was reasonably private where I could concentrate on writing and programming. The ideal condo would also have all the essentials on one level, anticipating the day when age would make it difficult to traverse stairs. It would also come with bathrooms accessible to us if we ended up in wheelchairs. These units are out there, even in this area. We are not the only seniors tapping into this market. It’s just not a huge market, but a profitable enough market to attract some developers.

The ideal community is more than a bunch of aging adults sitting in condos, but would be connected to a larger and vibrant community. There would be things to do nearby, interesting restaurants reasonably close and various cultural events to enjoy as well as feel close to nature. The Northampton area seemed to have all of these: five colleges nearby, more ethnic restaurants than you could ever want, and a good local arts scene not to mention artists all over the place with studio space. They are often found in refurbished buildings with brick exteriors that used to hum with machinery of an earlier industrial age.

And so we focused on communities. Northampton itself was an obvious choice, except for its downtown, where it has become a victim of its own success. There is not quite the housing we were looking for there, and parking is problematic given all the trendy stores and restaurants downtown. There are possibilities further out from the center of town, but it looked like we would have to trade walkability for space, green space and quiet.

The Oxbow, Easthampton, MA
The Oxbow, Easthampton, MA

Easthampton though is now calling us. This small city, south rather than east of Northampton, called me from afar as I studied it. Now it is calling me strongly as I spent a good part of the day in the city. It seems to be calling my wife as well. First, we found two condominium complexes in Easthampton that seem to meet most if not all of our needs in a condo. Second, Easthampton is a city, and thus a coherent place. We have spent our lives in largely unincorporated suburbs, with some basic services like police and fire controlled by the county, but much of the rest effectively controlled by the homeowner’s association.

A city, even a small one like Easthampton, is a contiguous area that is centrally managed. That means something to us at this stage in our lives. It means you can drive for a couple of miles and the zoning does not change. It means that you pay taxes to an entity that manages all this. It means the city is responsible for the water, sewage, trash pickup, parks and should you choose to use it, a burial site for your remains. When done right, and Easthampton seems to be doing it right, it offers a consistent experience as well as a set of implicit shared values tailored for the area you live. And if you don’t like the way the management is running the place, you can try to elect people who will do a better job, or run for office yourself.

Easthampton though is also connected to the rest of Hampshire County, not just through roads but also through common biking trails, as well as much in the way of a shared values. Throughout Hampshire County, there is an appreciation for the environment and for preserving the past. Historic districts maintain the look from a hundred years ago. Common space and community gardens with deeds ensuring they will never be developed, along with many nature sanctuaries, preserve natural space. It is also politically liberal. Rachel Maddow cut her broadcasting teeth in Northampton, and clusters of same sex couples are as common as rain out here. No one thinks this is the least bit weird, which is as it should be.

Beyond Hampshire County is more concentrated civilization. Springfield turns out to be a major city, definitely the largest in western Massachusetts and not as run down as I feared. Holyoke too looks much better than I thought it would, with beautiful estates in the northern part of the city. We still need to check out Chicopee to its south. We traveled through Hartford, Connecticut on our way up, about an hour away. Hartford is substantially bigger than Springfield, and is quite modern. More importantly, it has a major airport and a Southwest Airlines hub. New York City is two and a half hours away by car. Boston is ninety minutes away. And trains can take us both places with reasonable ease while we enjoy a home very much in the midst of nature.

The result is that we are finding not just the neighborhoods, but the towns and small cities that align with this phase of our lives. We won’t find the perfect community. There is not the time or the resources to find such a place, if it exists. You can however be pragmatic. Hampshire County and Easthampton in particular is coming together into a frame, and under the frame is its title: our new home.

 

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