New England oddities

The Thinker by Rodin

We moved up to Massachusetts’s Pioneer Valley in April. Where the heck is the Pioneer Valley? The Pioneer Valley follows the Connecticut River through Western Massachusetts. It sits roughly between the Berkshire Mountains close to New York State and the Boston metropolitan area to its east. It’s a beautiful but underappreciated part of the country, which is part of its charm. Its largest city is Springfield, which is Massachusetts’s third largest city. We’re hanging out in Easthampton its the north, while we wait to move into our house in Florence hopefully in a few weeks.

We’re in a getting acquainted phase. Life is definitely slower here, but not too slow. Nature is easy to get to and is often right outside your door. There are many city amenities too. Northampton has Smith College, a women’s college, but across the river you will also find Mount Holyoke (another women’s college), Hampshire College, Amherst College and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Northampton has a bustling arts scene, a totally cute downtown, an amazing number of really good restaurants and little in the way of traffic.

Still, having lived here four months there are some things here that strike me odd, at least compared to where we came from. Here for your amusement is some that I’ve noted:

  • While there is no noticeable New England accent this far west, there are some regionalisms you encounter from time to time. You can find Subways out here but it can be hard to find a “submarine” there. That’s because they call them “grinders”. A grinder though appears to be a toasted submarine. I’m not sure what they call a non-toasted grinder. I doubt it’s a submarine. Maybe you say, “Gimme a grinder, hold the heat.”
  • Governance out here is kind of peculiar. The counties are largely disempowered entities. There may be a county jail and courthouse, but that’s about it. Instead, each county is subdivided into various towns and cities and that’s where real power is exercised.
  • Towns in New England operate differently than other towns. Real business is transacted at town meetings so exactly what the town decides to do really depends on who happens to show up, and that’s typically whoever cares enough to attend. Since a lot of citizens are apathetic, primarily those that show up at town meetings exercise power, all without the need to run a campaign. Where I came from (Northern Virginia) no one would have an opinion about whether the school system should buy a new school bus. These sorts of issues that typically have to be voted on by citizenry at a town meeting. While there are town officials, their powers are pretty weak, with major decisions made by those who bother to show up at town meetings.
  • Because of the way that towns work in New England is kind of a hassle unless the population of the town is relatively small, towns have incentive to incorporate into cities. That’s true of where I am living now (Easthampton). There are only 16,000 residents in Easthampton but running it as a town was such a hassle that in 1999 voters decided to become a city instead. This meant that there were no more town meetings and voters had to elect a city council instead. At least in Easthampton’s case, while it is officially a city it still thinks of itself as a town. It can’t seem to get its act together to do things you would expect a city would do, like fix its roads. On the plus side, citizens don’t have to go through the hassle of attending town meetings regularly.
  • The roads around here make little sense and are quite obviously the paved over cattle tracks of two hundred or more years earlier. They take you to places you don’t particularly want to go, but where people needed to go hundreds of years ago, perhaps an old mill by the river. This means getting from Point A to Point B rarely involves a direct route, but winding your way through lots of streets and side streets instead.
  • Road names are often practically named. Northampton for example has Easthampton Road that takes you to Easthampton. Cross over into Easthampton and it becomes Northampton Street because it will take you to Northampton. This made sense when it took longer to get between places but the two cities are very close together, so it makes little sense anymore.
  • Each city and town replicates street names in the other cities and towns, and since they are all close together it gets really confusing to navigate anywhere. It helps if you never go outside your municipality. You can count on your town having a Pleasant Street, a Main Street, a Lyman Street, an Elm Street, a Maple Street and a Prospect Street. I have no idea who this Lyman person was but his name is everywhere. He must have been very popular in Easthampton because there is both a Lyman Street and a Lyman Avenue, less than a mile apart from each other. In Northampton there is a Prospect Street and a Prospect Avenue and oddly they intersect. An “avenue” would suggest a wider street but Prospect Street is much wider than Prospect Avenue. Go figure.
  • The same road will have multiple names. State Road 9 cuts east to west through the Pioneer Valley but its name constantly changes. In Northampton alone, it starts out by the river as Bridge Street then morphs into Main Street downtown then becomes Elm Street, then becomes North Elm Street, then Locust Street then reverts back to Main Street when you enter the village of Florence. All these name changes occur within a few miles.
  • Farm stands are everywhere. During the harvest season like now you hardly have to drive anywhere to run into a farm stand, and it’s easy to walk to one too. It’s all locally grown, generally in the field behind the farm stand. It seems to be a form of supplementary income for these families and their mini farms. If you want more variety there is also a weekly farmers’ market where you can buy fresh breads and locally organically raised beef, poultry and chicken.
  • Chains are few but independent businesses are many. Northampton has a couple of Subways and Starbucks, but just a couple. There is a Walmart on the north side of town, but no Target, no Applebees, and no fern bars to speak of. The closest thing to a popular chain is Dunkin Donuts, which are everywhere in New England. In short, if you pine to run an independent business, it’s a great place to locate. Plan to drive quite a ways if you want to go to a mall, see a movie or shop at a Costco or BJs.

There is more to explore in the years ahead, so perhaps in some future post I will post more of these oddities.