In the village

The Thinker by Rodin

I’ve traded in suburban sprawl for village life. Fairfax County, Virginia where I used to live was mostly very prosperous suburban sprawl. There were two cities (Vienna and Fairfax City) and a couple of towns but mostly the county consists of endless acres of detached houses, strip malls and neighborhood schools. The only distinction among the sprawl was what developer built the neighborhood and how moneyed the people they were marketing to. Fifty years earlier most of the land was pastoral, home to more cows than people.

Florence, a village in the city of Northampton, Massachusetts where I currently live has history. Sitting a few miles to the west of the city, the clear Mill River drove its early development. I know this from spending a couple of hours walking around the village with a local historian. The Mill River was aptly named. Like many places in New England, mills were built around the river to harness its power. From its start as a community in the 1830s, Florence embraced diversity and practiced progressive values. In 1832 Samuel Whitmarsh planted mulberry trees in hopes of creating a sustainable silk business. Run as a community project it attracted both abolitionists and those looking for a utopia. Women and minorities had an equal voting share in the mill, which was essentially a cooperative, which also handled the schools and was a de-facto government. The mill eventually proved to be not financially successful, a victim of foreign competition. But the idea of a utopian community remained.

Florence got its name from Dr. Charles Munde, who built a business called The Florence Water Cure around the pristine and clean Mill River. In the 19th century water could not usually be trusted as it was often contaminated and there were no obvious ways to purify water. Instead people drank a lot of alcohol: beer mostly, but spirits of all kinds which had the benefit of being sterile. While this kept them from getting sick it drove the incidence of alcoholism. Some seeking a cure came to Florence for the Water Cure, which involved drinking lots of water from the clean Mill River and being alternately wrapped in hot and cold towels with water from the Mill River.

Munde’s building is gone but there is a new building at its location: an Elks Lodge. About that time the Underground Railroad to help slaves escape to Canada started. For a while Florence was a stop on the railroad, until Congress unwisely passed a law that made it a criminal offense to aid and abet these fugitives. There was a sizeable minority community of African Americans in Florence in the 19th century where they were generally welcomed. For seven years one of its residents was Sojourner Truth, a former slave who advocated for equality and justice. Her home is still there on Park Street but is not prominently marked.

Eventually all the lots were taken along the river, so new residents moved to higher elevations. Gradually what is now known as Locust and Main streets became the center of town. Today the City of Northampton is known for its progressive values. Back in the 18th and 19th century Northampton was very much conservative and Calvinist in outlook. Florence, its uppity village to the west with its progressive values did much to spread its values there. Today, the City of Northampton is one of the most progressive places on the east coast.

Florence is not entirely without woes. Western Massachusetts is not as prosperous as the more densely populated eastern part. There is little in the way of industry here. The area does have its colleges and universities so it attracts a lot of educated folk who mostly work for these institutions, which include a women’s college (Smith) in Northampton. A lot of people struggle here as they do anywhere else, working two or sometimes three jobs to get by. A few bums can be found in downtown Florence. My credit monitoring service alerts me to a number of known child molesters and convicted child pornographers living downtown as well. A cheap heroin epidemic affects Florence to some extent as well. Mostly though Florence is healthy and well ordered with houses more than a hundred years old being the rule here, most of which are decently maintained.

It will take me years to discover all the virtues of this new community. Some are obvious. Look Park is just across the street from us. It’s a large park excellent for strolling and there are lots of us strolling it at any time of day, as there are a lot of us retirees living here. I walk around it, sometimes more than once, at least several times a week. If so inclined I can pause at a gazebo and look out at the pond, or wander down to the banks of the Mill River and watch the water rush by. It is currently decorated with holiday lights, which makes driving through it a treat for local citizens. In more temperate weather there are activities for kids: mini golf, train rides and a petting zoo as well as some activities for adults including tennis and swimming. I watched one wedding performed there in October at an outdoor shelter. If you want nature, Look Park is more sanitized nature. Real nature is never far away in Florence. In my case, I just have to climb the hill behind us. Much of the land around here is in conservation areas that will never get developed.

There is also the Northampton Bikeway nearby which allows bicyclists to get downtown conveniently under a tree-lined canvas. They can take it across the Connecticut River past Amherst and as far east as Belchertown if they wish, or south to Easthampton where they can connect with other routes that take them further south into Holyoke. The trail is being extended to the town boundary of Williamsburg to the west.

Part of the success of Florence is that it grows slowly, if at all. Rather than tearing down buildings they are usually retained for their historical value but rehabilitated inside, often becoming small condominiums in the process. Our community is the exception with new but pricey housing for the 55+ community.

For exercise I walk into town regularly, often along the bike path. This time of year even with the leaves absent, the bike path is still bucolic. It’s an easy walk, about a mile each way. Downtown Florence has a few notable places, most notably the Miss Florence Diner at the corner of Maple and Main, which goes back to the 1940s. You get an authentic diner experience at Miss Flo’s, prices are cheap and the omelets are excellent. Florence also has its own casket company near Maple and Main, an inconspicuous business at best. It’s probably what’s left of industry in Florence. Another institution is Florence Hardware, very much a neighborhood hardware store where in its compact space you can find pretty much everything also available at Lowes and Home Depot, but with much friendlier service. Less an institution than a community hangout, Cooper’s Corner at the intersection of Main and Chestnut Streets offers a clean and stylish combination package store and mini-mart that includes its own deli, premade sandwiches and fresh bakery items. During the summer time, my wife reports that the best soft serve ice cream is also downtown at Florence Soft Serve. (The best ice cream in the area is unquestionably Herrell’s in downtown Northampton.)

Overall we are grooving on Florence and expect to groove even more so in coming years as we fully settled in. All of life’s conveniences are generally within a mile or two of home. Nature is always at hand. It is fortunately not special enough where it has become trendy, which would spoil its charm. For a mini-urban experience Northampton is a few miles away. If you feel the lure of real strip malls though you will have to cross the river and venture into Hadley. There you can find a mini-mall, movie theaters, Applebees and lots of other chains that I was glad to escape.

Florence is not quite Mayberry, but it does have an authentic healthy village feeling to it. If you enjoy village life, you’d have a hard time finding a better place.

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