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.

Soft landing

The Thinker by Rodin

There is no question about it: Massachusetts is lovely in the spring. Many areas can say the same thing, of course. Moving further north has reminded me of what I gave up when I moved to the Mid Atlantic. One thing was the lilac bush. Make that a million lilac bushes. There was the occasional lilac bush in my old neighborhood, but they are native here in the north, they are everywhere and whether you like it or not they heavily perfume the air for several weeks. If you don’t like their smell you either have to tolerate it or stay indoors.

And speaking of indoors, here in Western Massachusetts you can be indoors and outdoors at the same time. That’s because most of the time in the spring and summer you can and should open the windows for most of the day. And if you do, this time of year you will smell lilacs. Most of the time there is a gentle wind blowing, usually from the northwest. It is a healthy air, not air pumped full of sulfur dioxide and other nasty chemicals typical of the Midwest power plants that blew air toward my old neighborhood. It’s largely clean, pure and invigorating.

It’s beginning to occur to me that my old environment shaped the man I am. Mostly I shuttled in a car from place to place, from one indoor environment to another. Now most of the time the windows are open, at least a crack. It is like infinite lungfuls of health are continuously surging through our home. I am naturally happier because my environment is more attuned to what is natural for me. So far there have been no ozone days to worry about. With little in the way of automobile congestion or carbon emitting power plants, when it does get hot it feels more tolerable.

And it has gotten hot around here, well, at least very warm. We approached 90 one day, and had one uncomfortable week when temperatures ascended into the high 80s most days. We turned on the window air conditioner in our apartment to find it wasn’t really cooling. Fortunately the landlord replaced it the following day. If we use the air conditioner, it tends to be later in the day. Usually by sundown it has cooled enough to reopen the windows, and usually there is a breeze to let in.

Yes, environment does shape who you are. That’s clear to me. The Washington D.C. region was hyper-kinetic, traffic clogged and overly educated. I became somewhat hyper-kinetic and overly educated just to keep up with the Joneses. Here in Easthampton, Massachusetts its much more laid back. I haven’t encountered an angry person yet. This is not Boston. People here are pleasant, nice and friendly but not plastic. For the most part they are simple but good people simply enjoying this ride called life.

Their friendliness is natural but somehow I feel somewhat reticent to accept it. Our second Sunday we made an appearance at the local Unitarian Universalist church and we overwhelmed with their graciousness and friendliness. Even before the service started we were introduced to two sets of future neighbors from our soon to be 55+ community. We got to know them better in the social hour after service. Within a day we were on the community’s mailing list, and invitations started coming in. With all residents 55+, they are mostly retired or partially retired. They have plenty of time on their hands. So perhaps that explained their seemingly excessive curiosity about us. We don’t actually live in our new 55+ community yet because our house is under construction. But after attending several community events, it’s like we are already living there. With about forty houses everyone knows everyone else and everyone knows our name: we have an instant set of new friends. There is a book club for the women that my wife attended. There is a guy’s night out while women are attending the book club. There I got to meet many of the men in the community around a big table at Roberto’s, a local pizza place. There is even a knitting group that my wife went to; similar to the one she used to attend. Most recently there was a wine tasting event that we attended. Strangely I won the competition although I don’t have much of a wine palate. The bottle of Pinot Noir that I won will come in handy when we officially move in and we invite the neighbors over for a house warming.

If only we could move in, but it still looks like it won’t be for a few months. I biked up to the neighborhood in Florence today on the excuse to get our mail (we’re having mail sent there). There are little else but clean bike trails between here and there, trails that are often covered under a canopy of green leaves. Our soon to be next door neighbors greeted me by name by the mail kiosk. They know us better than we know them. It will take time to associate all their faces with names.

In the meantime I’ve been invited to join their biking club, which includes regular bike trips to Westhampton for bagels and breakfast. Our house to be is mostly a shell, but the outer walls are up and the roof is on. Most recently the electrical wiring was roughed into place, but largely construction is not going as quickly as we would like. Our very small apartment here in Easthampton is feeling claustrophobic. As much as my wife and I love each other, we are seeing too much of each other. The place is too small to have friends over. The kitchen seats only two, and there is no dining room. We want our house finished, our house on the hill, overlooking a park with Mount Tom framing the south. We want our stuff out of storage and a couple of new cats wandering around it to make it home.

Meanwhile I have consulting and programming projects to keep me busy. I am often on the bike trails, averaging fifteen miles or so per trip. Easthampton is not without its charms or its amenities. My wife has become attached to its Tasty Top ice cream stand. We are both discovering the charms of downtown Northampton, including its library, the Tuesday Farmers Market and its lovely downtown. (The library includes probably the smallest presidential library ever: the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library. President Coolidge was a former resident and mayor of Northampton.) Its downtown includes two stores of note: Thornes Marketplace (a sort of mini-mall) and Faces (a very eclectic store with mostly funny and offbeat items). Chain stores are few around here but there are many restaurants of superior quality and diversity. Most businesses are independently owned, and at least in downtown Northampton they all seem to be prospering.

Our first winter here will perhaps expose an ugly side to this area. Overall it remains lovely, charming, pleasant and friendly. It will take a few years to have informed opinions about our new neighborhood and our neighbors. Right now it satisfies our need for a quieter lifestyle, some city amenities, the best parts of New England, and a feeling of closeness to nature.