Scouting neighborhoods

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, 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.


Life in the Hampshires

Two days and two nights in the Northampton, Massachusetts area has left me with mixed feelings about the place. My feelings are mostly effusive, thankfully, but no community meets all the checkboxes for a perfect community, and Northampton has a few tiny minuses. Curiously its “minuses” reveal more about me and what make me uncomfortable than they do about the community. What makes me a tad uncomfortable about an otherwise beautiful mountainous area of Western Massachusetts? In the case of Northampton, it’s its obvious lack of ethnic diversity. People there largely look a lot like me: white, prosperous middle class just twenty or more years younger than I am. There are some Asians, and I saw some Hispanics and one Muslim woman covered except for her face. Otherwise, it was an all-White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) paradise. Maybe the protestant in WASP can be left out. There are churches in Northampton, but many of them have been converted to other uses. Six Catholic churches have collapsed into one church. The community strikes me as an overly educated lot, not surprising as Hampshire County is overrun with colleges for its relatively small population. The University of Massachusetts across the Connecticut River in Amherst is the heavyweight college, but there are also lesser known private universities such as Hampshire College (where a niece went) and Smith College. Consequently they have little need these days for traditional religion. Sundays instead are genuine days of rest, and generally far away from a church. It is a good day to commune with nature, and there is plenty of nature readily at hand. So it is a good community for those into spirituality but not so much religion. Soak in the fresh air, let the natural sound of wind rustling through leaves fill you with peace, and enjoy the smell of honeysuckle and midsummer flowers in the air instead.

Connecticut River near Northampton, MA (Holyoke MA)
Connecticut River near Northampton, MA (Holyoke MA)

Those darn hippies have basically taken over Hampshire County. Curiously, those darn hippies have done a great job of it, modeling the sort of society we should become everywhere. In some ways those hippies are downright conservative. One of them in a guy named Craig, who runs the B&B we stayed at. He is a passionate community activist and organizer, and passionate about Hampshire County in particular. He did not know we were looking at retirement areas until we arrived. He spent over two hours the next morning driving us around, showing us almost every housing option available, and giving us invaluable insight into the culture and values of the hippies that reinvigorated this area. They are conservative in the sense that they hate to tear down anything so up have gone the historic districts instead. They work closely with developers to restore old houses, keeping the character of a community a hundred years earlier. Their work is quite impressive. Northampton is just beautiful: a community anyone who lives there can be proud of, closely knitted, walkable, bikeable (lots of bike trails, and bike paths on the major roads), with natural areas interwoven into traditional neighborhoods.

Looking west from Mount Tom, MA toward Easthampton
Looking west from Mount Tom, MA toward Easthampton

Northampton only gets funky downtown. There it becomes Mayberry if it were overrun with flower children and their descendants. All sorts of boutique shops and excellent restaurants can be found downtown. It’s a popular place to be, and draws not just people from the immediate area but from much further out. Which takes me to one of the other things I don’t like about Northampton. It reminds me too much of Georgetown, the well-moneyed historic district in Washington, D.C. where, like Northampton, it’s impossible to find a parking space. People are just drawn to it. It is a combustible mixture of old and new, melded together somehow into something unique that Madison Avenue would like to manufacture, but cannot.

That is because real communities like this cannot be installed. They work when the people come together and decide to push their values, and do so over many decades. The mostly white teenagers hanging out downtown with pierced nostrils, the incense filled boutiques with naughty T-shirts and novelties, are a result of a community that sets standards where people can breathe a little bit, and it’s okay. While there may be a lack of ethnic diversity in and around Northampton, you can’t say the same about its cultural diversity. There are more lesbians in Northampton than in any other place of its size in the country. Your sexual orientation or lack of it, your love of pierced nostrils makes you utterly common. Everyone sort of sees past it.

An oh, the scenery! The Connecticut River winds through the county. It is a beautiful river, lined with green shores and capped with green mountains, odd only in the sense that they run east to west instead of north to south. This is the richest farmland in the country, for those who want to farm it, and there are plenty of farms in the area. Large tracks of land have been purchased so they will always be farmland. As in other communities like Boulder, Colorado, other areas have been purchased to be forever natural. Those darn hippies show their conservative side: nature is beautiful and precious and they won’t let anyone mess with it. The result in an area that is intoxicating in a good way: peaceful, natural, community-focused and healthy. In short, it is a compelling area for us to consider retiring to, made much more compelling by its relatively low real estate prices. Granted, many of the houses are a hundred years old or more, and more than a few need substantial renovation. But where else can you enjoy such unique combination of people and nature at such a low price? These houses generally sell for between $250,000 and $350,000. It’s a great value, but what make it a best value are not the affordable housing prices, but the community.

We spent our two nights in Florence, a village just to the west of Northampton. Curiously I found Florence more compelling than Northampton. I have a limited ability to appreciate boutiques and vast numbers of ethnic restaurants, although it is nice to know they are there should I want them. Florence on the other hand felt more real. It is a community with its own compelling history, including Sojourner Truth, who tried to create a utopian society in Florence. Florence, as well as Northampton, has liberal religious values that go back to the Underground Railroad, where it was a popular way station. It stitches itself together with neighboring villages through bike paths, ordinances, veterans’ hospitals, old houses with big verandas and high walkability scores. For most of life’s necessities you don’t need to get in a car. You simply walk or bike to it. This includes sublime pleasures like having breakfast at Miss Florence’s Diner, with the 60’s juke box at the table and a deliciously simple western omelet for breakfast with two pieces of multigrain toast with butter hanging off the side of the plate.

In short, Northampton and the various *hampton communities that nestle nearby, including Florence, Easthampton, Amherst and Hadley offer a compelling lure for those looking for authenticity in a community, in spite of its lack of ethnic diversity. Those babbling brooks, winding roads, old mills (many of which are being restored and repurposed) present a compelling package for those of you out there hungering for home, like quite possibly my wife and me.