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.

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.

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.

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.

 

Life in the Hampshires

The Thinker by Rodin

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.