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.

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