Amazing.Net Store, Autumn 2009
This romantic moniker for Northampton as “Paradise City” is a pernicious bit of false advertising, and we ought to try to stamp it out of our vocabulary. Okay, in 1851, the Swedish Nightingale, Jennie Lind, came to Northampton, stayed at the Round Hill Hotel, and took a walk by the pond. Then, she declared, for all the world to hear, “Why this is paradise!”
She was on her honeymoon, after all, marrying her long time accompanist. When you’re in love, everything looks a little better, and P.T. Barnum was Jennie’s promoter. It was probably summertime, when everything around here looks nicer.
Let’s face it: Northampton isn’t paradise, if it ever was. Maybe it’s still a paradise to artists, honeymooners, real estate people, the Chamber of Commerce and newcomers fleeing cities. I am sure that no one ever reminded Jennie that about forty years before she was here, a huge mob, numbering in the thousands, witnessed the legal lynching of James Halligan and Dominic Daley, just a stone’s throw from Paradise Pond. Irish Catholics were not welcome here in Northampton, and the priest that came to give the immigrants’ final rites found there was no room at the inn. I forget who finally put him up for the night.
And after the Irish came the Polish, who worshipped in church cellars and were treated like dirt by the Irish. There is a relentless romanticism about the place that is promoted as the home of idealism and reform, when we’ve always had more than our share of ugliness and bigotry.
When I came to Northampton in the early eighties, the first decent job I had was working in Hampshire Heights and Florence Heights doing employment advocacy. I drove people to the employment office, and I will always remember how petrified the counselor there was when she had to deal with Benny Johnson, who is big and black, but as friendly as all get out. She kept asking me what he wanted until I got so fed up with being the interpreter that I got up and left. I don’t think she had ever talked to a black person before. “Look,” I remember saying to her. “He can talk as well as I can. Ask him what he wants.”
And I also remember one of the first jobs I landed for anybody at the Heights was working for a contractor who was cleaning the city’s sewer lines. God, he stank when he came home from his first day at work. He had been down in the sewer running under Paradise Road, wading through the you know what. It was the first time he had ever earned more than the minimum wage and he was grateful to me for finding him the job.
Living conditions in Florence Heights were so bad that I hated to go up there. Nobody went in those places except cops and social workers. When people moved out, no one moved in. Cockroaches spilled out from behind the light switches if you pulled the cover plates off. The director of the Housing Authority at the time was driving Hispanic people out, and when he had the place as empty as he could, he was going to use state money to fix the place up. One day one of my clients got shot dead next to the dumpster, and sitting on the curb near the death scene I felt this mortal blackness all through me. If I didn’t fight, I’d have to leave for the sake of my own sanity. It wasn’t until I got a bunch of us in a car and we went to the Springfield office of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) that anything happened.
The Gazette and the Republican didn’t care about the complexes until the story got too big to ignore. They have never reported on living conditions in public housing and probably never will, because it is unpleasant to remind people that there are two, three, a dozen different Northamptons. There is Meadowbrook and Cahill and Crescent Street and Dryads Green.
The ugly truth is that for all the inclusiveness and diversity that we are supposed to have in this community, most of our minorities will live out their lives in projects, not normal houses. Will the woman reported on by Jendi Reiter in Northampton Media ever make it out of Cahill to Tobin Manor? I doubt it. For years Cahill Apartments, has been a dumping ground for difficult to place people, people with mental disabilities, and problem tenants who the authority can’t evict but can transfer. I gave the Gazette a study I did of Cahill some time ago, and they are just sitting on it. It’ll never hatch on its own.
Jon Hite, executive director of Northampton Housing Authority, was a political appointee, who learned on the job, and he is no great shakes as an administrator, but he is part of the club, helping the Mayor win elections, and surviving year after year by making excuses. The only cure that would work for public housing, I hate to say it, is to privatize and depoliticize it. Give Jon early retirement, give private owners some state money to fix these complexes up, and sign contracts that mandate on-site managers and high standards for maintenance. Charter schools, charter housing? There, I feel better. Jenny Lind, wherever you are, thanks for nothing.