Western Massachusetts and Place
January 22, 2015 § 6 Comments
I’m teaching a course on space, place, landscape, and memory this semester. To get us thinking about these things, I have my students reading this article from the Boston Globe last week. In it, the author, llison Lobron, claims that Bostonians don’t care about Western Massachusetts. This isn’t exactly news, Western Mass is another world from the Boston region, and this has been blatantly obvious going back to the Revolutionary Era and Daniel Shays’ Rebellion in Springfield in 1786. There are still bullet holes in the Springfield Armory from Shays’ Revolt, apparently.
Anyway. Lobron goes on to make a claim that Western Mass is really more attuned to New York City than Boston, that there are more Giants and Yankees caps than Patriots and Red Sox caps where she lives, in Great Barrington, etc. Her TV stations come from Albany, NY, not Boston. (It’s also interesting that, in 2012, Lobron claimed that Great Barrington was “Cambridge with more time.” She is, after all, a transplanted Bostonian) I find this an interesting argument in a lot of way, given that she is essentialising Western Mass as a whole based on her experience in Great Barrington. My experiences in the Hilltowns of Western Mass and the Pioneer Valley say otherwise. Here, the Red Sox and Patriots are the main teams; here, the “city” is Boston, not New York, for the most part. TV stations here are Boston-based, too. She claims that where she lives, it’s easier to get your hands on the New York Times than the Boston Globe. Here, they’re about equal.
So what? So, it is incredibly difficult to generalise about space and region, apparently. Great Barrington is about 60 miles southwest of where I’m sitting in Amherst right now. Amherst is about 90 miles from Boston. Great Barrington, on the other hand is about 140 miles away, which is, coincidentally, the distance from Great Barrington to New York City, but it’s only 45 miles to Albany.
Lobron is correct, I think, when she notes that for most people in the Boston region, the world ends just to the west of Worcester. She is right to note that the state government in Boston generally ignores the western part of the state (I would add that it tends to ignore the central part, too). Newly-installed Governor Charlie Baker, for example, has no one from Western Mass in his cabinet or transition team. Plus ça change, says I. Even when Martha Coakley, who lost to Baker in the November election, was in power in Governor Deval Patrick’s team, despite her Western Mass roots, focused more on her adopted home of Cambridge, than her hometown of Pittsfield.
But. What I take away from Lobron’s article more than anything is that place tends to mean an intensely thing; our “place” is tightly bounded, and generalisations like “Western Mass” or “Central Mass” really don’t mean much in the larger scheme, because the 60 miles that separate my office at UMass-Amherst from Lobron in Great Barrington are huge, just as huge as the 90 miles between here and Boston. Somewhere between here and Great Barrington, on the other side of Springfield and the I-91 corridor, Massachusetts becomes Eastern New York.
I did appreciate her point about the railroad lines. I grew up in a western Mass. summer community that mostly consisted of New York folk. They drove but followed the old train routes. That said, you’re right that there is huge diversity just in western Massachusetts….
Indeed, I was thinking of those hilltowns you are located in whilst thinking about that article. All of the old family friends of the Sheas, or at least most of them, are New Yorkers, but when I decided to annoy people by wearing a New York Yankees cap for a summer a few years back, I got mostly static from people in the Hilltowns and the Valley. But, at any rate, it’s a huge, diverse place out here, and where I’m sitting right now, in my office at UMass, is very different than the Hilltowns, or areas like Great Barrington.
And one can also get into “touristy” western Massachusetts versus the rest of it, Amherst vs. Northampton, or the northern part of western Mass. versus the southern part. The southern part has always had better transportation connections, from the days of river travel to railroads to highways today; just compare the Pike to route 2 (for better or worse).
Interestingly, we had this conversation in class today. I have a student from Sturbridge, and one from Adams, and they noted the massive disparity in their respective ends of “Western Mass.” And then we talked about Greenfield v. Springfield v. Northampton v. Amherst.
The Pioneer Valley Association, formed to promote tourism in the valley (for which it coined the name) in the late 1930s, put its headquarters in Northampton so as not to favor north or south, and made sure its initial publication, a pamphlet on the “river gods” included historical figures from all three river counties.
I did not know that, but, um, the river gods are Irish, dammit!