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.

A Storm of Witchcraft: Salem in 1692 & Ballyvadlea in 1895

December 15, 2014 § 8 Comments

IMG_0629I read my colleague Emerson Baker’s fantastic A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience this weekend.  Salem bills itself as “Witch City, USA”, the image of a witch on a broom adorns the police cars here.  My wife is on the board of the Salem Award Foundation, which seeks to draw

upon the lessons of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, [to promote] awareness, understanding and empathy in support of human rights, tolerance and social justice. We advance social change through educational programming, stewardship of the Salem Witch Trials Memorial as a place of reflection, and by awarding and celebrating contemporary champions who embody our mission.

The Salem Witch Trials Memorial

The Salem Witch Trials Memorial

As a public historian, the Hallowe’en silliness has fascinated me, as ‘ghost walks’ are held all around town, showing some of the locations sort of connected to the Witch Trials.  I say ‘sort of’ because most of the action did not take place in Salem.  Most of the accused came from Salem Village (then apart of Salem, now Danvers) and Andover.  Some of the trials took place here, though.  Nonetheless, every year, hundreds of thousands of people come to Salem, in the wake of the murder of twenty innocent people in 1692-3, most of them on Gallows Hill, to engage in revelry and have fun.

But, this is the first time I’ve engaged seriously in the actual history of the events.  I knew the stories, I knew the outlines of what happened here and how those twenty people came to be killed in an explosion of mass hysteria.  But, in reading Barker’s book I’ve been impressed at just how deeply held was the beliefs in witches in 17th century New England.  Baker makes this argument forcefully, noting how a belief in witches, and in the wickedness of Satan drove Puritan beliefs.  In this way, as he argues, witches became a convenient scapegoat in tumultuous times in Massachusetts.  There was war with the aboriginals on the frontiers, from what is now Maine to towns located 15-20 miles inland from Salem, like Billerica.  The economy was suffering.  Puritans felt themselves under attack as religious toleration was extended.

Salem is itself named after the Hebrew word shalom, meaning peace, and is a shortened version of Jerusalem, or City of Peace.  Massachusetts was established as a city on the hill, and Salem is amongst the oldest towns in Massachusetts, settled in 1626 by Roger Conant and a group of Puritans, and is two years older than Boston.  In 17th century Massachusetts, Salem and Boston were the two major commercial and administrative centres in Massachusetts.  All of this was under attack in the late 17th century.

The story Baker tells is not unlike that told by Angela Bourke in one of my favourite books, The Burning of Bridget Cleary, the story of the burning to death of Bridget Cleary, a 25-year old woman, by her husband, Michael, in 1895 in Ballyvadlea, in rural Co. Tipperary, Ireland.  What seems a straight-forward case of domestic violence is more than that.  Michael Cleary claimed his wife had been taken away by the faeries, and he killed the changeling posing as his wife, as the real Bridget would return from the nearby ringfort, where she had been held captive by the faeries.  Bourke then ties the case of Bridget Cleary into larger stories of Irish nationalism and the fight for Home Rule; faeries, then, were a traditional folkway for the people of rural Ireland in a rapidly changing time.

Bridget is often called the ‘last witch’ to be burned in Ireland.  She was never accused of witchcraft, so that’s unfair (yes, I am aware of my title).  But what is interesting in the similarity of these two stories.

Dear Boston: Reflecting on the Marathon Memorial at the Boston Public Library

March 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

Back in July, when the insta-memorial for the Boston Bombing of 15 April 2013 was taken down, I wrote this piece at the National Council of Public History’s history@work blog.  In it, I expressed my cynicism of what happens to the items of the memorial when they are removed from the site and put in storage, or even brought out again for a more permanent exhibition.  I also argued in favour of insta-memorials such as this, seeing some value in our hyper-mediated lives, watching the world through the screens of our iPhones.  What resulted, from the piece on history@work, as a notification here on this site, as well as Rainy Tisdale’s blog, was a rather robust discussion, especially between myself and Rainy, a Boston-based independent curator about authenticity and memorials.

IMG_1530To sum up the discussion, we debated whether or not Boston needed an exhibition on the first anniversary of the attack.  I argued that the running of the 118th Boston Marathon, as well as the traditional Boston Red Sox game at Fenway Park, would serve as a chance for Bostonians to reclaim Boylston Street and Copley Square one year later.  Rainy, on the other hand, argued that an exhibition was necessary in order to prevent the kind of frenzy that began to emerge surrounding the #BostonStrong rallying cry when the Bruins went to the Stanley Cup Finals last spring (and lost. I hate the Bruins).

IMG_1528In the time since, I have come around more to Rainy’s argument than my own, though I still worry about questions of authenticity and memorial mediation on the part of the curatorial hand (though, of course, that spontaneous memorial, first on Boylston Street and then at Copley Square was also curated, in part).  Nevertheless, I am very much looking forward to Rainy’s exhibit at the main branch of the Boston Public Library on Copley Square.  Dear Boston: Messages from the Marathon Memorial opens on 7 April, and will run to 11 May.  It is a tri-partite exhibit: the first part will encompass the immediate responses to the bombing, the second will be people’s reflections on the bombs, and the final part will be the hopeful part, messages of hope and healing.

IMG_1529I appreciate the exhibit’s title perhaps more than anything at this point, as it makes direct references to the curatorial hand at work here, as the exhibit will deliver messages from the memorial.  In July last year, I worried about the loss of meaning of the individual artefacts when they were boxed up and stored in the Boston Archives.  A running shoe had a very poignant and powerful meaning when displayed at the memorial, and in a box in the archives, it’s a running shoe.  Restored to the public eye, however, attached with a symbolic meaning that no one in Boston, or anyone visiting the exhibit, will miss, the shoe regains its poignancy.

What struck me in my discussion with Rainy last summer was how she intended to approach the exhibit, and her sensitivity to the very issues that concerned me.  I am very much looking forward to what she comes up with.

Genesis 1:28: Justification for Colonialism

January 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

I assigned William Cronon’s landmark Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England this semester in American History.  I read this the first a long, long time ago at the University of British Columbia during my undergrad.  I read it again at Simon Fraser University during my MA studies.  The book itself is 31 years old this year, but it was re-issued in a 20th anniversary edition in 2003.  It is still a fantastic book, in my opinion.

But one thing struck me as I was reading.  Cronon writes, concerning the English Crown’s attempts at taking possession of the land of New England:

The Crown derived its own claim to the region from several sources: Cabot’s “discovery” of New England in 1479-98; the failure of the Indians to adequately subdue the soil as Geneis 1.28 required; and from the King’s status — initially a decidedly speculative one — as the first Christian monarch to establish colonies there.

These are all points I am familiar with, obviously, after all those years of schooling and my teaching career.  But sometimes, when I see the justification for early imperialism laid so bare as this, I am astounded.  I won’t even get into the logical fallacies of relying on the Bible to justify the Crown’s claim to the land, possessed by non-Christians.

It gets better though, Cronon notes:

…by the late seventeenth century, Indian lands were regarded as being entirely within English colonial jurisdiction; indeed, the logic of the situation seemed to indicate that, for Indians to own land at all, it had first to be granted them by the English Crown.

Oy vey.

Irish Slums

December 5, 2013 § 3 Comments

Last month, I met Michael Patrick MacDonald at an Irish Studies conference in Rhode Island.  He was the keynote speaker.  I didn’t know much about him beforehand, other than he wrote All Souls about growing up in South Boston in the 70s and 80s.  I knew All Souls was a story about heartbreak, drugs, and the devastation suffered by his family.  But MacDonald’s talk was one of the best I’d ever heard, he spoke of Whitey Bulger, drugs, Southie, his work in non-violence and intervention, and he talked about gentrification.  He was eloquent and fierce at the same time.  He is, of course, an ageing punk.  He was also pretty cool to talk to over beers in the hotel bar later that night.

I finally got around to reading All Souls last week.  I’m glad I did.  I was stunned that MacDonald and his siblings could survive what they’ve survived: three of their brothers dead due to gangs, drugs, and violence.  One of their sisters permanently damaged by a traumatic brain injury brought about due to drugs.  And another brother falsely accused of murder.  It was a heartbreaking read, at least to a point.  I know how the story ends, obviously.

It was also interesting to read another version of Southie than the one in the mainstream here in Boston.  The mainstream is that Southie was an Irish white trash ghetto, run by Whitey Bulger, terrorised by Whitey Bulger, but all those Irish were racists, as evidenced by the busing crisis in 1974.  And while MacDonald tried to revise that narrative, both in his talk and in All Souls, pertaining to the busing crisis, it is hard to argue that racism wasn’t the underlying cause of the explosion of protesting and violence.  But, MacDonald also offers both a personal and a sociological view of how Southie was terrorised and victimised by Bulger (and his protectors in the FBI and the Massachusetts State Senate).  And, today, he talks about gentrification in a way that most mainstream commentators do not (something I’ve railed about in my extended series on Pointe-Saint-Charles, Montréal, his blog, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, and Pt. 5).

But something else also struck me in reading MacDonald’s take on Southie.  I found that he echoed many of the oldtimers I’ve talked to in Griffintown and the Pointe in Montréal about their experiences growing up.  Griff and the Pointe were the Montréal variant of Southie, downtrodden, desperately poor Irish neighbourhoods.  And yet, there is humour to be found in the chaos and poverty, and there is something to be nostalgic for in looking back.

MacDonald writes:

I didn’t know if I loved or hated this place.  All those beautiful dreams and nightmares of my life were competing in the narrow littered streets of Old Colony Project.  Over there, on my old front stoop at 8 Patterson Way, were the eccentric mothers, throwing their arms around and telling wild stories.  Standing on the corners were the natural born comedians making everyone laugh.  Then there were the teenagers wearing their flashy clothes, their ‘pimp’ gear, as we called it.  And little kids running in packs, having the time of their lives in a world that was all theirs.

This echoes something journalist Sharon Doyle Driedger wrote of Griffintown, where she grew up:

Griffintown had the atmosphere of an old black-and-white movie.  Think The Bells of St. Mary’s,with nuns and priests and Irish brogue and choirs singing Latin hymns.  Then throw in the Bowery Boys, the soft-hearted tough guys wisecracking on the corner.

The difference, of course, is that MacDonald’s ambivalence runs deep, he also sees the drug addicts and dealers, and the grinding poverty.  Doyle Driedger didn’t.  But, MacDonald is standing in Southie as an adult when he sees this scene, Doyle Dreidger is writing from memory.

Nostalgia is a funny thing, and it’s not something to be dismissed, as many academics and laypeople do.  It is, in my books, an intellectually lazy and dishonest thing to do.  Nostalgia is very real and is something that tinges all of our views of our personal histories.

But what I find more interesting here are the congruencies between what MacDonald and Doyle Driedger writes, between what MacDonald says in All Souls and what he said in his talk last month in Rhode Island, and what the old-timers from Griff and the Pointe told me whenever I talked to them.  There was always this nostalgia, there was always this black humour in looking back.  I also just read Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, about a kid growing up in Dublin’s Barrytown, a fictional inner-city neighbourhood.  Through Paddy Clarke, Doyle constructs an idyllic world for a boy to grow up in, as he and his mates owned the neighbourhood, running around in packs, just like the kids in Southie MacDonald describes, and just as MacDonald and his friends did when they were kids.

I don’t know if this is something particular to Irish inner-city slums or not.  But I do see this tendency as occurring any time I talk to someone who grew up in such a neighbourhood, or read stories, whether fiction or non-fiction, to say nothing of the music of the Dropkick Murphys (I’m thinking, in particular, of almost the entirety of their first album, Do Or Die, or the track “Famous for Nothing,” on their 2007 album, The Meanest of Times),  I’m not one for stereotyping the Irish, or any other group for that matter, I don’t think there’s anything “inherent” to the Irish, whether comedy, fighting, or alcoholism.  But there is something about this view of Irish slums.

Urban Redevelopment: Getting it Wrong, Springfield, MA

October 27, 2013 § 3 Comments

City Hall Plaza, Boston

City Hall Plaza, Boston

As regular readers of this blog know, I am interested in urban redevelopment, especially when it comes to questions of doing it right and doing it wrong (and chances at redemption).  For the most part, the wave of urban redevelopment that hit North American cities in the 70s and 80s was the wrong way, in that it left us with neo-brutalist architecture in the midst of our cities that is cold, uninviting and intimidating.  A case in point of this would be City Hall Plaza in Boston.  It’s a desolate, soulless urban square that people use for one of three purposes: 1) official events, because they have no choice; 2) to sit on the fringes of to eat lunch; 3) to get to the Government Center T station.  Many cities have this problem today, these horrid, horrid neo-brutalist buildings.  In some places, like Boston, it doesn’t so much matter, because the downtown core of the city is bustling, Government Center lies between Faneuil Hall/Quincy Market and the stately Boston Common.  Government Center is the site of, well, government in Boston and so this site is full of civil servants, but also tourists and Bostonians crossing between the tourist centres, the North End, and the downtown core of the city.  In other places, like nearby Worcester, this 70s/80s wave of urban redevelopment led to a massive #fail.

But, the legacy of deindustrialisation is also very real, especially in small formerly urban centres, like Worcester, but also Springfield, Mass.  Springfield is about 100 miles west of Boston and it feels about as faraway from Boston as one can get.  Springfield is a depressed, sad little city.  It has a high crime rate, nearly double that for the rest of the Commonwealth, including Boston.  It’s murder rate, .13 per thousand, is almost triple the national average (perhaps unironically, Smith & Wesson’s corporate headquarters are in Springfield). The same is true for robbery and assault.  Its property crime rates are also well above the national average.

It wasn’t always like this for Springfield.  Until the 1960s, it was a bucolic industrial city, surrounded by natural beauty.  It had a low crime and unemployment.  It was the very first Springfield in the USA, and was the birthplace of basketball.  Indian Motorcycles were from Springfield.  So was Charles Goodyear.  Merriam-Webster’s first dictionary was published there in 1805.

I-91, downtown Springfield and the Basketball Hall of Fame

Springfield experienced decline due to a combination of deindustrialisation, the closing of the Springfield Armory in 1969 (the target of Daniel Shays and his rebels in 1786), and poor urban development decisions (most notably the running of I-91 through the downtown core and cutting off downtown from the waterfront of the Connecticut River.  Various attempts to redevelop the city have failed miserably (like the basketball Hall of Fame).  And recently, the city decided that it was going to open a massive urban casino to flag the failing fortunes of Springfield.  Why they thought this would work is beyond me.  Certainly, people will now come to Springfield to shop and gamble.  But, the casino will also siphon off jobs and hurt what business still exists in the downtown core.  And now, even that appears to be at risk.

Student Debt and the Cost of a University Education

October 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

Post-secondary education is expensive.  That’s common knowledge.  That’s why I was out in the streets with tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of my fellow citizens in Montréal last summer, protesting the then-Liberal government’s plans to halt the tuition freeze.  Québec’s tuition is the lowest in North America, if not the Western world.  And it’s a good value, as Québec’s universities compete on the Canadian, North American, and global levels.  Of course, tuition is only super cheap if you are a Quebecer, but even the out of province rates are relatively low, which is why so many Americans send their kids to McGill.

Here in the United States, education is prohibitively expensive.  One of my students last year told me he transferred from Northeastern because his education was costing well over $30,000/year.  I nearly spat my coffee out.  Even at my small state university, tuition is more expensive than it is pretty much anywhere in Canada.  Many of my students work multiple jobs to pay the bills.  One of my students in my American history class works full-time in a career-track job and then supplements his income with a part-time job to keep a roof over his head, food on his table, and his school bills paid.

Not surprisingly, student debt is also a major problem.  It has been for a long time, I might add.  I came out of my undergraduate degree owing something close to the GNP of Nicaragua to the Canadian government.  I’ll be paying that off until I retire, or something very close to it.  And that’s from Canada!  My American wife also owes what my friend Karl would call a “metric shit-tonne” of money for her education.

The average student loan debt in Canada is around $27,000.  It’s about the same in the US.  A website, projectstudentdebt.org, offers an interactive map for each state in the union with details on the average debt in each state and the proportion of students with debt.  In New Hampshire, the average debt is the highest, north of $32,000, and 75% of the students in the Granite State have debt.  The highest proportion of debt is in North Dakota, where 83% of students are carrying some.  I recently read another scary stat.  In Massachusetts in 1988, state student aid paid 80% of average tuition and fees.  Today, state student aid only pays 8% of the average tuition and fees.

Obviously, education costs something, it’s not free, and I’m not sure it should be.  But the reason why I was out in the streets in Montréal last summer is simple: once the freeze gets lifted, then tuition is set to the market.  And the market can always bear more than what many people can afford to pay.  And then education gets priced out of the range of many.  At my small state university, many of our students are the sons and daughters of immigrants, or they’re working-class kids, the first in their families to go to university.  Or they’re veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, looking for a chance to get ahead.

My school also has relatively poor rankings, both in state and nationally.  But not because the students are weak. Nor because faculty are weak.  Nor is it due to student-professor ratios (most classes max out around 30), nor is it even because of a poor library.  No.  My school gets poor rankings because our students are forced to juggle so many jobs (and families and careers) to be here, so that they take longer than normal (whatever that is) to complete their degrees.  Or they’re forced to drop out.

Given our present-day economy, a university education is essential to getting a job, establishing a career and having access to all the things we want from life.  And I applaud my students as the scramble to get an education.  But I also know that if it wasn’t for student loans and what scholarships I qualified for in undergrad (and grad school), I’d still be flipping burgers at an IHOP in suburban Vancouver.  My parents couldn’t afford to send me to school.  I don’t regret it, even with the massive debt I carry.  But I also wish that education didn’t require so many sacrifices on the part of my students.

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