In 1848 a $75,000 dam was completed, and on the same day it was swept away by the terrific pressure, incorrectly calculated, of the water behind it. The story is said to have been graphically told in a series of telegrams directed to the Boston office:
10 A.M. Gates just closed: water filling behind dam.
12 A.M. Dam leaking badly.
2 P.M. Stones of bulkhead giving way to pressure.
3:20 P.M. Your old dam's gone to hell by way of Willimansett.
- Massachusetts; a guide to its places and people, written and compiled by the Federal writers' project of the WPA (1937).

This post is part of an ongoing series where I visit each of the 11 original Gateway Cities  and record my thoughts on their community, economy, and civic culture. Our fourth stop is in Holyoke.

In philosophy there’s a classic paradox called the Ship of Theseus. The story goes that Theseus rowed his boat around Ancient Greece slaying minotaurs and such. After his retirement, the Athenians maintained Theseus’s ship as a trophy in the harbor. They replaced planks as they rotted or wore out and eventually every single plank and scrap of wood on the ship was different from the one Theseus used. If nothing physical remained, Plutarch asked, could the Athenians legitimately call this the same ship? The question points us towards an important philosophical concept: what makes a thing a thing – where does “ship-ness” reside if not the wood that constitutes the ship?

If you were looking for an equivalent thought experiment among cities, Holyoke offers a reasonable parallel. The populations and industries that drove Holyoke a century ago have been nearly as thoroughly replaced as the wood on Theseus’s ship.

Of course, it’s nearly impossible to replace a city entirely. Cities share a physical location and a history with their past selves; residents, industries, and physical features remain. Cities naturally change and evolve over their existence, so there’s no equivalent to the ship sitting in the harbor, preserved and unused. Still, it’s difficult to imagine that there has been just one Holyoke, rather than a multitude of variously booming and struggling Holyokes that happen to inhabit the same physical space.

What did the Holyoke of the 1950s do to prepare for the Holyoke of today, a place that bears little resemblance?

Holyoke(s) through History

Holyoke’s mythology is also worthy of Ancient Greece. One of the first planned industrial communities in the United States, the town was arranged along a rectangular grid and powered by cheap, plentiful hydroelectric power from the Connecticut River. The power source brought textile and machine manufacturing, but most importantly the paper mills which would come to define the region. From the late 1800s to mid-1900s, Holyoke was the largest paper producing site in the world. Predictably, Holyoke calls itself “the Paper City” – a classic Industrial Capital nickname.

This history has affected the region’s demographic makeup substantially. Whereas most of the first generation of immigrants attracted by the mills were Irish and French Canadian and the second generation Eastern European, Holyoke now has the most substantial Puerto Rican population in New England, 44.7% of the total population.

Alas, the demographics in Holyoke aren’t the only thing that has changed in the last century. Today, the paper mills look mostly like this:

Holyoke Mills
Source: Google Maps street view

and you’re much more likely to see the “Paper City” applied to local breweries, delis, and fitness centers. The decline of manufacturing in the United States hit Holyoke even harder than many other Gateway Cities. The main streets of Holyoke struggle to fill vacant storefronts, and the poverty rate of some downtown Census Tracts exceeds 50%.

But like any of the cities I’ve already covered, all is not doom and gloom. Each of the Gateways tends to have an asset that outsiders do not associate with the “struggling” city (see for example New Bedford’s charming downtown, the number of high quality colleges in Worcester, or MassMutual’s headquarters in Springfield) and Holyoke is no exception: it is unlike any other city in the Northeast for the quantity and low price of its green energy, a direct result of its industrially planned past.

The hydropower there attracted the attention of the world class Massachusetts universities, who in the mid 2000s were looking for a site to establish a high performance computing center. Locating in Holyoke had the added benefit of powering their investment with clean energy, and thus the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center (MGHPCC) was born.

MGHPCC is a remarkable facility. Setting aside the astounding fact that five universities collaborated on the project and share the resource, the computers in the building are capable of dealing with a mountain of data; some of the calculations for the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland are done here.

A computing center on its own represents very few jobs for people from Holyoke, but it’s taken as a symbol of what can be for this much-maligned city. While nobody can claim that this is a silver bullet, this represents an interesting modern opportunity for Holyoke that other cities cannot replicate.

In addition to hydro power and the Computing Center, there are a number of assets that make Holyoke difficult to write off. The Mt. Tom State Reservation and its gorgeous vistas make up the tip of the middle finger formed by the city’s borders. Holyoke is minutes away from some of the nation’s best colleges in Northampton and Amherst, although proximity rarely equals connectivity. Holyoke is apparently famous (I haven’t been) for its St. Patrick’s Day festivities and Puerto Rican festival.

Local leadership seems much more collaborative, innovative and hands-on than in other struggling places. The current mayor was 22 years old when elected on a platform of supporting the creative and innovation economy. A bit difficult to accuse someone like that of being in the old boy’s network, a problem in many greater rust belt cities with an ossified political caste.

In my unscientific examination, the metros of Western Mass are much more collaborative and regionally focused than their counterparts to the east. They are much more likely to celebrate one another’s success: it seems people here know that a victory for Chicopee or Springfield (or even Connecticut!) is also a victory for Holyoke, rather than a zero sum game. In other regions of the state, the idea of cooperating with the city down the street is inconceivable.

This type of bitter competition and disconnect is no longer the way economies grow. In this instance Holyoke’s future is undeniably tied to that of Springfield, MA, a struggling but larger city with a more diverse set of industries. Although this cooperative tendency is often spurred by a perceived lack of attention from Boston, in my opinion it’s still quite healthy.

Long Term Success – a Luxury?

Holyoke offers a stark contrast to Haverhill. While Haverhill has some issues, it’s reasonably well positioned for the future. Holyoke has many urban problems of the bigger Northeastern cities with little of the financial firepower to deal with them. The state recently voted to place Holyoke schools in receivership, something that has been done at a district level only in Lawrence and represents a last resort for improving the schools. If you Google Holyoke, you will find dozens of stories describing the depth of its poverty and dysfunction, and a number of “turnaround” and “things are beginning to look up” stories.

Holyoke in 1881.
Source: Library of Congress

Against this backdrop, what could long term success look like? All of the Gateways have to work from small, incremental victories, which can sometimes make the situation seem like bailing out a ship that is constantly springing new leaks. Even as Holyoke expands its economic capacity and leadership, the state takeover of the school district is a big blow. It’s a messy process, one constantly besieged by setbacks.

At a glance, Holyoke’s successes can also make you feel like economic development is a type of chaos theory. Holyoke was only able to secure the MGHPCC because of generations of investment and impeccable planning that took place more than 150 years ago (not to mention catastrophic failures – see opening quote). No one could have even conceived of a high power computing center at the time. Can cities actually think about what will be useful 50, 100, 200 years from now? Should they? In the face of massive current challenges, it’s tempting to throw up one’s hands and assume that the winds of fate will push us where they want.

But this is a bit too glib. Post industrial cities all have strange assets that don’t fit neatly onto the 21st economy. It takes a high level of ingenuity and political leadership to make those assets – and even characteristics like river access and industrial history that were once viewed as drawbacks – into unique benefits that drive an increase in growth and quality of life.

This job is somewhat like trying to repair a bicycle while riding on it.

In the best of circumstances, it’s difficult to focus on any future more remote than the next several years. Holyoke is preparing for an unpredictable future like the rest of us. More than most of the US, though, it has less of an ability to meet those circumstances as they change.

The good news is that the fiercely loyal want their home to improve, even when the odds look impossible. People like that will still be rooting for Holyoke in a hundred years, and we ought to make their job a little easier if we can.


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