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Friday Takeaway: How Green Was My Valley

  • Bill Dwight 



Friday, May 04, 2018

A year or so ago, some people in Springfield were inspired to rebrand the region of the Connecticut River Valley that bisects Massachusetts. You know … where we live? They felt the “Pioneer Valley” was confusing to tourists and that it sounded stodgy. The archetypes for pioneers, of course, are gray-faced folks in overalls and bonnets who scratched out a grim existence in the western plains. That image certainly does not woo bright-eyed slot machine jockeys and aspiring Black Jack tycoons. No Saudi prince is going to fly into Bradley for a night of Baccarat and the heady perfume of Bondi’s Island when he sees that those pleasures are located in the so-called “Pioneer Valley.”

No. We needed something sexier than that. Something that projected excitement and glamour … and fun! That’s a tall order, really. I mean, how do you sell the allure of yet another casino, the rush of the Holyoke Dam, the aroma of scented candles or the herringbone parking in Northampton with a single tag? I wouldn’t want to be the hapless marketing graduate who got that assignment. 

Alas, some poor souls from Oklahoma pulled that short straw, and the best they could come up with was “West Mass.”

Ouch. 

I’m not going to pig-pile on the proposal like many did here in the Valley. Locals generously shared their unfiltered thoughts on that point back when it was introduced. And beat it to death.

I know that much of the outrage came from pride of place. Why should someone from outside make up a name for our home when we already have a perfectly good one now? That’s like having someone visit your house and tell you your dog’s name of “Champ” is meh and suggest that you should go with “Good Dog” instead. That’s just rude. And stupid.

But someone did name this region the “Pioneer Valley” once, presumably as a way to define the amorphous area bracketing the Connecticut River in Massachusetts and make it more attractive. Settlers came from Europe and kindly renamed the area for the native tribes who chose names deemed too difficult to pronounce. The Europeans helpfully carved out settlements that they christened with imagination. They just reused their own names or the names of the hamlets they left, like Northampton, Holyoke, Amherst, Springfield, etc. They stuck with Agawam, though, I assume as a way of saying “good try.”

But we’re not just known as the Pioneer Valley. We’re also the “Happy Valley,” “Asparagus Valley,” “The Connecticut River Valley” and just “The Valley,” among other names. Do you see a pattern? It’s there if you look closely. 

The whole West Mass/Western Mass thing is problematic. For people in Boston, Western Massachusetts is Framingham and Worcester. Beyond that is a mysterious untamed wilderness that killed Emily Dickinson. We consider ourselves to be Western Mass (the determining factor for me is where everyone pronounces their “R’s” correctly. They don’t sound like “Oz”). The good people of the Berkshires, however, think of us flatlanders as Boston wannabes. They feel they’re more New York than Mass. A sizable number of the second-home owners are New Yorkers; everyone else is a landscaper or a coffee shop worker. 

It seems to me that if Springfield truly needs some type of new brand to feel they can compete with Las Vegas or Atlantic City, then maybe they should consider ditching the rest of us Valley folk. We’re just holding them back. We, with our quirks and eccentricities, will appear backwards and unsophisticated to people planning a whirlwind vacation. Springfield should break free, unfettered, and bolt toward the bright future of casino glitterati on its own. 

I, for one, like the fact that this area has been identified for millennia by its most evident geographical feature. So it’s not imaginative or exotic, but at least it’s accurate. Springfield can be “Cash Mass!” (I haven’t trademarked that, so you’re welcome to steal it), and we’ll just be those river-bounding podunk burgs from Bernardston down to Longmeadow known as the Valley. Works for me.

Bill Dwight is a Northampton city councilor and a pie wrangler at the Florence Pie Bar.