William Pohl: Help a city regain its mojo
Downtown Northampton JOSH KUCKENS
NORTHAMPTON — In Rob Weir’s excellent Jan. 3 elegiac guest column, “Northampton’s arts imperative,” he laments the decline of support for the arts in our city. The strength of the piece rests in identifying the problem of creative fatigue and complacency.
During Northampton’s renaissance in the 1970s and ’80s, we had pioneers like John Morrison, owner of the Pleasant Street video store and a former city councilor; Floyd Andrus, who redeveloped Thornes Marketplace; Jeff Krauth of Beyond Words and countless others working loosely together to make the city into a great arts town.
Today those vibrant anti-establishment values that led Northampton from being a rusty mill town to its artistic rebirth are succumbing to less enlightened economics. Northampton has lost its divine spark as it gives way to a crass commercialism that favors national chain stores like Urban Outfitters and Starbucks over creative local enterprises.
As is often the case with art towns, locals can stay as long as they pay ever-increasing rents. But what for? A dying theater district? Panhandlers on our streets? A shrinking pool of visitors?
If you want to charge top-dollar rents, support the arts. Winston Churchill understood this. In response to a suggestion that arts in London be cut to fund the war effort against the Nazis, he replied, “Then what are we fighting for?”
Mayor David Musante understood this during the 1980s. His vision to embrace the arts extended beyond administering the city. He connected the dots. Those running world-class cities like Manhattan, London and Los Angeles also know this. They learned long ago that culture and the arts are where the money is. Support of Broadway alone in New York City brings in millions in related services — restaurants, talent, vitality.
And vitality is what Northampton could use some more of these days.
To get the city back on track, we should set up a task force to brainstorm fresh ideas. Consider creating an economic arts zone with tax incentives and lower rents to lure artists again. Suggest to the local college that it’s not in its interest to chase restaurants from Green Street. Persuade them to sponsor arts festivals and creative workshops that cross over into the city. Make every night in Northampton a First Night. Or every weekend, at least.
Sell the city in a smarter, more aggressive way to the world through promotional YouTube videos and folk music fests. Add jazz (literally) to the farmers markets in summer.
We now have a local smartphone app for city residents. Why not have an arts alert app? Bring in more vibrant businesses, as I have argued on this page in the past — think tanks, tech firms, light industry to augment tax-exempt academia and retailers. New players who have the means and interest to better support the arts. Think big and bold again.
It’s not too late for Northampton to strive again to be a crown jewel in the arts scene — enough to capture the eye of national writers at the New York Times and other major media, as it used to. Enough to fill the Academy of Music with live performances every night. Enough to sponsor vibrant gallery crawls and happenings and festivals.
But it can’t happen without a higher level of consciousness and active support. What’s missing from the city, from the local colleges and from the community is a larger-town perspective and, most important, a guiding vision.
William L. Pohl of Belchertown is an author, photojournalist and organic farmer who has lived intermittently in the Valley since the Calvin was a leaky movie theater.