Marietta Pritchard: The fate of a field in Amherst
AMHERST — When we bought our house on Orchard Street in Amherst in 1961, we were not thinking much about the future. We needed a place to live with our 1-year-old son, and this small saltbox-type structure was available within easy walking distance from my husband’s office at Amherst College. With the help of our parents, we were able to make the down payment.
It was a nice neighborhood, kid-friendly, with plenty of them around. We soon acquired two more of our own, who made good use of the vacant triangular lot next to our house, as well as the playing field and cinder-covered track across the street.
As the years went by and we lived in this house, as well as others in different parts of the world, we discovered that one of the place’s great virtues was this lovely open, grassy area known as Pratt Field. We enjoyed its late afternoon sunsets and the view on a clear day almost to the Berkshires, from where the wind came at us in the winter.
The bleachers were modest-sized, with early wooden ones that were taken down in the winter. The later metal ones were fun for little kids to run clanking up and down. We never minded the large gatherings for football games and other community events. They were lively, sociable and not too frequent. At some point, we thought to ourselves that even if there was some annoyance from cars parking all over our street, at least no one would ever build condominiums or McMansions across from us.
In 2001, our friend Jim Maraniss, who is a professor of Spanish, gave a talk to the college’s graduating seniors in which he extolled the virtues of the place. Constructed in 1890 with a $20,000 gift from alumnus Frederick B. Pratt, the field would provide “one of the largest and most efficiently equipped athletic and recreation grounds of any college in the country,” said an article in Harper’s Magazine that same year.
But Maraniss, who liked to watch football from the field’s press box, also liked being an “idler” there — watching his young daughter and her friends put on an acrobatic performance; lying down himself on the 50-yard line on a hot summer night to savor the constellations overhead, then composing a poem for an astronomer friend.
These days there is no idling on Pratt Field. Each morning at 7, the machines start up, big trucks and diggers backing up with their beep-beep-beeps. The grassy field is gone, being replaced by artificial turf. Outside my kitchen window where I often sit, there is no longer the view of the Berkshires, nor the reflection of the morning sun on the grass nor the brilliant setting sun, but an 18-foot brick wall, which supports the newly repositioned and elevated bleachers.
The wall blocks the view of the huge building at the end of the field that I think of as the sports palace, a building that appears to be only slightly bigger than the college’s library. Between me and the wall is the huge metal stalk of one of several stadium lights that will make the field usable at night.
And between the wall and the sports palace an even taller rectangular tower is rising up, maybe 35-40 feet high, the new press box, more likely to be known as a media center.
It seems, as one neighbor put it, to be giving the finger to the neighborhood. I’m told that the original cost of $12 million — half of that given by the parent of a football player — has now been estimated to exceed $18 million. My progressive-leaning, left-wing soul shudders at those numbers, those priorities.
One morning recently I was working in my garden near the street, when man pulled over in his pickup truck to look at what was going on. “Who’s going to play there?” he asked, echoing my sense of the grotesqueness of the scene.
“The Patriots? Ohio State?”
Marietta Pritchard can be reached at email@example.com.