By Patrick O’Connor: A love letter to Holyoke

  • Bonnie Spencer and her granddaughter Tanner Abolin, 4, of Hampton Ponds, pass by the hydrangeas on High Street in front of Holyoke City Hall in September. gazette file photo

Published: 11/25/2019 4:59:18 PM

Dear Holyoke: I met you about 20 years ago, when I was a young newspaper reporter. I grew up in a working-class family in New York. My dad was an Irish-American cop and my mom was an immigrant from Argentina. In you, I heard both their voices. I felt at home in Holyoke.

I rented a small apartment above a clothing shop on High Street. On the sidewalk below my window, Jim had his hotdog stand. Sometimes, I’d walk down and sit on a white bucket as he sold soda and hot dogs to passersby.

Across the street was the Old San Juan Bakery, where, every Sunday, I got my loaf of warm, soft bread.

I had fallen in love with you, Holyoke.

I spent many nights in City Hall, attending the meetings of the City Council and all its subcommittees. Other nights were spent at the former Dean Technical High School, listening to the School Committee.

My days were spent in your streets, with a camera around my neck and a notebook in my back pocket. I wrote thousands of stories about you, interviewing people from the Flats to Rock Valley. I talked with farmers in South Holyoke and diners at Luchini’s in the Highlands.

I covered your festivals, parades and block parties.

I shared pints with friends at Elizur Holyoke Pub and stuffed myself on cheeseburger chowder at the Celery Stalk.

Later, my wife and I chose to buy a home here. We had two sons and sent them to your public schools. They entered the dual-language program, and we proudly watched as they learned the language of their grandmother. Today, my wife and I stand in the background, listening as our third grader reads books to his little brother in Spanish.

We have fallen in love with you, Holyoke.

Yet, as my children grow older, our concerns grow, too. As I think more deeply about their future, I think more deeply about your choices. I think about the way you have neglected the needs of an entire population of your residents. I think about why you have allowed your public schools to fall into disrepair on their children, and I listen to your excuses for your actions.

You have not built a new school in Holyoke for almost 50 years. My sons’ school was built 108 years ago, and it shows. The building is about as far as you can get from a 21st century educational facility.

Some of your other schools are even worse, and you recently had a chance to cut away a little of your neglect. You could have paid to build two new middle schools, as educators recommended. You could have started to catch the children we had lost in the past, as educators said would happen with smaller middle schools.

Yet, you turned away. Instead, you listened to misinformation spread about an economic doomsday caused by a tax increase. You listened to unfounded, hypothetical scenarios of Holyokers losing their homes from this increase, and turned a blind eye to the concrete reality of a broken-down school infrastructure your neglect helped to create.

You heard people talk about “those children” in the public schools. You listened to them say that “those children” would destroy new schools. You heard them talk about “those families.” You listened to them say that “those families need to teach their children values before we invest in their schools.”

You failed to say that those children are your children, that those families are your families, that their needs are your needs, and that we are all Holyoke.

You threw up your hands and cried out that you could not afford to fix a crisis you helped create. You blame the victims of the poverty you helped preserve.

Holyoke, we need to change. This is about more than the public schools.

You are my home, and I am not leaving, but I hope you will listen to the needs of all of your people. As we work to get those middle schools built, I hope you will no longer be afraid to challenge the loud voices that want to divide and silence people.

I feel like we just had a big fight, Holyoke, but I still love you.

With love,

Patrick O’Connor

Patrick O’Connor lives in Holyoke.




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