Single rooms, singular stories: A new exhibit spotlights the faces and voices of Northampton Lodging residents

  • Curator Cassandra Holden and photographer Paul Shoul say they found a “real sense of community” among the residents of the former Northampton Lodging, the subject of their exhibit at Historic Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jim Moynihan, who lived at Northampton Lodging from 2006 to 2016. Photo courtesy of Paul Shoul.

  • Tania Mazinski, who lived at Northampton Lodging during 2015-16. Photo courtesy of Paul Shoul

  • Bruce Dietz, who spent about 22 years at Northampton Lodging, said he made friends there “that I’ll have the rest of my life.” Photo courtesy of Paul Shoul

  • Benjamin Boliver, who lived at Northampton Lodging from 2014 to 2016, also goes by the tag “GenBlaze.” Photo courtesy of Paul Shoul

  • The former Northampton Lodging in October 2016 as demolition began. Photo courtesy of Paul Shoul

  • Leon Cranson, a resident of the former Northampton Lodging, with property manager Kathleen Leahy. In the background is assistant property manager Chance Moore. Photo courtesy of Paul Shoul

  • Photographer Paul Shoul says he was struck by the camaraderie he found among the residents of the former Northampton Lodging:“I don’t want to over-romanticize it, but there was a great sense of community there.”  GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

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    Curator Cassandra Holden, left, and photographer Paul Shoul talk about the exhibit they put together at Historic Northampton, "Single Room Occupancy: Portraits & Stories of Northampton Lodging, 1976-2016.” GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Curator Cassandra Holden and photographer Paul Shoul say their exhibit at Historic Northampton shines a light on people who rarely get much visibility, while also examining the lack of affordable housing in the region. GAZETTE STAFF/ KEVIN GUTTING

  • Curator Cassandra Holden and photographer Paul Shoul say their exhibit at Historic Northampton shines a light on people who rarely get much visibility, while also examining the lack of affordable housing in the region. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

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    One of the people profiled at "Single Room Occupancy: Portraits & Stories of Northampton Lodging, 1976-2016" is former resident Robert Martinez, at right.  GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Curator Cassandra Holden says the interviews she conducted of former Northampton Lodging residents covered “pretty much whatever people wanted to share.” GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A recreation of one of the rooms from the former Northampton Lodging in the current exhibit at Historic Northampton, which runs through June 10. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Curator Cassandra Holden says she wanted the exhibit to have a recreation of a typical room at Northampton Lodging because “I thought it was really important to feel what it was like to be in that space,”” GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A detail from a recreation of one of the rooms from the former Northampton Lodging.  GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Detail of promotional literature for the prefabricated building constructed in 1967 as a dormitory for the former Northampton Commercial College on Pleasant Street in Northampton. In the 1970s, it became known as Northampton Lodging.  GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Photographer Paul Shoul and curator Cassandra Holden say their exhibit at Historic Northampton shines a light on people who rarely get much visibility, while also examining the lack of affordable housing in the region. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

Published: 3/22/2018 2:59:57 PM

By Steve Pfarrer

Staff Writer

 

It was a confined place to live: a single room, maybe as small as seven by ten feet, with a bed, chest of drawers, perhaps a chair and a mini refrigerator, as well as all your possessions.

But as an exhibit at Historic Northampton outlines, many of the last residents of the former Northampton Lodging, the 129 Pleasant Street boarding house that offered single rooms to renters, also found a sense of camaraderie where they lived.

“Single Room Occupancy: Portraits & Stories from Northampton Lodging, 1976-2016” tells the tale, through words and photos, of a part of the city’s population that typically doesn’t have much visibility. The photographs, taken by Paul Shoul, and the text, selected from interviews Cassandra Holden conducted with residents, profile a range of people who, in some cases, lived at Northampton Lodging for 30 years.

The effort, the two friends say, was in part to record a slice of the city’s history but also to give a face to people who lived in what exhibit notes call “an awkward place in town. Positioned just past Hampton Court, [Northampton Lodging] marked the transition from the brightly lit storefronts, galleries, and restaurants of Main and upper Pleasant Streets to the less pedestrian friendly stretch of road that connects the city to the highway.” 

Yet Holden, a guest curator at Historic Northampton and an artist, clothing designer and art consultant, says, “There was a real sense of family there. I think there was a deep understanding of human need and taking care of each other.”

Northampton Lodging, which was torn down in October 2016 — the prefabricated building originally opened in 1967 as a dormitory for the long-closed Northampton Commercial College — also had its rough edges, says Shoul, a veteran Valley photographer: “There were drugs in the building, the cops would get called down there a lot, some people died in the building.”

But as he and Holden spent several months in 2016 meeting and talking to residents, Shoul says he also got a sense that Northampton Lodging was more than just a stopgap place for people to live as they transitioned from one place to another.

“I don’t want to over-romanticize it,” he said, “but there was a great sense of community there.” 

As Bruce Dietz, who lived in the complex for over 20 years, told Holden about his experience: “Well, I met some good people. A lot of friends I’ll have for the rest of my life that lived here.”

Historic Northampton co-director Laurie Sanders believes the exhibit has a broad appeal, in part because looking after the less fortunate in the city has a tradition dating back to the 1600s “when the first provisions for providing support were passed in Northampton.” She notes that nearly 300 people, including city councilors, religious leaders, and staff and clients of local service organizations, turned out for the exhibit’s opening reception March 9. 

The show, which runs through June 10, will later become a permanent part of the museum’s archives, an idea that appeals to Shoul, who says he has long enjoyed looking at old photographs of Northampton and other locations.

“Now we get to be a part of that,” he said. “And to think that 200 years from now, someone will be looking back at this, the stories of these people who have been part of the history of Northampton … that’s kind of cool.”

The exhibit also traces the history of some of Northampton’s other former boarding houses and SRO units, like the Shaw Motel and Augie’s, both on Bridge Street, and considers what the disappearance of those facilities means for people living on the edge, with a limited income that in turn limits their housing options.

“It ties into the larger issue of a lack of affordable housing,” says Holden. “For many people … it’s pretty much impossible to go from $400 [rent] a month like at Northampton Lodging to something that’s market rate, maybe $1,200 a month.”

Way Finders (formerly known as HAPHousing), the Springfield-based housing agency that oversees development of affordable housing throughout the state, is also a supporter of the exhibit. The agency is nearly set to open “Live 155,” the new building on Pleasant Street that has replaced Northampton Lodging and which will offer 70 affordable and market-rate rental units, all of them studio and one-bedroom apartments.

After the building opens, a second printing of the photos and text from “Single Room Occupancy” will become a permanent exhibit in the lobby, Holden and Shoul say.

 

Telling — and showing — the story 

What might it have been like to live at Northampton Lodging? The new exhibit addresses that question in part by recreating a typical room from the complex, with a bed, a few pieces of furniture, a tiny refrigerator and a battered microwave oven — but none of the personal possessions residents would have had, some of which might be stored in cardboard boxes on the floor.

“I thought it was really important to feel what it was like to be in that space,” said Holden. “It’s one thing to be living in a single room when you’re a kid, or maybe as a college student in a dormitory, but it gets to be a lot harder as an adult.”

For Jim Moynihan, who lived at the complex from 2006 to 2016, it also meant dealing with thin walls that meant, “You hear everything, even three rooms down. You could hear it in your place. I had to crank my TV up and then it’s no fair to the other people because then it’s bothering them.”

A number of Shoul’s photographs of residents were taken shortly before the building was demolished, with people standing in rooms stripped of furniture, paneling, wall hangings or any other kind of ornamentation; it accentuates the Spartan quality of the spaces, which look like nothing more then big storage lockers.

The boarding house originally had 58 rooms, with shared bathrooms and kitchens on each floor — and some common space outside the building — though when Holden and Shoul met with residents, just 48 rooms were useable.

The demand for space there sometimes led to some unorthodox arrangements. Holden says one former resident, Leon Cranson, left Northampton Lodging and later returned, only to find a room wasn’t immediately available. Management created space for him to sleep in a closet for two weeks until a room opened up.

“That’s the way people looked after each other,” says Holden. “He would have been homeless had that not happened.”

She initially got involved with the exhibit through other work she’s done with Way Finders, including helping create a public art component for a housing project in Holyoke. Way Finders, which bought Northampton Lodging in 2015 with the intent of replacing it with the “Live 155” building, wanted to document the Northampton Lodging residents before helping them find other housing in the area, said Holden.

She and Shoul met with Faith Williams, the agency’s property manager, to discuss how they might proceed, and they also coordinated with Historic Northampton. The plan ultimately involved Kathleen Leahy, the site manager at Northampton Lodging, asking residents if they were willing to be interviewed and photographed. Once they had some names, Holden and Shoul began meeting with people in the summer of 2016.

Much of the early work just involved “hanging out and talking to people, not taking any pictures,” said Shoul. “We needed to get to know them and build their trust. We didn’t want to further marginalize these folks ... Some of them were actually a little familiar to me. I’d seen them around town.”

In her interviews, which continued through 2017 and into early this year, Holden documented a wide range of stories, “pretty much whatever people wanted to share. The stories are very different based on how long someone might have stayed there.”

The ages of residents ranged from the early 30s up to one woman of 80; some lived on some kind of assistance and others had jobs, like Bruce Dietz, who was a line cook for over 20 years at the Bluebonnet Diner on King Street.

Holden and Shoul worked separately and then met to compare notes on where they had overlapped; many of Shoul’s portraits in the exhibit, like those of Bruce Dietz and Jim Moynihan, have accompanying text, while others are stand-alone photos. The text, selected from Holden’s taped interviews, is an integral part of many portraits, she says: “It’s important that you see the person and connect with their story.”

But the stand-alone photos are also evocative. One of the most engaging is of Tania Mazinski, who is shown by the door of her room with a big smile; some of her possessions are visible on the floor, a small table and in cardboard boxes, providing a better sense of what it was like to live in such a small space.

“I kind of look at photography like a soccer game,” says Shoul. “There’s a lot of passing the ball around and very few shots on goal, and when you get that shot, you better be ready.”

In addition, the exhibit features portraits of some of the staff at Northampton Lodging and at Way Finders; the latter, says Holden, worked hard to find new accommodations for the former residents that met their particular needs (and which also offered them more space).

“They really cared about these people,” she says.

That’s a thought echoed by Leahy, the last Northampton Lodging property manager, in text attached to a photo of her with Leon Cranson: “I am protective. I don’t want them taken advantage of or disrespected. They know I’ll stick up for them.”

For his part, Cranson offers an observation about how life shook out at Northampton Lodging that also speaks to the larger world: There are times, he says, “when you meet people in life and they’re prickly.

“I like to think of them kind of like a porcupine,” he adds. “If you just meet them and you just take what you get at face value, all you’re going to get is the quills. But, if you get to know them and you give them a little time, you find that they got that soft underbelly.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

 

 

 

 

 




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