Community Profile

Small-town, urban life meet in Northampton
Multifaceted city has vibrant downtown, cozy neighborhoods

By David Maloof, Globe Correspondent, 3/31/2001

Northampton at a glance
Incorporated: 1655 (town), 1883 (city)
Population: 28,978
Area: 35.6 square miles
Distance from Boston: 93 miles
Tax rate: $15.58 per $1000
Form of government: Elected mayor, city council
Median house price: $159,000
Public schools: Four elementary, one middle, one high school, one vocational high school
Hospital: Cooley Dickinson Hospital
NORTHAMPTON - Not many cities of fewer than 30,000 people have had a best-selling book written about them. Not many cities can list a US president among its former mayors. And not many can claim their own poet laureate. [an error occurred while processing this directive]

Northampton can do all of those things, among others. The book was Tracy Kidder's 1999 "Home Town," the president was Calvin Coolidge, and the recently named poet laureate is University of Massachusetts professor (and Amherst resident) Martin Espada.

That a book would be written about Northampton can be attributed in part to the city's rich character, as well as the built-in readership in the so-called Five College area.

But unlike Amherst 10 miles east on Route 9, Northampton - home to Smith College — is no college town. John Poirier of Goggins Real Estate called the city "a much more heterogeneous community than Amherst."

"People here are very active politically and socially, and it's a great town to network in," he said.

The conventional wisdom is that Northampton is actually two places. "Hamp" is the old Northampton, a town of mostly working- and middle-class families who have lived here for generations. "NoHo" is the city of first-generation residents, symbolized by the downtown whose 1980s revitalization led to a common complaint among the Hamp contingent: that, as Poirier put it, "You can't buy a wrench downtown."

Mayor Clare Higgins isn't a fan of the NoHo/Hamp dichotomy.

"I think that division is not nearly as strong as people think it is," she said, citing neighborhood associations where "lifelong residents work with newer residents."

Higgins herself arrived in the late 1970s, just before the boom, worked as a child-care teacher and administrator, became city council president, and last year succeeded as the city's first female mayor.

Those elusive hardware stores can be found on the commercial strip on Route 5, or out in Florence, along with Leeds one of two outlying villages of Northampton.

The less expensive homes tend to be found in Florence and Leeds, Poirier said.

Florence, which has its own commercial center, "is a little bit more blue collar — more Hamp than NoHo, but there's lots of exceptions," he said. Leeds is more rural, and features some $750,000 "doctor's palaces," as Poirier described them.

Buyers come from all over, with "many from the West Coast," Poirier said.

A standard new home would have eight rooms, 2 baths and list at around $300,000. Among recent sales, Poirier cited a duplex in Florence for $189,000 and an in-town Victorian that sold in four days at "substantially over" its $379,000 asking price.

That in-town location means an easy walk to a mix of restaurants and bookstores, museums and clothing shops, theaters and night clubs — the norm for any commercially and culturally healthy city, but in Western Massachusetts offering the best-of-both-worlds appeal of city pleasures within a few miles of rural beauty.

Higgins described another best-of-both-worlds: "a real vibrant and exciting downtown" plus "really cohesive neighborhoods" meaning "the benefits of small-town life coupled with what often would only be found in the larger city."

Of course, even Northampton is not for everybody. People who must buy their wrenches downtown, or blanch at the sight of loitering, pierced youths or a lesbian couple walking arm-in-arm, or find the notion of a city having a poet laureate — and one who doesn't even live in the city — a bit self-conscious and precious, might want to drive right through.

But if they expect to totally escape big-city traffic, they'd better not drive across the Connecticut River on Route 9 during commuting hours. The Coolidge Bridge, long scheduled (and delayed) for widening, has become a daily bottleneck. Once the widening begins, it promises "three years of living hell," Poirier said.

In addition, while the tax rate dropped a half-dollar this past year, valuations rose an average of 16 percent in the city.

Still, the appeal of Northampton remains so strong that Poirier lamented the shortage of people who want to leave, which translates into a shortage of homes to sell.

As for the city's challenges, Higgins included creating affordable housing and developing the 90 hillside acres of the former Northampton State Hospital.

This story ran on page E1 of the Boston Globe on 3/31/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company
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