by Randolph T. Holhut
Chief of AR Correspondents
April 30, 2010
ANOTHER BATCH OF PRIVATIZATION SNAKE OIL
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- It isn't often noticed because the state line serves as a great divide, but art has been creeping up the Connecticut River Valley. And it's been a very powerful force for good.
Massachusetts is Massachusetts and Vermont is Vermont, but the towns running along the Connecticut River have much in common.
When the engines of industry ground to a halt in the Northeast and the manufacturing died, once-proud New England towns were left with empty storefronts, decaying movie theaters, crumbling Victorian mansions, abandoned factory buildings, worried shopkeepers, dive bars and a demoralized workforce.
Then art crept in.
Northampton, Mass., came first. College students from the area's five colleges liked the valley and decided to stay. They began opening businesses downtown. Bookstores, art galleries and bakeries appeared. A defunct department store became Thorne's Marketplace and filled with interesting little shops. Soon Northampton was on the map. Real estate prices went through the roof and investment opportunities paid big dividends.
Easthampton noticed that Northampton was filling up. Clever developers created Eastworks, turning a 500,000 square foot factory that once belonged to Stanley Home Products into a mixed-use building, an "urban village for creatives." It has affordable (by New York standards) loft apartments, artists' studios and arts-related industries. That means jewelers, fabric designers, musicians, graphic artists and other creative types live and work there. It's also got shops, a cafe and a restaurant,
Up the road, Greenfield, Mass., is in the process of the same kind of revitalization. What's the engine? Art and entertainment.
Brattleboro picked up on it, too. But in its endearing and slightly socialist way, it regenerated itself not through real estate speculation and investment opportunities but through nonprofits. The Brattleboro Area Land Trust, now the Windham Housing Trust, started renovating dilapidated buildings and turning them into affordable homes and rental units. The museum grew.
The Farmer's Market and the Co-op are expanding. The Latchis Theater became the Brattleboro Arts Initiative, funded by donations and the thriving Latchis Hotel. Clown Stephen Stearns pulled a little magic out of his bright red nose and created the New England Youth Theater, soon to be an entertainment hub, complete with a circus school and the Brattleboro Music Center.
Gallery Walk filled downtown on the first Friday of the month and turned just about every store on Main Street into an art gallery. Restaurants and shops do well.
Has Brattleboro been as successful as Northampton? Not yet. The housing market fell apart during the current recession. The many artists - writers, painters, sculptors, musicians - who live here usually sell their work elsewhere. Property taxes are sky high, and the threat of gentrification might eventually chase the artists out.
Then there's Bellows Falls. It was one of most depressed of Vermont's industrial towns when painter and arts organizer Robert McBride stepped off a train and made things start to happen. McBride formed the Rockingham Art and Music Project. He got grants and turned the dilapidated Exner Block into artists' studios and storefronts.
He and a cohort of movers and shakers bought up much of downtown with the intent of revitalizing it. Money was raised to restore the downtown opera house. Artist, music impresario and talent manager Charlie Hunter contributed the Roots on the River, which drew hundreds every summer to a music festival built around the redoubtable Fred Eaglesmith. Oona Madden opened a chic restaurant on Main Street. Families who had been priced out of the Brattleboro market spotted all those run-down Victorians and started renovating them into single family homes again. They even hold a contest each year for the best paint job. It looked like "the Falls of Bellow," as Hunter likes to call it, was going to make it.
Sadly, it hasn't turned out that way. Many of the underemployed stayed around, and the public schools have had to contend with alcoholism, sex abuse, drugs and violence. Madden sold her restaurant and shortly afterward, sadly, it burnt to the ground. Attempts to revive the downtown Windham Hotel are apparently moving forward, but at a snail's pace. An eco-retreat in an old factory on the riverbank seems to have stalled due to the recession. And just a few weeks ago, Sam's, the downtown's anchor clothing store for 40 years, announced it was pulling out.
A saddened McBride, in a public farewell to Sam's, lamented, "Bellows Falls is not for the faint of heart, or someone trying to make a quick buck. But if you like to make a difference and like walkable communities with a rich industrial history then check us out." A few days later, it was announced that McBride had been appointed the chair of the New England Board of Advisors of The National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP).
Further up the river, White River Junction, Vt., is doing well with a fine theater company and a nationally-respected cartooning school.
There is more work to be done and more questions to be answered before we can make the claim that aesthetics has saved the Connecticut River Valley. But skeptics and cynics have to admit that the art creeping up the Connecticut River Valley has made a big difference in our lives. It has made this area a lively, fun place to live in. And it will continue to do so - even if the railroads and the paper mills never return.
Joyce Marcel (joycemarcel.com) is a journalist and columnist. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.