Home in Holyoke

Posted on Sunday October 02, 2011

I’d booked my first week’s accommodation in a house in Holyoke, half an hour from Amherst, to give myself enough time to sort out my uni enrollment, buy a new laptop and find a car. Purely by chance, of the million-to-one variety, my host turned out to be a practicing artist, art teacher and former professor from the Massachusetts College of Art, and all-round nice-guy, Dean Nimmer.

Dean’s other claim to fame is his role as drummer in sixties band The Baroques, the first white group signed by then-major R&B label Chess Records. Like other groups of the time, they were exploring new sounds, and almost made it. Their album and feature single Mary Jane were banned in their home town of Milwaukee within a week of their release in 1967, usually a catalyst for Greater Things, but The Beatles released Sergeant Peppers, Hendrix appeared at Monterey, and the sixties moved on towards Glam Rock and whatever, and The Rest Is History…

Home, sweet home

Home for me is the attic, complete with cutesy attic ceilings and a ‘half-bath’ (pronounced ‘haf baerth’ – loo and handbasin), and a built-in fitness trail of stairs that might test the very elderly. There’s room to swing a cat, which is just as well, as two are provided.

Holyoke’s seen better days. Founded in the mid-1600s, it grew to become the world’s largest paper-producing centre, fed by the abundant waters of the Connecticut River and the forests of New England. But as with many other mill towns, Holyoke’s industry declined in the latter part of last century, and its population has shrunk to 40,000.

It had a strong Catholic Irish base, which explains the large green shamrocks painted on people’s driveways. Anglicans, Kikes and other heathens beware! Possibly because of this overload of Mick-ism, and in response to declining property values and reduced rentals, half the town’s current population is Latino – it’s supposed to have the highest proportion of Puerto Ricans outside of Puerto Rico itself, a bit like the Greek population in Melbourne, I guess.

Unlike the post-war Greeks in Melbourne, many of the Latinos don’t seem to have had time to integrate, or the burning desire and/or opportunity to carve out a better life for themselves and their children by taking on tedious factory work (it just isn’t here any more) or by starting small businesses, market gardens and whatever. There’s a strong whiff of welfare stigma, possibly not helped by the high visibility of many Latinos (socializing out in their front yards) and the littered, rundown appearance of the poorer areas.

Typical town homes in new hometown. They’re big on towers and garrets

This makes Holyoke feel both divided and declining. Even in the better-kept residential areas there’s the odd house that’s well past its maintenance date, and downtown is a ghost town. Not quite ‘the-tumbleweeds-are-piling-up-in-the-doorways’ stage, but most of the retail has moved out to the mall, and there are days when Calamity Jane could let off her Colt 45 on Main Street and hit nothing more substantial than a squirrel.

What does the future hold for Holyoke? Given the current economic crisis and the Republicans’ Tony Abbott-like destructiveness, it’s anyone’s guess. I’ll enjoy it while I can.