I came alive again on the road in America, especially as I entered New England. It was an easy resuscitation: just wave restored buildings, green space and intelligent, environmentally conscious urban planning before my eyes and I’m yours.
As the bus pulled into the New Haven, Connecticut, station, I was able to linger a bit, using this rest stop as a place to pause and remember how much I enjoy this terminal. On the shoreline of Long Island Sound, the New Haven station serves both bus and rail from a large turn-of-the-century terminal now fully restored, its old wood sanded, polished and primed to perfection, marble floors gleaming in the filtered morning light and marble-tiled walls reaching high overhead. Not a splatter of graffiti anywhere. No litter. Neat rows of visitor information tucked in a hallway stood next to a small old-fashioned office where train schedules and tickets were dispensed. Walking into the station is not unlike walking into a museum where curators have restored a piece of architectural history with the most minute attention to detail.
As the Greyhound bus pulled into a small town outside Hartford, Connecticut, I was thrilled to see a masterpiece of reclamation, recycling and urban planning in the form of the ‘new’ bus terminal. A former railroad station, patched up, painted up, spruced up to look as good, if not better, than the day it was built. Intricate ironwork fences, restored woodwork, and small, neat, discreet uniform signage in old styles that advertised the small shops inside. Yes, it was quaint. And it was absolutely charming. A focal point of a restored neighborhood under renewal. A prime example of function and art reflective of the city’s heritage and character.
The sprawling city of Springfield, Massachusetts, sadly, still has a long way to go, despite the fact that a huge battered but vintage Amtrak station area would be ripe for renewal and restoration. It’s been talked about for decades. But just talk. The city’s lack of cohesive planning and domination by political and financial factions leave it looking a lot like cluttered Clarksville, with its insane unregulated signage, lack of sidewalks, and lack of focus on the words “gateway” and “destination.” It hasn’t solidified its focus.
Springfield, with its random sprawling developments, takeovers of urban renewal space by large medical facilities and real estate developers, has left the resource of the Connecticut River under-utilized, the streets littered with garbage and graffiti, communities dragged down by high crime and a dying downtown infrastructure, with Symphony Hall sited next to a slum; the city is lagging behind its northeastern neighbors and just can’t seem to get it together. Sad, because there is so much potential. Sad, because there is no real sign of improvement — not a glimmer of it. I don’t even get off the bus in Springfield.
Then I reached my old hometown, Northampton, Massachusetts, with its small modern terminal tucked behind Main Street, across from “The Roundhouse,” the latter a round, brick, multistory building that bridges the steep slope behind the city’s main streets. It once housed the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Museum, whose creators lived in town.. Sidewalks circle the building, leading up to a Main Street brimming with diverse shops and dozens of restaurants: boutiques and bookstores, bagel shops and cuisine from Argentine to Greek to Thai to Indian to all American. Small, intimate clubs host big name bands and alternative singers and musicians in venues where you can actually meet and greet the performers. One old building houses the Pleasant Street Theater, a twin screen arts theater: the larger, better known foreign films play upstairs, the lesser known play in the basement in a 25 seat screening room with brick walls and concrete floors.
Tens of thousands of students from five colleges in the adjoining cities of Northampton, Amherst, Hadley and Southampton commute via a massive, nearly round-the-clock commuter transit service and a network of bike paths also used by skateboarders, skaters and walkers. Some of the city streets have designated bike lanes. Sidewalks abound, and people use them. An old railroad bridge was skillfully integrtaed into the trail system, which crosses the Connecticut River, runs past a bison farm and links multiple towns through greenspace. The bus travels a tree-lined street past historic houses and into a downtown once derelict and dying, now revisioned by a foresighted mayor into the business district called “Musante Mile.”
By the time the Greyhound bus pulled into Bellows Falls, Vermont, I was delighted to see a new stop, no longer the “pause and park in the middle of the road” to pick up travelers and packages or travelers at the local pharmacy. A slight detour to the back of the town, on a slope above the river and its famous “falls,” brought us to an old terminal, the site from which the which the vintage Green Mountain Flyer still makes its summer runs and fall foliage tours of the Vermont countryside. Again, some creative town official found a way to turn a blighted old building into a working showpiece while retaining a bit of community history.
Across the street, a stunning new, low slung Chamber of Commerce built of dark gray/black wood mimicked the shape of a railroad engine, huge prow hinting of the locomotive power. This dramatic modern structure was so carefully conceived that it seemed a “forever” part of the landscape despite its new construction, modern angles and oddities. It sat in splendor beneath a huge rusted steel arch from an old iron railroad bridge. I stood outside for a moment, just savoring the brave ingenuity that blended both structures into a transportation center.
When I arrived in Montpelier, Vermont, my destination for the moment, I found myself sitting on a concrete block outside a beat-up trailer of number days. The station, perched on the edge of the Onion River, in view of the gold dome of the state capitol, is also edged by a bike trail/walking path that runs the length of the river. Parents and children and college students spilled out of cars and unloaded bikes, ready to ride beneath the sugar maples in the cool river breeze. Two gentlemen walked the path, zigzagging between the lot, the station, the path and the river, discussed the city’s plans to take over the station land and annex it into part of their riverfront development, creating a multi-use connection between hometown business and developing greenspace. Improvements to the bike path, access for kayakers, park benches and sidewalk improvements all make this a treasure city. Even a narrow alley between a bookstore and an eatery has an iron sculpted archway overhead. It’s all in the details.
Montpelier has already had the foresight to zone old riverside buildings for use as restaurants and art spaces, even incubator businesses. They fight valiantly to keep symbols of commercialism out of the heart of town, and are reknown for banishing McDonald’s golden arches to the outskirts of town. Montpelier has a number of small private bookstores, and even the monolith of Ben & Jerry’s is tucked neatly away with limited signage. Culture and heritage are integrated to create a destination. Vermont is a tough state for signage, and very little mars the landscape otherwise known as the Green Mountains. But that’s its beauty. A number of power lines strung along erector-set power towers are hidden from the highways and byways by tall stands of pine trees.
I sat in the sunshine, savoring the cool mountain breeze, contemplating what makes or breaks small cities and towns livable. For me, it is people, and the ability to connect with people. That happens in small towns where careful planning, zoning, attention to both history and progress, and the maximizing of assets come together. As I moved these these small communities (with the exception of Springfield), station by station, I viewed these small restorations as huge steps toward revitalization. Little pieces of the past turned into the future.