This is my response to Michael Winerip’s article Mulberry Street May Fade, but ‘Mulberry Street’ Lives On, which appeared in the New York Times on Jan. 29, 2012, on the 75th anniversary of the Dr. Seuss classic And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.
I was alone in a city I still didn’t know very well; a relationship over and a job to keep, I started looking through the newspaper to find a new place to live.
Mulberry Street, Springfield, Mass. Third-floor walk-up apartment. Shared kitchen and bathroom.
I called. I went. I saw. I rented.
I lived on Mulberry Street for two years and always loved telling people how I lived on a famous literary block in history. It wasn’t perfect; the accommodations were small, the landlords were in the middle of a divorce, and I remember one morning having to step over a used condom in the street to get into my car.
But I loved that the school down the hill was called Milton Bradley Elementary, and I loved watching the kids stream out to the multi-colored, donated jungle gym with their backpacks and lunchboxes. I loved that over time when I went jogging after work, the boys on the stoops grew to be my protectors, waving hello and glaring at strangers who might have glanced my way. I loved passing the Indian Motorcycle Building on my way to work, resplendent in brick, and I loved my view. The Basketball Hall of Fame in the distance, the sun setting over the Connecticut River every evening. These were my mid-twenties.
In subsequent years, I also lived in the Forest Park area and in East Springfield – near the neighborhoods of Old Hill and Sixteen Acres – where I could walk to the grocery store and get the best cashew chicken you can imagine across the street at the Chinese restaurant. I jogged past an elementary school every night and waved at families on their decks.
A caveat: I don’t live in Springfield any longer. I live in the bucolic Berkshires now, in the center of a village that allows me to walk to work and have a sushi dinner across the street. But when I read Winerip’s article, written on the 75th anniversary of the Dr. Seuss classic, it made me feel a need to champion the underdog — the city I called home for a decade.
I knew going in that there would be some inevitable parallels made between the idyllic, tree-lined streets Theodore Geisel described in Mulberry Street and the Springfield of reality. It’s a city. It is, to use a former editor’s phrase, a beleaguered city. But it’s also the City of Homes, and sadly, Winerip missed that point.
As it seems, he took a mini field trip from the Springfield Library and Springfield Museums, located on the same Quadrangle, to the Mason Square neighborhood, then taking a left on to Mulberry Street, not far from Springfield Technical Community College.
I’m not going to say this isn’t an area with problems. It’s directly adjacent to downtown, and not an affluent area. But in the 10 years I lived in Springfield, I saw sketchy storefronts replaced with trendy restaurants and vinyl-banner signs on strip malls replaced by hand-carved marquees in Mason Square and beyond.
Winerip’s description of Mulberry Street as ‘A shabby place with boarded-up houses?’ It’s mostly accurate. He just forgot to mention the gorgeous private homes at the top of the street with the impeccable Asian gardens, the Art Deco apartment building at the corner, that view of the riverfront, and oh, I don’t know — perhaps the other 31 square miles of the city.
The writer’s opening statement about Springfield is that it’s “mostly poor and rundown now,” and that makes me sad. As a city of homes, it’s a city of neighborhoods, and therefore there is no ‘mostly.’
Forest Park, which rivals the beauty of Central Park in many ways, is Springfield’s gem. It has gardens that remind me of the Red Queen’s rose bushes in Alice in Wonderland and a mausoleum that rivals any description in a C.S. Lewis fantasy novel. Just a few feet from Forest Park, in three different directions, three of the world’s most notable photographers make their homes: Diana Mara Henry, Keith Sikes, and Jack Holowitz. In my career I’ve been blessed to be able to write stories about all three of these history-makers: Gloria Steinem’s former personal photographer, one of America’s first paparazzos, and one of only 100 Professional Photographers of America Fellows.
And if anyone out there has every driven by the private home of the heir to the Peter Pan Bus fortune, you know it’s no hovel.
The riverfront has been developed by hometown boys like Michael Spagnoli and Peter Pappas, who turned the ‘old hall of fame’ into a veritable theme park. (Their restaurant Onyx has now been replaced by Mama Iguana’s, but it’s still an imposing building that, until their work, sat vacant).
There’s also the Monkey Wrench building, where the tool of the same name was invented, the new Federal Courthouse with its sparkling contemporary architecture, and Mattoon Street… gorgeous, gorgeous Mattoon Street. I remember hosting my older brother in Springfield for the first time one weekend, and that was one of the first places I wanted to take him, just to see the Brownstones. We also hung out at the Dr. Seuss Sculpture Garden in the Quadrangle, just a few strides away.
Springfield is not Boston. It’s not New York, and in many ways, yup. It ain’t pretty.
But it ain’t four-miles wide, either. Exploration is the inspiration of journalism. I hope someone from the NYT takes a little time to spelunk in Springfield some time soon. It’s a city of challenges, but I can’t sum up my feelings any better than the Lorax could.
Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.