The interstate runs right through the heart of the city, dividing the high, gleaming towers of the downtown with the wide, sedate Connecticut River. We wait for our junction and then roll off, the ramp taking us down and into the concrete canyons of the city centre. Not that Springfield is a large place – 150,000 people live within the city limits, just over a half a million in the metropolitan area – but it is the only true city that we will spend any time in, and the contrast with the university towns, sleepy seaside resorts, and hillside villages that make up most of our two week trip to the United States is quite marked.
The creators of The Simpsons, when deciding on a name for the town where Homer, Marge and the rest of the gang would live, chose “Springfield” as Anytown, USA – and indeed it is the fourth most popular place name in the nation – but Springfield, Massachusetts can lay claim to being one of the oldest, founded as it was in 1636. The history of the city has been one dominated by manufacturing, from the first American musket factory, the discovery of vulcanized rubber, and the Indian motorcycle company. Other claims to fame are as the birthplace of the first American-English dictionary (Merriam Webster), the sport of basketball – created in the local YMCA – and the children’s writer and illustrator Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr Seuss.
It is the latter that brought us down the interstate in the first place, to visit the Dr Seuss Memorial Garden in the heart of the museum quarter, just north of downtown. We park in a lot between red brick buildings in what we discover is the Club Quarter, a nightlife district of bars, pubs, theatres and restaurants close to the Amtrak station which is, on a weekday morning in March, completely deserted. As is much of the downtown as we walk through, the people presumably in their air-conditioned offices in those gleaming towers and with little reason to be out on the streets. We certainly stand out, and are approached a couple of times – “Are you American?”, “You gotta be careful in the big city” – on our way past the hulking sports arena that sits up hard against a collection of run-down-looking housing blocks.
It is one of those city walks, despite the pleasant weather, where your pace quickens ever-so-slightly because you have a very strong feeling on being alone on these streets, despite it being the middle of the day and our being right in the heart of downtown. It is an eerie feeling, until we climb the hill and reach the museums, where kids climb over the sculptures of the Cat in the Hat and Theodor’s other creations, and queue up to visit each of the decent museums in the quadrangle, including a Natural History Museum and a couple of arts galleries… one of which is showing a collection of photographs of the Beatles’ first tour to America, just to make us feel at home.
In 2007 Springfield embarked on a revitalization plan, including aesthetic improvements, infrastructure investment and construction projects, that seem to have reversed – or at least halted – the decline that began with the collapse in manufacturing since the 1960s. The crime rate has fallen, from being 18th in the country in 2003 to 51st in 2011. You can see this work on the streets, in the renovations and the public spaces, along the pavements and in colourful flags hanging from the lampposts declaring civic pride.
Nevertheless, you wonder how far such a revitalization process can ever go – it is hard to create jobs in this economic climate, and it is difficult to reverse the middle class flight from the city centre that has been going on for decades… in cities around the world it remains a debate as to how to keep a place viable, when the very things that led to their growth in the first place are no longer there. The people in Springfield appear to have some bright ideas, and with some raw materials in place such as the Basketball Hall of Fame, it is possible to wish them luck and imagine they might continue to succeed.
Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig