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Springfield: Reports of Decline Exaggerated

As a new school year begins, this mother finds Western Massachusetts' largest city "a sweet, wonderful place to live."

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Thursday, August 30, 2012
Photo By Mark Roessler
View of downtown Springfield taken from the Armory.

How does Katie Stebbins love Springfield? Let her count the ways—she's already up to #29, the Springfield Museums.

Stebbins began her list—ambitiously titled "365 Reasons to Love Springfield"—in November of 2011, on her aptly named blog "Happy Springfield Parent." In her first post, she wrote about walking her two young daughters to school one morning and feeling flush with love for her life:

"I live in a beautiful neighborhood, in the house of my dreams, my oldest daughter attends public school and loves it. My youngest daughter attends pre-school up the street from my house and in between the two schools is a huge 750-acre park that rivals any in the country. My neighbors are a welcoming community of people from all walks of life."

Stebbins knows that not everyone shares her sunny assessment of her city. Reports of crime and violence dominate the Springfield news. Springfield high schools have a 52 percent graduation rate; 10 city schools have been designated Level 4 schools by the state, meaning they've been identified as "chronically underperforming," and about 80 percent of kids come from households poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

The city has high unemployment and foreclosure rates, and even Stebbins' beloved Forest Park neighborhood, with its namesake park, farmers' market, restaurants and arts groups, "most see ... as a neighborhood in economic decline," she wrote.

In her blog, Stebbins makes the case—as a parent, a professional city planner and a self-described city mouse—for the many benefits of living in Springfield. (Such on-line avowals of Springfield-love are, apparently, becoming a trend; see SpeakingofSpringfield.org, the new online magazine with a similar mission.)

Part of her task is dismantling some of the worst stereotypes people hold about cities. "Springfield is so much more suburban than people realize. It's a very suburban, normal New England-looking town," Stebbins said. "But it is a city, and cities should be allowed to be cities."

Besides, she added: "Urban living is fun."

*

Stebbins moved to the Valley to attend graduate school at UMass. She went on to work at the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission and then, for 10 years, in the Springfield Planning Department, a job she gave up after the birth of her second child. She now chairs the city's Planning Board and works as an independent consultant.

Her husband, Bruce Stebbins, is a former Springfield city councilor who worked in economic development in City Hall and is now a member of the Mass. Gaming Commission, which will oversee casino licensing in the state. (His wife is not without opinions on that controversial topic; she expresses concerns about the possibility of a casino landing in downtown Springfield, especially a "big box" structure closed off from the rest of the neighborhood.

"The downtown can only handle so many places like the MassMutal Center," she said. "Solid walls do not build pedestrian activities.")

When Stebbins—then Katie Galluzzo—was a kid, her family moved a lot, following her stepfather's career in academia. So she welcomes the sense of stability Springfield offers. "It's really nice to be in a community that's welcoming, where I feel like I can have roots," she said.

There's a lot Stebbins values about her city: its diversity, its manageable size ("I love the fact that it's big enough that I can still discover something new, that I never knew before."), its proximity to rural and urban areas, its affordability. "I love that we can live in this turn-of-the-century mansion for so cheap," she said.

In keeping with its name, Stebbins' blog focuses on what makes Springfield a great place to raise a family. She's written—sometimes sticking with the "365 Reasons" format; sometimes not—about attending the annual post-Thanksgiving balloon parade down Main Street, swimming and boating on Indian Orchard's Lake Lorraine, the joys of loading up on treats at the Forest Park farmers' market and books at the city's libraries.

The Quadrangle is, justifiably, well represented; in a recent post, Stebbins wrote about a weekend visit there to see the kid-magnet Lego exhibit, visit the art room in the George Walter Vincent museum and check out Patrick Dougherty's fantastical Stick House—she describes it as a "magical fairy house on steroids"—by the Seuss sculpture garden.

Stebbins has also highlighted favorite businesses: Chmura's Bakery, where you have your choice of Polish-language newspapers to read with your apple fritters; Theodores,' Stebbins' "favorite place to eat, drink beer, hear music and play pool in Springfield" (and, it turns out, a kid-friendly place to eat to boot); the art studios at the restored Indian Orchard Mills.

"I think Indian Orchard is one of the best-kept secrets in Springfield," said Stebbins. She's a particular fan of Indian Orchard's Main Street, which, unlike many other neighborhood commercial centers, has held on to most of its original architecture.

Other posts feature some of Stebbins' favorite Springfield people—Arise for Social Justice's Michaelann Bewsee; activist and former city councilor Amaad Rivera—and organizations, from the ECOS environmental center at Forest Park to the Springfield Public Forum speaker series to the Children's Chorus of Springfield, who reliably steal the show at the Springfield Symphony Orchestra's holiday concerts.

One other thing that she loves about Springfield: its public schools.

Stebbins knows her rave review of Springfield's schools will surprise many outsiders. "People will say to me, 'There are houses in Springfield I'd like to buy, but I'm so worried about the schools," she said. Indeed, when her older daughter started first grade at Sumner Avenue Elementary last fall, Stebbins had her concerns, too.

"The school is highly urbanized with a high volume of kids who require extra attention," she wrote in her blog. "Would my daughter fade into the background and not receive individualized attention? Will my smart child miss her potential?"

Those fears, she said, were promptly put to rest: her daughter loves school, gets all the attention she needs and is learning things about the world that she never would in a less diverse setting. "She came out from school every day skipping," Stebbins said.

And if, some day, her kids need a change, there are plenty of other options in the city: public schools, charter schools, private schools, parochial schools, even a home-schooling community. "We will not move to make it happen," she said. "Living in Springfield, there will be options for all of us."

*

So if there's so much to love about Springfield, why do some people—residents and non-residents—have such a dim view of the city?

"You have a group of people in the suburbs who are afraid of what they don't know," Stebbins said. "We don't fear buildings, we don't fear land uses—we fear people. There are those who fear people who don't look like them." But by avoiding Springfield, she added, "they're missing out on a lot."

Much of that fear stems from a sense that Springfield is a dangerous place—a perception that Stebbins calls "so mind-blowingly ridiculous." While Springfield has its share of crime, like any city, she maintains, the violence that people hear about on the evening news tends to be domestic incidents or drug-related crimes that happen late at night.

"You've got to ask yourself what you're really afraid of," she said. "Why won't you go past Boston Road? Is it valid to fear you're going to get murdered?"

But perhaps most corrosive is the negativity of some long-time residents who feel the city has changed for the worse. "People don't like change, necessarily," Stebbins said.

As a relative newcomer, she added, she doesn't have a lifelong perspective on the city and how it's changed. But she has lived in many other parts of the country, she said, and Springfield compares quite well: "I'm living here because I really think it's a sweet, wonderful place to live, right now."

For all its many attractions, one thing Springfield needs to improve, Stebbins said, is its sense of community. "We need to do better community building," she said. "We need to do better conversation building. I don't think we do that very well right now."

Stebbins hopes her blog can help with that task. She also plans to help create a parents' association in Forest Park, "so we can start bringing people together. Parents like to know each other: 'Hi, I'm Katie. I have a seven- and five-year-old.'

"That goes to community building—we just need to know each other."

 

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