Art in Paradise: Eho?

Jean-Pierre Pasche, owner of Easthampton's Eastmont Custom Framing, in his monthly arts newsletter about all things Easthampton arts, addressed in April a notion that keeps bubbling to the surface in the burg next to Noho/Hamp: Does Easthampton have the potential to become the next Northampton? It's shorthand for the real question: will Easthampton become a mecca for arts, music and "culture"?

There are many reasons to hope not—at least when it comes to the Northampton version of the question—for those who live in Easthampton. Though Easthampton has its daily string of cars winding through town and over the mountain to I-91, it's nothing like the mounting insanity of Northampton's streets, where, on a recent Friday, I sat in one place so long a stranger asked me what it costs to park there. (It also bears pointing out that Easthampton doesn't fill its coffers by deploying a grim army of "parking enforcers.")

But, bellyaching aside, Northampton isn't necessarily the right model for Easthampton. With developers and the city government pushing to build the new at the expense of the old, Paradise is in jeopardy.

And Easthampton is certainly its own place. I'm endlessly amazed by the unusual variety among the successful storefronts—can it be considered usual for a tombstone store to even exist? What of the odd little watch shop tucked just behind the hedges on Main Street? Easthampton has done an unusually good job of remaining free of cookie-cutter corporates, a trend that is, sadly, just as likely to change as it was in Northampton.

The big names have made inroads. The stretch of town on Route 10 is home to fast food giants already, and there is the impending specter of a Stop and Shop obliterating two of Easthampton's most interesting local places, the Tasty Top and the gorgeous Easthampton Golf driving range.

It's a reminder that on the heels of even the modest gentrification that accompanies local successes, artistic and otherwise, come search parties who've employed their retail location software and decided you're next.

Pasche answers the question in the best possible fashion, saying Easthampton is having a great time becoming the next Easthampton instead of Northampton.

And he's tapping into something important: there are many towns in the Valley where the dynamic of old industrial town meets newfangled arts scene, and despite the similarities, the same rules don't always apply. Just look at North Adams, a town whose economy was given a boost by turning industrial buildings into a gigantic art museum.

It's a celebrated move that has even prompted a documentary, yet even there, the mayor who helped oversee that transition, John Barrett III (who also claims status as the longest-serving mayor in the state), is now being challenged by City Councilor Richard J. Alcombright. Alcombright told the North Adams Transcript, "We've ridden the Mass MoCA wave for years now. It's time that we decide who we are as a community. Are we an arts-based community? Are we a creative-economy community?"

Such tensions between old and new don't go away. In Easthampton, Eastworks and other places incubate new ideas and a new arts community, but nearby, another old industrial building is but an impressive ruin, a project stopped in its tracks. The arrival of a big box like Stop and Shop threatens to clog traffic and make it look like anywhere else—the city doesn't have the luxury of a place like Northampton's King Street where a retail wasteland can sprout, yet stay largely out of sight and mind.

If Easthamptonites tread carefully, the place could become a viable, unique destination in the Valley's seemingly unstoppable artistic spread. And, just as Pasche claims, the more its identity is its own, the better. The Valley doesn't need Eho—it needs a vital Easthampton that incorporates old character and new energy.

Author: James Heflin

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