In the time since my high school graduation in June 2011, a growing uneasiness has overcome me. I fear that my hometown is a microcosm of a greater issue that is affecting American communities throughout the nation. Beyond economic recession, beyond negative headlines bombarding local news here in Western Mass. and across the country lays disconcerting social change to accompany a transitioning economic landscape.
I have lived in Springfield’s neighboring city of Chicopee for the majority of my life. Chicopee is a hardworking, blue collar community that once thrived on industrial manufacturing, much like other small New England cities. Today, the community maintains much of the integrity it always has, with much of the economy supplemented by Westover Air Reserve Base.
As a mid-size community of over 55,000 citizens, Chicopee is currently facing issues that incite some worry. I worry not only for the city itself, but for other communities of similar size.
I attribute much of my success in life to the diversity I experienced growing up in the small city nicknamed the “Crossroads of New England.” Chicopee is nearly 90-percent white, but there is a socioeconomic amalgamation of people within the city, and a significant immigrant population.
I have lived in small apartment buildings in the more densely populated Chicopee Falls neighborhood. I spent much of my childhood living in mobile home parks near Westover, mostly home to low-income elderly folks. I too have spent time in rental properties in the Willimansett neighborhood that abuts Holyoke before arriving where I have called home for the past five years: a cozy house tucked neatly away from the hustle and bustle of the always busy Memorial Drive on a quiet circle.
The Chicopee Public Schools are an institution I feel indebted to still today. While climbing the ranks of public education towards an eventual high school graduation, both educators and peers were instrumental in me becoming the thoughtful person I feel I am today. The school system often offered me my first two meals of the day for free, fostered my intellectual growth, and presented a wealth of afterschool activities.
I certainly have plenty of positive things about my upbringing. So, in a place with so much positive light, where have the negative shadows been cast?
Cringe-worthy news headlines have bludgeoned Chicopee in the past few years in heartbreaking fashion. While news headlines are not always indicative of a community’s integrity, I fear that they can be indicative of the direction the place I call home is heading.
As this is an opinion piece, I will mention news happenings without use of names or explanation. The inspiration for this piece came just last week, after a 43-year-old detective from the Chicopee Police Department was caught having sexual relations with a 17-year-old girl. This disturbing news is just one instance that has racked my brain in recent memory.
In 2013, the aforementioned police department was probed by the state for a variety of incidents, most notably the handling of a 2011 murder case involving a 20-year-old victim. Officers photographed the victim at the murder scene with their cellphones, and were later leaked to the public.
When the school year began in Chicopee earlier this month, the school department scrambled to find housing for 250 homeless students—a more than baffling jump from the usual amount of 70 per fall. This presents another disheartening issue to address for Superintendent of Schools Richard W. Rege, Jr.
A school system that continually churns out throes of successful college goers must face a variety of challenges, including a ream of recent unfortunate mishaps by staff and educators, a mounting problem with teen depression and suicide, as well as a concerning 12-percent dropout rate.
Not unlike other communities undergoing struggle, personal experience can be more impactful than any news headlines may be. Just last spring, I ran into a vaguely familiar high school classmate while at a local park. He was a familiar face, but not much of an acquaintance. This high school colleague even came over to tell me he recognized me, only he did not remember my name. He simply bounced around, brimming, cackling with energy. He threw a crumpled piece of paper on the ground next to the bench I sat at and walked away. This paper was a disposable needle form.
Every late evening trip to the local Dunkin’ Donuts following work shifts at a local grocery store, I would see a familiar face, except a much older one. A gaunt, shaking middle-aged woman with less energy but similar mannerisms would knock on driver-side car windows. Her story was the same every night: her daughter and she were and in need of spare change to return home to Greenfield. While I am not judgmental or dismissive of strangers, it was easy to see there was never a daughter, or a home in Greenfield.
The point is Chicopee is a place not unlike other small cities in America. It is a hardworking community in which parents of all backgrounds were proud to raise their children, and some still are. The unfortunate truth that is becoming apparent is that mid-sized communities like Chicopee are experiencing as much hardship as their more urban, more populated counterparts.
This is not an effort to trash the place I love, but an effort to expose that our average communities are not so average anymore. While there could not be better people at the helm of decision making than current Mayor Richard Kos and his staff, Chicopee is an example of a community that demands involvement from all of its members to spark positive change.
Industrial communities were once considered the backbone of America, and while much of the industry has left, America is still in need of the places that acted as its spine. Chicopee, the “Crossroads of New England” is a little piece of America’s core skeletal makeup still relatively without fracture. However, it is a place where moral excellence must be strived for in this current time of recession.
Many small cities throughout New England are just these kinds of places, and call for citizen action so that they remain the places we are proud to call our homes.