Culture Shock in Massachusetts

By Sara Orvis

Diverse. This is not a word I would us to describe my hometown of Clayton NY. Quaint, yes. Community, yes. Beautiful, yes. But it is not diverse–and it’s the diversity we have seen that has shocked me most during our trip through Massachusetts. This week my team, Mass Action, and I were in the South Hadley/Holyoke area of Massachusetts. On our ride in we stopped 5 miles from South Hadley and 10 miles from

downtown Holyoke for some apples and granola bars. We stopped in the lawn of a huge estate with manicured lawns and nice cars in the parking lot. We had been warned about Holyoke but after seeing this area only 10 miles away we thought maybe everyone was just being overly cautious; it didn’t look bad at all. As April said, “Crime doesn’t look like this.” We continued our journey and stopped in a South Hadley, a town much like my own; quaint, beautiful, community-oriented.

South Hadley farmer's market on the town common

At only 5 miles away from Holyoke we couldn’t see how Holyoke could be this big city with the unfortunate crimes that we had heard so much about. The next day we got on our bikes to make the short 5 mile ride in to Holyoke for the Farmer’s Market downtown. We rode down College Street with Mount Holyoke College on one side and lovely large houses on the other. Smiles crossed our faces as we rode, but soon the area we were riding in changed. We got down to Bridge Street, leading us to the bridge over the Connecticut River to the spot where South Hadley, a quaint, beautiful community, ended and Holyoke, a diverse city, began.

Mass Action and our trailer at the Holyoke Open Space farmer's market

In Holyoke we saw and heard all that a big city has, including the sprawling asphalt and crowded streets. The people were different, too; there was diversity, language and culture. Just as the beauty of these people amazed me, so did the economic
disparity that faces the city. I was left wondering, how can so much change in just 5 or 10 miles? I knew I must have missed the dividing line that separates the quaint town of South Hadley and the diverse city of Holyoke.. it couldn’t just be those two small signs: “Entering Holyoke”, “Entering South Hadley” that makes this separation so visible. Could it?

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4 Responses to Culture Shock in Massachusetts

  1. lord jeff says:

    I think there is an undertone in your blog post that diversity=crime and inequality…as a student who’s been involved in the Holyoke community (at least a little) I find it disheartening that people “warned” you about Holyoke…

    • marlamarcum says:

      We agree! It is disheartening that people “warned” the team about Holyoke. The point of Sara’s post was to demonstrate that her team had learned otherwise… Sara DOES point out that Holyoke is not like the neighboring South Hadley… “In Holyoke we saw and heard all that a big city has, including the sprawling asphalt and crowded streets. The people were different, too; there was diversity, language and culture. Just as the beauty of these people amazed me, so did the economic disparity that faces the city. I was left wondering, how can so much change in just 5 or 10 miles?”

      I admire Sara for her her honesty and her willingness to share with the world her own experience of growth: “Diverse. This is not a word I would us to describe my hometown of Clayton NY. Quaint, yes. Community, yes. Beautiful, yes. But it is not diverse–and it’s the diversity we have seen that has shocked me most during our trip through Massachusetts.” Perhaps another writer would have chosen her words differently. I admit, reading the word “shocked” is a little grating for me in this context.

      Nevertheless, it’s clear to me that Sara never found any evidence of that “Holyoke” about which her team was warned. She did find the Holyoke that faces many challenges AND is vibrant and diverse. Sara shares with us the moment when she learns for herself that the real Holyoke is more complex, more beautiful, and more human than the “Holyoke” they were warned about. She never suggests that diversity = crime… I think she refutes that prejudice. Instead, she recognizes a situation of radical income and resource inequality that is fundamentally unfair. She doesn’t lament diversity; she celebrates it. She doesn’t equate diversity with inequality, but she does notice inequality in the same place where she experienced diversity.

    • massaction says:

      Hi–thanks for your comment, lord jeff. Marla said just about everything I would have. It was a shame to hear that our next town would be dangerous–except that it turned out to be a fantastic experience. I’m really excited to hear about Alex Morse, who seems like a really exciting new mayor! I hope Holyoke’s reputation soon better reflects the actual city!

  2. SeanO says:

    Yeah, New England has unbelievable social microclimates, where class, income levels, and racial & ethnic diversity change in the blink of eye – as does the availability of healthy food, lead-free housing, and green space.

    Thank you for bringing to light the arbitrary injustices we all too often take for granted. Bike on!

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