Reflections on Community and the Essex House Text Size

As the weather begins to change, I can’t help but take note of the passing time. It’s hard to believe yet another fall is approaching. With the shortening days and the increased crispness in the air, I feel myself returning to that fall three years ago when my name first appeared on a ballot. So much has happened since then, and still, there remains so much to do.


When I first ran for office, one of the most gratifying aspects of that experience was getting to meet so many people who had previously felt disengaged from our politics. Part of my effort to tell a ‘new story’ about Holyoke was a desire to tell a story that included everyone in our community, that encompassed everyone’s hopes and dreams for the City of Holyoke. I believed then, as I do today, that our diversity is a strength, and that our city’s renewal must not come at the expense of the community that already exists here; rather, our city’s renewal must seize and build upon the creative energy and goodwill of the people who are proud to call Holyoke home—people from every neighborhood, and from every walk of life.


I think about that first campaign quite often, and about the values I’ve tried to carry into this job. While I am often impressed with and proud of the progress we’ve made, I am sometimes confronted with the legacy of our complicated history. One such occasion was this past Friday, when I joined protesters outside the Essex House at 400 High Street.


The Essex House is vacant, and in a continuous state of collapse. It harms local businesses and endangers the people who live and work in the community. Demolishing the building would remedy the problem, and these concerned citizens and business owners gathered to call on the City Council to approve the funding required to do so. Of course, those on the Council who oppose this funding raise a legitimate question: why should the City have to do what the building’s previous owner failed to do? Based on my conversations with the protesters, though, I can tell you that they understand this argument, too. However, when the functioning of your business is threatened, or the safety of your children is imperiled, such abstract arguments about the role of government become less meaningful.


Moreover, the frustration felt by the residents and business owners have a context—a context that leads some of them to conclude that, if this building were in a different neighborhood, action would have been taken long ago. Now, I understand that my friends on the Council who have chosen to oppose funding for demolition do so out of perfectly reasonable concerns about government spending. But it would be a mistake to ignore the sentiment that exists among many who live and work in our downtown. Simply wishing our history away will do nothing to reconcile Holyoke with its past, nor will it forge the path to Holyoke’s better future.


Surely these issues of history and community matter. Regarding the Essex House, however, they are far from the only issues. As a matter of fact, in my view, there exists all the common ground we need to get the job done. I applaud those on the council who fiercely defend taxpayers’ money. That’s an important part of my job, too.


Here’s the good news: in the case of what to do about the Essex House, the fiscally responsible solution and the morally sound solution are one and the same. The funding for demolition utterly pales in comparison to what the cost to taxpayers would be if debris from this collapsing building were to injure someone—a very real possibility. Therefore, approving the funding would reaffirm the city government’s commitment to the people downtown, while also saving taxpayers across the city in the future. This, for me, is a clear example of how the government can act in the interest of all of our citizens.


I encourage anyone interested in this issue to attend the Finance Committee meeting in the City Council Chambers on Friday at 6 PM.


The situation with the Essex House did not emerge over night. In the coming months, it will be a priority of my administration to identify other buildings in the city where similar issues could potentially arise. In keeping with my administration’s desire to renovate, rather demolish, our old buildings, I will continue to pursue practical uses for properties in disrepair.


My hope is that the Council will act on the Essex House. Beyond that, I hope the Council will take up a number of other important issues—including our unsustainable sewer rate, our communications infrastructure, and the reorganization of city departments.  Based on personal conversations with some members of the Council, I get the sense that there is some appetite for really tackling these issues.


I am looking forward to a productive fall!

Posted on September 18, 2014 by