Departing reporter reflects on his Greenfield beat


Staff Writer
Published: 6/3/2019 12:11:34 AM

GREENFIELD — Let me start with something that will immediately divide readers. 

Al Norman told me something the other day that stuck with me. 

“It’s another moment when Greenfield becomes the ‘city’ and not the ‘town,’ “ he said, reflecting on the Franklin County Superior Court decision in favor of the big box store that he’s fought for years against. “I prefer to live in a town.” 

Similarly, the Council on Aging recently drew the line in the sand: The John Zon (the ‘JZ’ as some call it) is a senior center, not a community center. 

It’s surely an issue that will carry on for months as the community weighs in on what their tax dollars were intended to do and, more broadly — what’s in a name. 

Unfortunately, it’s an issue I won’t have an opportunity to cover. 

After nearly 2.5 years at the Greenfield Recorder (well, when I got here, we were just the Recorder), I’m leaving to move onto a new community and a new challenge for a newspaper job in Florida. I’ll be covering county government at a USA Today paper, but my job title will be as a “watchdog reporter,” which might mean something more than your typical government reporting position. At least that’s what I believe that name’s distinction to mean. 

When I came to Greenfield in 2017 after growing up in Queens, most recently spending time in Washington covering the 2016 election and reporting abroad in Jerusalem, I didn’t know Al, Isaac, Rudy or Bill. I didn’t know where Greenfield was nor did I know what Greenfield was all about. 

Is it a town? It’s not a city, is it? Why Greenfield? 

Friends would, and still, ask me questions like these all the time.

In due time I had an answer for them that typically entailed me giving an hour-long pitch on this place in western Mass. with the best pancakes, asparagus, strawberries, blueberries, apples, corn, creamies, pumpkins, but could be reduced to: Greenfield is where democracy remains vibrant. 

Identity crisis aside — whether it’s a city or a town or the city known as the town of Greenfield — it’s a place that’s no short of public discourse. 

It’s a place where it’s City Council can spend 5.5 hours debating a $51.3 million budget that’s highlighted by ideological differences that boil down to perhaps the most American thing of all: my taxes. 

When I came to Greenfield from Washington, I was looking for authenticity. Authenticity in its people. Authenticity in its actions. It’s words. It’s votes. It’s politics. The 2016 election was a wake-up call to the journalism industry that at times it’s forgotten about the people that make up this country. It’s forgotten about that life outside the Beltway Bubble is not only real, but relevant. 

Even in Massachusetts, where the electoral college renders the state irrelevant to those political pundits, discourse is still alive as ever. That’s because here, even without Annual Town Meeting, we know all politics are local. The commonwealth may be a blue-chip rubber stamp, but it’s people still have a diversity of thought. When we stop listening is when we run into trouble. 

So let’s listen to what people are saying in recent days. 

City or town? 

Community center or senior center? 

Old-timers in town sometimes scoff at Greenfield being anything other than a town. It’s the same folks who also hark back to the good ol’ day’s when Greenfield was booming and Main Street was a bustling. The population then and now was just about the same, sitting in the neighborhood of 17,000. 

Some transplants to Greenfield, like the sprawlbuster Norman, also want the place where they moved to remain what it was: a town where you can know everyone and walk around its downtown center and get what you need. 

There is, of course, some economic theory packed into whether that’s sustainable if you develop an additional retail center on the outskirts of town (city?) with retail commercial development. 

Packed into the debates of growth and what kind is healthy for Greenfield is the rhetoric around city or town. 

Language can be important. It shapes the conversation. And how can Greenfield have a clear picture for its future if it’s stuck between realities? 

The city or town debate will carry on, oftentimes in the background of these big issues Greenfield typically grapples with, like economic development, education and its capital projects. 

Greenfield, regardless of what its letterhead, seal, cop cars or buildings say, is a place where democracy continues to thrive. A thriving democracy looks like a high school cafeteria packed to advocate for a new library; a thriving democracy looks like citizens petitioning a vote; a thriving democracy is an election to decide it all. 

As long as people are having those healthy debates about its future, the city or town will likely have a future. It’s when no one cares about it at all that we should start to be concerned, but that’s not the Greenfield I know nor is it the one I’m leaving. Thank you to this place of 17,000 for showing me what Democracy remains all about. 

You can reach Joshua Solomon at:

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