My Turn: No longer known as the Town of Greenfield

  • The Greenfield Town Hall. Recorder File Photo/Paul Franz


Published: 1/18/2018 9:00:05 AM

So, Greenfield, we’re a city now. Pragmatically, it makes a lot of sense. In the state’s eyes, we’ve been a city since we adopted our new charter along with a mayoral form of government. I believe Isaac Mass, who proposed the change to Town Council, that this transition will make the municipality’s paperwork easier. No longer will we be known as “The City known as the Town of Greenfield.” And I also believe Brickett Allis, who said he doesn’t think changing what we call ourselves will change the essential character of Greenfield.

However, I always thought it was both humorous and meaningful that we clung to the town designation, even while adopting what the state considers to be a city style of government. I’m interested in the phenomenon known as the urban-rural divide. Since you’re reading a newspaper right now, I’m assuming you’ve read about this in the context of the 2016 presidential election. To political demographers, the urban-rural divide is often talked about in terms of the “islands of blue” designating metropolitan areas amid the “ocean of red” designating the rural areas. Only, this is not as true in Massachusetts as it is in the country as a whole.

In the case of Greenfield, I think the desire to be called a town — and not a city — is aligned with preserving a certain “small-town way of life.” Paul Jenkins titled his history of Greenfield, “A Conservative Rebel,” in part to describe this stubborn streak that runs through this splinter settlement that was founded by people who didn’t inherit land in more established Deerfield next door. A community that says “no” to Walmart, and keeps a historic landmark like Wilson’s department store going, displays a deep-seeded resistance to change.

I’m sure there are lots of reasons why people stay in Greenfield, or move here. But I think that a lot of those reasons have to do with quality of life. There is a combination of things that people find here that they can’t find somewhere else.

A town feels like a place where you can belong, where the buildings aren’t tall enough to cast shadows, where you run into people you know at the post office.

A city, on the other hand? A city is a place where those of us who stayed decided we didn’t want to go to, or many of us who moved here decided they wanted to get away from. A city has traffic. The rents are too high. And people learn not to make eye contact with other people on the sidewalk.

What’s interesting to me is that Greenfield seems willing to make this change now. Between the 1910 and 1920 census, Greenfield’s population jumped 46 percent to 15,000. Comparably, it hasn’t really changed much in the century since. In 1920, Greenfield might have looked around and said why can’t we be like Holyoke or Springfield or Worcester? The 1920 census marked the first time in our nation’s history where there were more people living in the cities than there were in the rural areas. Greenfield had bustling factories, a streetcar, immigrants. But Greenfielders decided to stay a town.

Maybe what happened is that a decade on after changing our charter, we realized that the changes we might have feared didn’t come to pass. Or that the changes that did happen have been, overall, for the good. Since the charter change, we’ve seen some new development downtown, passenger trains stop here again, and we even have municipal internet service.

If I were to tell people whom I know from other parts of the country about the place where I live, it still makes sense to call Greenfield a “small town.” The term small city doesn’t seem as apt. Paul Krugman referred to Rochester, N.Y., as a small city in a recent New York Times column, and Rochester is certainly in a different weight class than us.

But maybe claiming the city moniker could be a way of linking arms with other communities that are trying to find their way forward in the adverse winds of the national political climate. And we don’t have to give up on all of our resistance to labels: last time I checked, Massachusetts still stubbornly refers to itself as a Commonwealth rather than a state.

Andrew Varnon is a resident of Greenfield. He teaches a class called “Beer, Baseball & the Bible” at Western New England University.


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