Constructed as one of the nation’s first planned industrial cities, Holyoke is imbued with purpose. Canals shoot off from the Connecticut River and through a grid of historic mills and commercial buildings that have stood since the city was the world’s largest papermaker.
It has been a long time since Holyoke held that title, though, and for years the city has been feeling its way back toward prosperity. That process has been frustrating at times, but the people who live there say they value the opportunity to help the city grow and thrive.
“I like the feeling of family, the feeling of community that I have in Holyoke,” said Darlene Elias, a probation officer and community activist. “I could have chosen to purchase a home anywhere, but I choose to call Holyoke home.”
The city offers many assets, including historic, affordable real estate. It is densely settled, but within easy reach of the natural beauty of the Pioneer Valley. And it has a unique culture, as one of the nation’s most heavily Puerto Rican communities outside of the island itself.
Elias grew up in Holyoke in the 1970s, while the city was still hanging on to its manufacturing heritage, and she watched the decline, as jobs left the waterfront and retailers moved out of the city center. Crime increased, the population dropped, and the proud city’s reputation suffered.
She eventually left, but in 2001, she decided to come back.
Elias, who is Puerto Rican, relishes the things she couldn’t find elsewhere: “Being able to go to the bodega, being able to go to the Spanish restaurant. I wouldn’t have gotten that in Wilbraham.”
Andrew Melendez, who was born and raised here, would like to see better promotion of Holyoke’s cultures citywide. Melendez, executive director of the Agawam YMCA Wellness and Program Family Center, pointed to the traditional St. Patrick’s Day parade, which regularly brings hundreds of thousands of people to the city. He wonders why the local Puerto Rican Day parade doesn’t yet have the same draw.
Melendez is considering whether to buy a home here – he says he is renting now for more than he wants to pay — but it is a tough decision.
He is not satisfied with the state of downtown. He wants his young daughter to grow up near a livelier city center with more places to gather, shop, and relax.
“I think a lot of young people are in a place where they are excited to live in Holyoke,’’ Melendez said, “but also in a place where they want more from Holyoke.”
By the numbers
The year William G. Morgan invented volleyball at the Holyoke YMCA. Basketball, born in Springfield only years before, was apparently too
strenuous for middle-aged men – thanks to all the “bumping” and “jolting.” Today, the International Volleyball Hall of Fame in downtown Holyoke honors the sport’s creation.
The estimated average annual attendance at the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day parade
. The turnout puts the event among the largest St. Patrick’s Day
gatherings in the United States. Organizers said the crowd was smaller this year, thanks to blustery, cold weather.
The number of tracks revealed in slabs of sandstone at the Trustees
of Reservations’ Dinosaur Footprints site.
Pros & cons
The city enjoys easy access to Interstate 91 and the Massachusetts Turnpike and several bus routes of the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority. This year the city is set to restore a critical rail link with the
opening of a new Amtrak station.
Outside the city center, Holyoke has some prime spots to explore. The 2,161-acre Mount Tom State Reservation provides sweeping views of the Connecticut River and 22 miles of hiking and walking trails.
Holyoke is still looking for ways to regain its footing after an industrial decline sapped many of the city’s manufacturing jobs. Holyoke’s
8.2 percent employment rate in February was much higher than the statewide figure, 5.4 percent.
The future of its public schools is uncertain. The Massachusetts commissioner of education recommended Wednesday that the state take over the underperforming district, sparking a student walkout.