When Jordi Herold cofounded the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton in the late 1970s, the city was dusting off decades of decline. His Main Street apartment had been a boarded-up hotel just a few years earlier. But when his grandmother came to visit, she noticed something he hadn’t: From his third-story window downtown, all you could see was mountains.
"She was like, 'Look at that, you're in town, but you're in the country and you see the mountains.' And that's just a big part of what makes Northampton great," Herold says. "It's this little island of urbanity."
It's true: Strolling around this quintessential college community, with its bookstores, artisanal bakeries, ethnic eateries, art galleries, and music venues such as the Iron Horse — an institution that, despite its intimate size, has hosted everyone from Tracy Chapman to the Avett Brothers — you might think Harvard Square went for a walk and settled in the foothills of the Berkshires.
"The Harvard Square of yore," Herold corrects me, bemoaning the square's more corporate bent of recent years. "That's something I fight a one-man battle against in Northampton," he says.
Herold, who sold the Iron Horse in 1994, is now a historic preservationist and commercial landlord downtown, where he has rebuffed big-money offers from national mega-chains in favor of independent outfits such as Tart Baking Co. "You have to work carefully to preserve what makes it a special place," he says.
Those little local merchants reflect the city's small-town spirit. With just over 28,000 residents, "It's so small that it really is a community," says Herold, who feels comfortable letting his kids walk to the library by themselves. "Between parks and bike paths, it's a great place to raise a family . . . It's a very gentle living experience."
BY THE NUMBERS
Number of Northampton High School students who have taken free courses at Smith College since 1990
3 and 6
Number of Caldecott Honors and Emmy Awards, respectively, won by Northampton resident Mo Willems, former "Sesame Street" writer and author of dozens of children's books, including "Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus" and "Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale"
The estimated number of same-sex couples per 1,000 households in Northampton, according to a UCLA study that analyzed 2010 Census data. The average is 5.5 nationally and 7.95 in Massachusetts.
PROS & CONS
Home to Smith College, Northampton is one of those places — like Burlington, Vt., or Asheville, N.C. — known far and wide for its youthful streak and vibrant arts scene.
Pricey for Western Massachusetts
For a small city roughly 100 miles from Boston, home prices are higher than you might expect. The average single-family is valued at $301,069, and the average property tax bill is nearly $5,000.
Bus routes connect Northampton with neighboring communities, while Amtrak's Vermonter line links the city with Washington, D.C., New York City, Springfield, and St. Albans and Burlington, Vt.