A victory for Holyoke?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

By John Schneider

There’s something very appealing about downtown Holyoke. The city has some great old buildings and public spaces, it was the birthplace of volleyball, and has one of the niftiest city halls you’ll see anywhere. Locals say that their city hall’s clock tower was built high enough so that folks in Boston 100 miles to the east would see it. Holyoke was an early example of a planned industrial city and the paper industry flourished there, providing good jobs to immigrant families settling in Western Massachusetts. However in recent years, like Gateway Cities throughout Massachusetts, the city has seen its share of hard times. More than 26% of the city’s population live below the poverty line making it the poorest city in Massachusetts and one of the poorest small cities in the nation.

But with no where to go but up, there’s been a burst of creativity happening throughout the city recently. Big time universities (MIT, UMass, Harvard, etc.) are teaming up with big time IT companies (Cisco, EMC), the state of Massachusetts, and the city to build a high performance green computing center in the city’s canal district. The center will be one bookend of a planned “innovation district”. At the other end will be the Victory Theater, an historic 1600 seat Broadway style theater built in 1920, but closed and neglected for more than 30 years (click here for a video tour of the theatre).

Right now the city’s creative placemaking effort is looking for ways that the two projects can mash up. The goal is to connect creativity, arts, and technology, with the city’s young and growing Hispanic population and Pioneer Valley innovators and entrepreneurs who are calling Holyoke home. Once the Victory Theater is “lit up” and full, it won’t just be Boston that notices Holyoke; it will be cities across the globe that are looking for examples of how creative placemaking sparks revitalization in post-industrial cities.

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