By Andy Christian Castillo
About 30 minutes from Springfield and an hour-and-a-half from Boston, downtown Northampton presides as cultural hub of Western Mass., and the seat of Hampshire County.
It’s nestled quietly in the Pioneer Valley, surrounded by a quintessential-New England landscape, and bordered by the iconic Connecticut River.
Despite a relatively small size (about 30,000 people live there), Northampton boasts tremendous cultural influence highlighted by a thriving arts scene, great local craft beer, diverse restaurants, and unique entertainment venues.
Over the years, the city has been visited by popular musicians such as BB King, influenced by icons like revivalist preacher Jonathan Edwards, and called home by citizens of significance including Sojourner Truth and President Calvin Coolidge, who served as mayor in the early 1900’s.
As evening sunlight fades, the charming city comes alive with twinkling lights, like those shining on the Smith College sign overlooking Main Street’s historic brick buildings. They also hang in strings above Pulaski Park, watching over couples strolling past, and old friends lounging at outdoor tables.
Around that time, tantalizing scents float from restaurant back alleys, pots clang as chefs prepare for the dinner crowd, and street musicians unpack guitars and saxophones.
That’s what Northampton means to just about everyone who’s ever been there. To me, however, Northampton means home, and home means more than just a place on a map or in a description.
I think of a weathered duplex on Pine Brook Curve with my grandma’s bell on the front door, a stone’s-throw from Big Y. I think of bright blue shutters, dented walls, worn floors and broken couches; of nearly fistfights; tearful goodbyes; lego piles; twisted handlebars; skinned knees; welcome home signs; and homemade cookies at 4 a.m. Christmas morning.
To me, Northampton is the sound of chainsaws droning into the night after a tornado tore through the street. It also means the day my dad painted the bathroom walls pink, and confused shock when an am 560 radio talk show host said another tower had been hit.
To me, Northampton can’t be described in words because it’s bottled up in an emotion.
In my teens, however, I learned how to describe the physical place. From that battered house I often jogged down Jackson Street, through the center of town and back again, up the Barrett Street hill where I delivered newspapers.
It was on those runs, around the time restaurants opened, street musicians played and pedestrians wandered, that I intimately discovered the charming city others already knew and loved.