The Paper City Looks Back — and Ahead
Go just about anywhere in the Paper City — City Hall offices, manufacturing facilities, the local utility, restaurants, some cannabis dispensaries, anywhere — and you will find pictures of what would be called ‘old Holyoke.’ And some images of the new Holyoke as well.
They’re everywhere. Pictures of the old but still-standing mills, the canals, Mount Tom, High Street in a different age, the Hadley Falls Dam, and especially City Hall, the iconic Gothic Revival structure built in 1871 that is, in many ways, the symbol of this historic city.
These pictures you see everywhere are visible evidence of the enormous pride people from this city, or now doing business in it, take in Holyoke.
You see this this pride in every community in Western Mass., from the small towns in Franklin County to the capital of the region, Springfield. But in Holyoke, it’s … well, different. And it just seems like there is more of it.
This much is made clear in the stories that follow in this special section commemorating the city’s 150th birthday. People from Holyoke take a special pride in being from their city, and for many reasons.
There is history — this is the country’s first planned industrial city. There is architecture. There are landmarks. There are institutions. There is tremendous diversity. There is the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and Road Race. Mostly, though, there are people — those who lived a century and more ago, and those who call it home today.
As the city turns 150, there is much to celebrate, and certainly not all of it is in the past, although the past is what many people like to focus on.
There was a time when Holyoke was a model industrial city producing some of the finest papers and textiles in the world. The mills producing these products created thousands of jobs, enormous wealth, and tremendous prosperity.
The city’s fortunes changed, obviously, as these mills closed or moved south or overseas starting just after World War II. For decades, the city was in decline, even as it remained a center of jobs and manufacturing.
Today, there is a sense of revitalization and vibrancy, with new leadership, especially Joshua Garcia, the city’s first Hispanic mayor, and an economy that is far more diverse and fueled by everything from a surging creative-arts sector to a cannabis industry that found in Holyoke a welcome mat, millions of square feet of old mill space perfect for cultivation and even dispensaries, and inexpensive, green energy.
Another factor powering this revitalization is entrepreneurship. Through the efforts of EforAll, the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce, Holyoke Community College, and other agents of change, Holyoke residents, and especially those making up the minority majority, are creating new businesses, from restaurants to dance studios to fabric shops, that are changing the face of High Street — and the entire city.
These stories and many others are told in the pages that follow. Together, they tell of a city with momentum. A city with vision. A city with renewed optimism about what can be done when people work collaboratively. A city that has a lot to celebrate.
Holyoke. Wanna Make Something of It?
By Darby O’Brien
Unless you’re from Holyoke, you probably won’t get it.
We’re a little like Southie on the other side of the state. Hardscrabble Holyokers have grit and never quit. Holyoke is a city with soul. It’s a city of neighborhoods. Churchill, Elmwood, the Flats, the Highlands, Oakdale, and Springdale. As Liberty Bank President and Holyoker Dave Glidden says, “you can take the kid out of Holyoke, but you can’t take Holyoke out of the kid.”
Just look at the cast of characters that came out of this place. Start with the famous drummers. Hal Blaine, a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer, played with the legendary Wrecking Crew on 40 number-one hits, and Ronnie Hurst played in Steppenwolf. Holyokers Michael and John Shea wrote the Notre Dame fight song. We have Emmy-winning actress Ann Dowd. Alan Eisenstock was a writer and producer on shows like Mork and Mindy, Sanford and Son, and Family Matters. My nephew, Lenny Jacobson, is another one you’ve seen on the tube, from big-time TV spots to shows like Nurse Jackie, and he just won the 2023 JFK Award.
We’ve also got Neil Sheehan, the New York Times writer who released the Pentagon Papers and won a Pulitzer Prize for his book A Bright Shining Lie, considered to be one of the best books about the Vietnam War. Mitch Epstein is a world-renowned photographer. Frank Leja, who lived down the street from me as a kid, signed as a ‘bonus baby’ with the New York Yankees at 17. To this day, he’s the youngest player ever to appear in the pinstripes. The list goes on. Maybe it’s in the water. We’ve got four reservoirs. They’re all closed for fishing now, but we sneak in and cast a line anyway.
Another thing unique to Holyoke is the game of Pickie. We invented the game in the streets and alleys downtown. Just saw off your mother’s broom for a bat, and grab some Pee Gee balls, and you’re set. It’s always been a sports town. Betsy Frey carries on the family business at Holyoke Sporting Goods, probably one of the last independent sporting-goods stores left. Part of what keeps it going is the boatload of Holyoke merchandise she sells in the store, especially around parade time. You’ve heard about Holyoke’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, right? One of the biggest in the country.
The late “Made in Holyoke” rapper Justin Chavez said, “it’s a city full of pride and hope, a city that’s alive.” My old buddy John Hickey, who was the Water and Power chief, coined the slogan “Holyoke. Best City by a Dam Site.”
Darby O’Brien, a Holyoke native, is the owner of the marketing and public relations firm Darby O’Brien Advertising in South Hadley.