Sunday, October 7, 2007

The City on the Hill

Imagine falling in love with a city.

It doesn’t really matter what city that may be, or where it's located on a map.

Now imagine growing very familiar with the energy of that city as it becomes one of your easy places to get away to. Streets become calendars that through the years come to hold the punch lines of jokes and the endings of stories. All the different trips in the different seasons with the different people come to build a shared history between you and that city. It is a city that provided the backdrop and soundtrack to a million escapes. All the nights spent in coffee houses arguing the finer points of Howard Zinn and drinking exotic tea from chipped flatware are written in some forgotten journal. It is a city that became the launching point for weekends in New York City and the last stop before returning home from Boston.

I met Henry Rollins there.
My wife and I had a picture taken with Mike Doughty there.
Saw Beth Orton play a small club date there.
I discovered Meat Beat Manifesto there.
Played hooky from horrible jobs there.
It is the city where I designed the 7ID logo there on a napkin at the reading table of a Starbucks.
And most importantly, it is a city where I hung out with strangers, former friends, archenemies, past infatuations, and one slightly insane bookseller from UMASS Amherst.

Now imagine that the city you thought you knew so well was actually keeping a secret. It is a secret so hidden that its discovery is enough to change the way you look at the world. Now, this change isn’t melodramatic, nor is it earth shattering. Your perception may only shift for a day or a week, but you are still changed enough to remember a time before and after this secret was discovered. And when you think of the time before you know what you know now, you think to yourself: “How could I never have known this?”

You begin to feel a little foolish, but then the foolishness transforms into curiosity.

I discovered Northampton, Massachusetts by chance. One slow summer afternoon I drove there for no apparent reason but a change of scenery. I can't remember the year, but it was probably 1995. As always, I had my backpack, journals, and an SLR. Upon arriving, I was immediately taken with NoHo's charm. Consistently voted one America's top small arts towns, Northampton is a blend of hip and hippy, new age and postmodern, New England charm and big city chic. There were times in my 20's when I would drive the 75 miles down the Mass Pike just for dinner at my favorite cafe. [Fire and Water and its vegetarian chili has since disappeared and is sorely missed.] The warm lights of city coffeehouses were a welcome diversion from my empty downtown apartment and long work weeks.

Northampton quickly became a favored escape route. When life would grow too boring, or tedious, or contentious, a day spent in Noho would straighten out the world and return color to the sky.

Almost 10 years after my first afternoon in Northampton, I discovered the city on the hill.

Just a couple of hundred yards past Smith College's athletic field lies an abandoned hundred year old hospital complex. Northampton State Hospital opened in 1858 and operated until 1996. The hospital was built in the "Kirkbride" style [named for the architect Thomas Kirkbride] featuring a central core of administrative offices with patient wards extending from both sides in wings. Today, the campus appears to be a confusing jumble of service buildings, medical wings, worker’s dormitories, and steam tunnels. It is hard to imagine that this hospital ever seemed like a safe place for healing the demons of mental illness.

By the turn of the century, the hospital came to serve as a last option for those with nowhere else to live. At times the population swelled to over 2,100 patients, not including staff and groundskeepers. Over its vast history, mental heath treatment has changed drastically, but inside the hospital’s walls, barbaric therapies were commonplace. Due to the advent of psychotropic drugs in the last half of the 20th century, many patients were able to live normal lives outside the structured and controlled environment of an asylum. As the modern media matured into a 24 hour news cycle, state hospitals began to receive negative press for deteriorating and inhuman conditions. The once negative stereotypes attached to mental illness were beginning to wither as rates of recovery began to rise. Health Care privatization provided more options to potential patients thus leaving state hospitals as a last resort. Eventually, this would prove to be too high a hurdle for state run hospitals to clear.

On Thursday, August 26, 1993, the last eleven patients left Northampton State Hospital for a new psychiatric unit a few miles away at Springfield Hospital.

I discovered the hospital in much the same Columbus discovered America. You can’t discover what is already there. I was there on a weekend trip with my wife. Reports of the hospital on the web had spiked my curiosity. I wanted to see it for myself. Walking up the hill to the main portico was like approaching a stopped clock. Abandoned trees, 6 feet across, guarded the perimeter of the hospital. The wind blowing through open windows and doors brought the combined smells of musty attic and rotting wood. But it was the size of the place that was amazing. Northampton has the development pattern of any New England City. The term used in Massachusetts is “thickly settled.” The hospital grounds sat in the midst of a bustling city like a vacuum; outside sound was neutralized by dense vegetation, foot high grass grew though cracks in abandoned service roads, and shutters would open and close in the breeze. Such a vast track of undeveloped land is an anomaly in a city the size of Northampton.

I only managed an hour at the hospital. That night, back at the hotel room, as I reviewed the images on my camera, I was amazed that this hidden city had existed all this time and I had never known. In the intervening years, I have visited the hospital numerous times with more extensive camera gear in hopes of better lighting. The image above, from my first trip, is the one that I love the most. It has been a few years since my last trip to the hospital but I can’t help keeping tabs on redevelopment efforts. Today, the hospital grounds are the focus of an all too common battle between preservation and profit. I tell myself I should go back one last time before the grounds are razed and turned into light industrial space or a Lowe’s. Maybe this fall. I miss Northampton like a long lost friend. I no longer have either the time or motivation to drive there for a meal, but any time spent in Northampton is a welcomed escape. That hasn't changed.

Visit Bulmer Photography for more details. © Bulmer Photography. All Rights Reserved.