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Trip Report Springfield, Massachusetts and I-91 : Surprisingly Awesome

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I have always been looking for 'that one special place,' whether a big city, on a different continent, or off-the-beaten track. Not to sound corny or anything, but I love places that feel 'genuine,' that aren't trying to be anything but themselves, or keep up with the Joneses (for example, the Bostons and the NYCs and the LAs and the DCs.)

My friend told me that I might like Springfield, Massachusetts. She said, "Springfield had nearly given itself up for dead ten years ago, but now it's back and it's AWESOME!"

Now I trust this lady's opinion, and not knowing exactly what "awesome" entailed, I was intrigued. All that I knew about Springfield Mass before that was that basketball was invented there -- pretty cool. I didn't know what else to expect.

I flew in from California, drove up 95 to New Haven and stopped to use the little boy's room. Afterward, I drove through the town, walked a little, saw the sites (Yale, Amistad, East Rock.) I'll admit I was slightly let down by New Haven -- because a few years ago someone told me it was really cool. No doubt, there was some cool stuff there, but why does "revitalization" always have to look the exact same everywhere, (buildings in the same grey-blue) and have the exact same stores? (Au Bon Pain, Urban Outfitters, IKEA, etc.) By Yale there were a bunch of hipsters all dressed up to look "different," but they all looked the exact same. Maybe I wouldn't have been as critical if I didn't see a cop EVERYWHERE I looked in NH--not the jolly kind.

Undaunted, I continued up 91, looking for something (not sure what,) and ended up in Hartford. Hartford was different than New Haven -- it didn't put on any airs. Downtown was skyscrapered like Boston, but unlike Boston; like in San Jose, downtown Hartford was all business. I don't think I saw 5 people in downtown Hartford there past 7pm. The roads through the center of town reminded me a lot of Minneapolis -- too wide to cross on foot, and why cross anyway?

Downtown Hartford was attractive, even enhanced by the ghost-town vibe, but the real action was just outside of downtown. Hartford has some attractive old architecture and some very colorful residents. Every road seemed to turn into a block party eventually -- kind of like in Oakland. That said, Hartford felt relatively safe. (How can a place with a world famous Athenaeum have crime..? I know, it's the #19 most dangerous US city or whatever, but it didn't feel like it.)

I would've stayed in "The Heartbeat" if Susie hadn't have told me about Springfield... Did you know it's only 23.9 miles from Hartford to Springfield? I didn't. I think that those two should be "twin cities." Marry despite their parents' disapprovals..? (What would Massachusetts say?!) So ok, that's it: twin cities!! It's official, brilliant idea. Unfortunately, this is New England, where 23 miles isn't an "average commute," (like in Cali,) it's a vacation. Plus, "remember that time in 1638...?" New Englanders are so quirky. With its brain power, they could prob run our country if they weren't too busy talking trash about each other "Wusstuh? You dun' wannuh go they-uh." That's what someone told me on the airplane.

Anyway I hope it happens, the twin city thing -- Hartford has a Minneapolis vibe, and Springfield has a St. Paul vibe. They're good compliments and don't really overlap: Hartford's the business leader; Springfield's the artsy cousin. They both have college vibes but Springfield's got that great architecture, which makes this San Franciscan feel at home.

As I was driving north on I-91 to Springfield, I noticed that the trees and greenery were becoming more intense, dense, and green. By the time I could see Springfield in the distance, the roads seemed like they were cut out of the jungle.

Springfield has only a few skyscrapers--I hope it stays that way because it makes the city look unique. Church steeples still dot the skyline like in Germany... The new architecture is whimsical. The Basketball Hall of Fame is shaped like a basketball!!

Immediately, I got off the exit in Forest Park--and jackpot!! AMAZING Victorian Painted Ladies and mansions on bluffs overlooking the Connecticut River. Next to them was a city park, almost as big as Central Park, designed by the same person who designed Central Park (Frederick Law Olmsted.) I drove into it and saw a bunch of sculptures, tree groves, gardens, and even a zoo!! Someone there told me that they had 38 tennis courts, a hockey arena, and a lake with paddleboats. There are jungle gyms, an aquatic park, romantic promenades. You could spend a day in this place, Forest Park, easily.

My first night there, I had no idea where to stay in Springfield -- the hotel prices seemed too high, (Springfield, in my opinion, needs an express hotel for people who don't want a "4 star experience" lol, but I got the feeling that its tourist infrastructure is under-built. Maybe it gets mostly business travel.)

Generally, I don't like bars and clubs, but that first night I went into Springfield's Club Quarter--and it turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip. In my opinion, Springfield has one of the most inclusive, unpretentious, non-judgmental club quarters in America -- hip-hop club sandwiched between two LGBT clubs, next to a sports bar, next to a blues bar, across from a piano bar. I remember looking at it and thinking, "I love America." Awesome. You really can be anything here.

Springfield has a lot of sites, but like San Francisco, architecture is part of the attraction. The city is, in my opinion, probably the most walkable in New England except for Boston -- barring the awful highway, I-91, that cuts off Springfield from the gorgeous Connecticut River. Hartford has that same problem with I-91, and New Haven actually has two highways that cut it off from the LI Sound. These cities look great on foot but terrible from the highways, in my opinion.

Back to Springfield: even Springfield's crosswalks are sculptural. The street lights look like Dr. Seuss designs. They lead you around Metro Center to the Springfield Armory National Park (the largest historic fire arm collection in the world, I learned,) and to the South End, Springfield's little Italy, where I had an excellent meal at Red Rose and Italian dessert at La Fiorentina... The best cannoli I've ever had, honestly -- although I can't agree with Secretary of State Madeline Albright about Red Rose having the best meatballs. My Mom's are still tops!!

The next day I checked into the Marriott (AMAZING hotel but way pricey for me, so I knew I would have to hurry through Springfield.) I knew I needed at least two more days to explore the Quadrangle, the Basketball Hall of Fame, Six Flags New England, The Big E, The Springfield Symphony Orchestra (supposedly one of the country's most innovative,) and a few great venues to see live theater (e.g. CityStage.)

Ultimately, I didn't even get a chance to visit the Basketball Hall of Fame!!! Three days in Springfield and I couldn't even get to it.

Overall, I was very impressed by Springfield. To me, it's as close as I've come to that 'one special place' that remains genuine during an age when everything tries to look like everything else. I found it to be safe, attractive -- and have something for everyone: high culture (5 quadrangle museums; innovative symphony; great theater,) and more low-brow (six flags new england; the club quarter; the big e;) and the exceptionally beautiful Forest Park... Did I mention the architecture..? :)

I never even got to Amherst and Northampton, like I was hoping. There was too much to do in Springfield--I couldn't fit it all in. (NoHo and Amherst will be my next trip.)

My only complaint about Springfield goes for New Haven and Hartford too... Why on earth did these cities cut off their downtowns from their major bodies of water with huge, uncrossable highways?

When these cities figure our ways to reconnect with their rivers, they'll be "back" 100% in my opinion -- although they're all looking pretty good these days.

-MM, San Francisco, CA

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