Northampton, Massachusetts

UPSHOT: New England's Little Cosmopolis

Views of the placid Connecticut River and the Berkshires from Mount Sugarloaf     Photo: Paul Rezendes

"IN MANY WAYS," SAYS BILL STAPLETON, president of Northampton Cooperative Bank, "this is a microcosm of a large and fairly sophisticated city." For instance? Consider the subcultures plunked down together here in the woolly Berkshire foothills, on the banks of the slow-flowing Connecticut River. Northampton is one of the republic's artsiest small towns, thick with studios, galleries, arts councils, craftsfolk (a paint-your-own pottery shop occupies a prime slot on Main Street), and chamber-music mavens. It's an undergrad's town, with Smith College's leafy campus downtown and four others—Amherst, UMass, Mount Holyoke, and Hampshire—just across the Connecticut. It's a haven for writers (Tracy Kidder lives up the road), editors, and designers with fiber-optic drip-lines to New York and Boston. You can trace much of Noho's prosperous zeitgeist to the hippies; they tuned in, turned on, dropped out—and then got seed money. In a sense, they've remade the town in their image: a capitalist commune where painters, poets, and plenty of therapists keep recirculating their two-professional salaries among themselves. At times the overlap of disposable income and political correctness gets goofy: This fresh-pasta bistro is a nuke-free zone! But repentant urbanites who want their fresh-air fix, their crème brûée, their Ray Charles concert, and their white picket fence find the overall package tempting.

PLAYGROUNDS: A wide array of day hikes, off-road rides, and trail runs, mostly at gradual Eastern inclines; Mount Tom and Skinner Mountain are classics. At under an hour away, Berkshire East and Jiminy Peak are the closest ski hills, and Vermont's Mount Snow, Okemo, and Stratton resorts are within day-trip range. There are also three cool summer swimming holes nearby (Amherst Pond, Shelburne Falls's glacial potholes, and the hyperbolic "Goshen Ocean," a small lake). Cycling is big, with Saturday-morning platoons of roadies lighting out from the Hotel Northampton's parking lot toward the country roads out-lying. The broad Connecticut draws flatwater enthusiasts, who head north of Coolidge Bridge in canoes, kayaks, and rowing shells. And, a couple of hours away, southern Vermont's Battenkill spawns fly-fishing legends.
WORK: Nicely diversified, even for those for whom "my office" does not mean "my iMac in the guest bedroom." The colleges employ many, on all levels, and a handful of small publishing houses and design studios cater to the bookish set. Don't discount a career in the arts or retail: Lots of galleries and shops that started out as boutiques in Thorne's Market (a funky indoor mall) have grown into glitzy storefronts of their own.

NEST: Sticker shock. Charm-oozing Victorians on one of the leafy avenues that spoke out from Elm Street and the red-brick downtown typically list from $300,000 to $350,000 and sell quickly. Less than $200,000 might lasso a nice brick Colonial across from a pond in slightly grittier Easthampton.

NEIGHBORS: Plumber whose wife makes kaleidoscopes and trains for the Head of the Charles rowing regatta; twentyish vegan with dreadlocks and chin whiskers, jerking wheatgrass juice to pay for his Rolfing lessons; Jungian therapist who likes hut-to-hut hiking and has issues with his daughter's blue hair.

HOW TO GO NATIVE: Drive an ancient, chuttering Volvo plastered with lefty bumper stickers; bring your bandanna-wearing Lab and your baby carrier everywhere.

WATERING HOLES: The best tilt downscale. Packard's is where locals converge for burgers, beers, and billiards. Joe's, an unapologetically dim-lit joint with a crowded bar and homemade-style pizza, features Old Mexico-themed murals. Go figure.

THE PRICE OF PARADISE: Big-city culture draws inevitable big-city traffic; pervasive PC aura may have committed mainstreamers pining for a Hooters full of longshoremen.

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