Community Profile

Rebounding Holyoke battles bad reputation

By Teri Borseti, Globe Correspondent, 11/25/2000

Holyoke at a glance
Incorporated: 1873
Population: 43,704
Area: 21.29 square miles
Distance from Boston: 90 miles
Tax rate: residential $16.36, commercial $32.85
Median house price: $100,000
Form of government: Mayor
Schools: 13 elementary, three middle, three high school
Nearest hospital: Holyoke
Services: Holyoke Gas & Electric, AT&T Cable, full-time police & fire departments

HOLYOKE - When Mayor Mike Sullivan took office in January he knew he had his work cut out for him. The city's schools had scored low on MCAS tests, crime rates were high, and the city was in need of a better image. Sullivan said it seems that only the bad things that happen in Holyoke make front-page news, when, in fact, there are a lot of good things going on in the city. [an error occurred while processing this directive]

"Between the mills, the Holyoke Mall, and Holyoke Hospital, there are currently 1.6 jobs for every resident in this city. There are also numerous affordable spaces available for small businesses. Many artists who can no longer afford to live in Northampton are moving to lofts here. I think things are about to change in Holyoke," Sullivan said.

The city, located at the junction of Interstate 90 and I-91 in the western part of the state, was put on the map during the Industrial Revolution when a group of wealthy industrialists decided to build the country's first planned industrial city.

During the mid to late 1800s the "paper city" had dozens of mills and at one point the city was home to 70,000 residents. Holyoke has been a popular destination for immigrants looking for work both then and now. At the height of its industrial years Holyoke had a high concentration of Irish, French-Canadians, and Italians. Today, 41 percent of the city's residents are Latinos. Many are from Puerto Rico.

Many mills are still in operation and because of an investment resurgence in the city, several of the older ones are being renovated to be used for housing, artists studios, and small businesses. Sullivan said he hopes to attract and build a small business base and that there are 20 active business permits on the books for businesses of every kind.

Time has stood still in many parts of Holyoke. Blocks of brick mill buildings and row houses along the canals of the Connecticut River look much as they did more than 100 years ago. The downtown section is very large with streets lined with big old buildings. It isn't hard to visualize what it must have been like in its heyday.

At Allyn & O'Donnell Real Estate (which claims to be the oldest real estate office in the country), owner and lifelong resident Walter Nalesnik said: "Even during the '30s and '40s Holyoke was the place to be. There used to be prize fights held here and we even had our own opera house. It's still got a lot going for it. Everyone is doing all the right things to attract people here."

At City Hall, Mayor Sullivan and Jeffrey Hayden, director of economic and industrial development, say that while the city has its share of issues, they believe that one of its biggest problems is that its picked on by the media.

"The media keeps film footage on file and any time they want to do a story on drugs or crime, they use footage from Holyoke," said Hayden.

"Holyoke now has 138 police officers. That's one of the largest departments per capita in the state. This is a socially responsible community that works hard to help the poor to move up the economic ladder with things like job training, health care, and a variety of other projects," Sullivan said.

One of the projects is a community garden program run by the Nuestrias Raices. The nonprofit, community-based organization works with 10 parcels of land in the city and produces more than $30,000 worth of fresh produce a year for families in need. Holyoke Health Care is now building a mall-style health care facility that will address everything from urgent and family care to dental and foot care. The $8 million project will make affordable health care available to the city's residents.

Real estate is generally affordable in Holyoke. Nalesnik said the average sale price for a house is $99,950.

"Postwar ranches are probably the most popular house style in Holyoke. A three-bedroom, one-bath ranch on about 10,000-12,000 square feet of land runs between $100,000 and $130,000. We also have some big, beautiful, hundred-year-old homes that you can get for anywhere from $130,000 to $300,000."

Holyoke also has five community development organizations that focus on affordable housing.

Nalesnik's most expensive listing is an eight-room, 2 1/2-bath ranch for $300,000. It comes with four acres of land, a rare find in the densely populated urban area.

Both Nalesnik and Sullivan believe Holyoke's future is bright.

"The biggest problem we have is our image, but I think that, in general, things are getting better in Holyoke," said Sullivan.

This story ran on page E1 of the Boston Globe on 11/25/2000.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company
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