Northampton, Mass.: Still Courting Controversy and Welcoming Visitors
Sunday, February 15, 2009
Growing up in western Massachusetts, I frequently wondered why my parents hadn't stopped their wagon in a more interesting destination such as Boston or New York. To quiet my mutterings, they would throw me into the car and drive up Interstate 91 to Northampton. On the ride back, I would be a very content kid, and not just because of the ice cream cone from Herrell's.
Set in the Pioneer Valley on the banks of the Connecticut River, Northampton is by tradition a place of activists, artists, intellects and rainbows. The town's family tree includes Puritan Jonathan Edwards, an agitator of the Great Awakening; Sojourner Truth, the emancipated slave who fought for abolition and women's rights; Sylvester Graham, the dietary visionary who invented the graham cracker; and Calvin Coolidge, who as president signed a law granting full U.S. citizenship rights to Native Americans. "There are remarkable threads through history of socially active, liberal attitudes," said Suzanne Beck, executive director of the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce.
Those strands are still visible: The town of 30,000 residents, for example, has the highest proportion of lesbians in the country, according to Beck, and in 2000 elected its first lesbian mayor. In addition, the area is buttressed by five colleges and has been a stomping ground for artists and writers such as Kurt Vonnegut and Augusten Burroughs ("Running With Scissors").
Downtown Northampton is easy to navigate on foot, especially if you stay on and around Main Street. Here are some starting points for a visit. (For information on travel to Northampton, contact the chamber of commerce at 413-584-1900, or go to http:/
A DAY AT THE MUSEUMS
Smith College Museum of Art (Elm Street at Bedford Terrace, 413-585-2760, http:/
Post-viewing, hit the top-notch shop, which sells items that are made of recycled materials or assist struggling communities, such dolls made by Tibetan nuns living as refugees in India.
Headquartered in the 1813 Damon House, the Historic Northampton Museum & Education Center (46 Bridge St., 413-584-6011, http:/
The 30th president started his journey to the White House with baby steps: as mayor of Northampton. The Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library and Museum (Forbes Library, 20 West St., 413-587-1014, http:/
ART GALLERY A-GO-GO
The town continually garners awards for being an esteemed arts destination; American Style magazine, for instance, has placed it in its top-25 arts destinations list eight years in a row. On one short stretch of Main Street, you can find Skera (No. 221, 413-586-4563), which carries works by small-studio and independent artists from the United States and Canada; Pinch (No. 179, 413-586-4509), where 40 percent of the pieces are made by local artists, including Jen Smith, who sets her original photographs in jewelry; and Happy Valley (No. 229, 413-586-1661), which focuses on young, up-and-coming artists and fair-trade groups. Across the street at Artisan Gallery (No. 162, 413-586-1942), local artist Mark Brown builds clock robots out of found items such as Altoids tins, cutlery and coffee cans. For more-traditional media, the shop sells pottery of various techniques and clothing that is kind to the Earth and fashion sense. Farther down Main Street, pop into R. Michelson Gallery (No. 132, 413-586-3964) for museum-caliber painters and into Don Muller Gallery (No. 40, 413-586-1119) for objects that add sparkle to fingers and foyers.
DRINK AND EAT UP
Despite its small size, Northampton has a big appetite and a sophisticated palate. Lhasa Cafe (159 Main St., 413-586-5427) is a Tibetan restaurant that prepares yak 10 ways (from $13). Joe's Cafe (33 Market St., 413-584-3168) has Mexican decor and an Italian menu; the two cuisines collide on the Mexican pizza (from $7.50). Find South of the Border cuisine for Tijuana prices at La Veracruzana (31 Main St., 413-586-7181): Grab a 99-cent ground beef or beef tongue taco, then make heavy use of the salsa bar, which features four temperatures of the condiment. Paul and Elizabeth's (150 Main St., 413-584-4832) confounded the community 30 years ago with its vegetarian meals. Now that the shock has worn off, diners happily fill up on chunky hummus served with a whole-wheat roll ($6.75), pan-fried seitan with veggies ($12) and noodles in broth (from $10.95). To quench your thirst, the Northampton Brewery (11 Brewster Ct., 413-584-9903) lays claim to being the oldest operating brew pub in the Northeast. See the machinery, then taste its results: Blue Boots India Pale Ale, Jess' Goodbye Rye IPA, Red Headed Stepchild, etc. The Dirty Truth (29 Main St., 413-585-5999) doesn't serve spirits (only wine and beer), but the brew names are so inviting -- Ten Fiddy, Ridgeway Seriously Bad Elf, Greenflash Hop Head Red -- you won't miss ordering a screwdriver.
Thornes Marketplace (150 Main St., http:/