By Sarah Marshall
Amherst residents are passionate about what they want and don’t want, from the look of the downtown, residential, and rural landscapes, to the types of housing that can or should be built (and for whom), to our budget priorities.
I have many times heard comments that begin, “When I moved here 40 years ago,” or “When I first came to Amherst…” Frequently, the commenters lament the various changes that have occurred or are proposed. Some of these complaints target new apartment buildings (existing and proposed) in Amherst Center, or the loss of downtown grocery stores, hardware stores, small local businesses, and beloved restaurants. Such commenters often explicitly demand that Amherst be preserved as it is or restored to what it was. I sympathize with this view, because much of Amherst’s built and natural environments are lovely.
Accompanying this desire to keep-everything-as-it-is, many complain about the influx of undergraduates and graduate students, the decline of families looking to put down roots here, and the high cost of housing. The influx of students is sometimes blamed for loss of businesses that the long-timers miss and our decreasing elementary and secondary school populations. In my view, the causes of these trends are multiple, and blaming the University of Massachusetts for our woes is an unhelpful simplification. Even if the University is the cause of our woes, it will not be leaving Amherst any time soon, and we need to look to other solutions.
As we debate, I wonder:
Whose interests should we be prioritizing as we make decisions that will affect the town for the next 20 years or more? The interests of property owners who have lived here the longest? The wealthiest? The poorest? The loudest? The people who want to live in Amherst but cannot, whatever their marital, educational, or economic status?
At what point does preservation of a small town’s look and feel limit our ability to provide services? Does privileging quaintness, or the look and feel of the town, effectively create a financial burden that will limit our ability to maintain excellent schools and public services?
Does a preference for leafy, single-family residential areas, or a disdain for apartment buildings, effectively shut out people who “aren’t like us”? Does wanting things to stay the way they are make Amherst less welcoming to BIPOC people and people of moderate or low incomes?
Are we a small rural town, a college town, or a small city? Will we, or should we, become more like Northampton?
What do today’s residents owe tomorrow’s? How did the generations before us prepare Amherst for its future? What are we willing to invest in?
Obviously, only the people who do live here can vote, but I wonder if we should think harder about the people who are not here yet, and be willing to lose a bit of what we love in order to welcome them into the community.
In my view, Amherst, like businesses in the early days of the internet, will wither if it does not adapt to new pressures and needs. Attempting to force a model of the past onto our present situation will hurt us in the long run.
What do you think?