Northampton, MA
Bright lights, little city
Story and photos by Nancy J. Parisi


The campus of Smith College.

If you were to draw a straight line across this Empire State, letting the righthand bit of the line waver down a little around Utica, you’d be illustrating the way from Buffalo to Northampton, Massachusetts (NMA). You’d be representing about 381 miles, three inches across an average map, or six hours of vehicular temporality to get to this gorgeous New England destination.

The courthouse at Northampton.
The Green Bean in Northampton.
The exterior of Mass MoCA.
A Mass MoCA installation.
Urban Exchange on Main Street.
One of Northampton’s used book stores.
A view of “Paradise City.”
Sylvester’s Restaurant on Pleasant Street.
Northampton is a cosmopolitan colonial town of 30,000 with a history of nurturing creative types and outside-the-mainstream thinkers and dreamers. The city has silkworms featured around the border of its official seal, representing a utopian nineteenth-century community that gave homespun silk a whirl. About that time, another group tried to get sugar beet crops thriving as a way to undermine southern plantations. NMA embraced the Union’s concepts of racial and gender equality: Sojourner Truth lived here, and Frederick Douglass came through town often to speak. NMA was dubbed “Paradise City” by legendary soprano Jenny Lind and that moniker has stuck through the ages.

Another resident was the creator of the graham cracker, Graham Stewart, a nineteenth-century “diet guru” who advocated and popularized whole grains (possibly explaining the wealth of local bakeries). His home, now expanded, is the excellent Sylvester’s Restaurant on Pleasant Street, next door to the tidy visitor center staffed with helpful people eager to thrust brochures into hands.

Other famous Northampton residents past and present include novelist Kurt Vonnegut and poet Sylvia Plath, both of whom lived here while teaching at Smith College, and Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge, an alumnus of Amherst College in the next town over, was a practicing lawyer before becoming mayor, then Massachusetts governor, then U.S. veep, and then the man in the Oval Office when Harding died. Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth also live here and are occasionally spotted going about their business.

NMA has a wealth of diverse restaurants, year-round cultural attractions, a vibrant lesbian community, and lush natural settings. Because it is a travel destination and home to five colleges, inluding all-women Smith College, Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, and UMass, there is college town vibrancy in the air. Smith’s large and beautiful campus is right on Main Street and sports an excellent art museum. The city was an early location for bodywork study and there are many spas and masseuses, many welcoming walk-ins, but some preliminary homework and reservations are recommended in the peak seasons of summer and autumn.

The best place to stay for a visit here is the Hotel Northampton in the heart of the city just off Main on King Street. Hotel Northampton is next to the Courthouse Complex, which features outdoor sculpture by select artists. This 1920s hotel, popular with parents visiting their students, has two good restaurants and offers residential cottages as well as conventional rooms. All rooms range from $165 to $250 all seasons. Just outside NMA in Chesterfield, twelve miles away, is 1886 House, a former farmhouse now a B&B with only three rooms priced between $95 and $130.

For shopping, Thornes Marketplace on Main Street should absolutely not be missed; it’s a prime concentration of places to lunch (Marketplace Café), great boutiques, a co-op (Cornucopia) well stocked with toiletries and take-away food items, free parking (should you need it), and it is attached to one of the city’s best vegetarian/seafood restaurants—Paul & Elizabeth’s. Just below P&E’s is an excellent dessert destination, Herrell’s Ice Cream, where the creamy treats are made on the premises. Their hot fudge sauce can be taken home as a souvenir.

On each of its four levels, Thornes has fabulous housewares, gift, and clothing shops for everyone. On the lower level, 25 Central carries great women’s casual and party wear; be sure not to miss the excellently stocked Strada shoe store. On level two is an endangered species—an automatic photo booth, tricked out to accept bills, but still sputtering out classic black and white strips of damp photos. On Sundays Thornes is open only from noon to 5 p.m., but is open until 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Of special note is their onsite gallery, storefront ART, a free exhibition space featuring artists-in-residence.

A walk along NMA’s Main Street is pleasantly full of pedestrian activity, more wonderful shops, and many restaurants: side streets are fun to explore. One of the best places for coffee, sandwiches, and artisanal baked goods (their cheddar bread and olive ciabatta are excellent) is Woodstar Café off Main on Masonic Street. With free wi-fi and fairly long hours, this big colorful place is a popular hangout spot for students, visitors, and regulars. Woodstar is close to Urban Exchange on Main Street, a boutique that specializes in the reselling/consigning of designer labels, all nicely discounted. Another boutique worth a visit is Sid Vintage on Crafts Avenue, steps off the main drag.

NMA boasts several bookstores, used and new, and on this front, the city does rather put Buffalo to shame. All-purpose Thornes includes Booklink Booksellers; another wonderful choice is Raven, located in a subterranean space on Old South Street. Their site (www.ravenusedbooks.com) conscientiously links readers to the city’s other bookstores, and it may be worth jotting down these addresses as some of them are tucked into the landscape.

Of special dining note is Caminito Argentinean Steakhouse, up on a nice little promontory on Old South Street, which features seasonal patio seating. Their menu items are wood-fire grilled and in addition to their meaty offerings there are several seafood and vegetarian choices. For a steakhouse it’s priced much lower than you might expect—or pay—in bigger cities. For international microbrews and upscale pub dining, visit the discreet Dirty Truth, sans signage at 29 Main Street.

A few minutes away in Amherst, gourmet French restaurant Chez Albert (on appropriately named Pleasant Street) is not to be missed. It’s creative haute cuisine with knowledgeable waiters who know the menu and list of vins inside out. While in Amherst, consider making time to visit the home/workspace of a great American poet at the Emily Dickinson Museum on Main Street.

Also consider visiting Mass MoCA, only an hour-long drive from NMA to North Adams, Massachusetts. You can take the highway, but opt instead for the full-on country road drive that takes you through woodlands, a few small towns with antique shops (!), gorgeous views (!!), and even a hairpin turn (!!!). Mass MoCA is to Western Massachusetts as Dia:Beacon is to the Hudson—large former industrial spaces filled with the best postmodern and conceptual art on the scene. Mass MoCA also features performances and has a few decent cafés on site.

Getting back to NMA, one place to visit year-round is Look Park, about fifteen minutes away in the suburb of Florence along Route 9, which runs right through town. Look Park has hiking trails, a summertime concert series, and during the winter months is festooned with holiday decorations. Another green space not to be missed is breathtaking Connecticut River Greenway State Park, a free state park with access from Damon Road.

No matter how you look at the journey—six hours, three inches, an accessible New England escape—Northampton is full of every urban and greenspace amenity. Once in NMA, armed with a good map and a head full of ideas, all towns flow together, and you’ll find everything you need to have a great time.

Nancy J. Parisi has been a journalist and photojournalist in Buffalo for two decades and in 2005 completed an MFA at Parsons School of Design. She is a proud urban pioneer and has lived in the city’s Old First Ward for many years.


A surfer’s guide to NMA

www.1886house.com
Twelve miles outside of Northampton in Chesterfield, this B&B is in a converted farmhouse. Room rates are $95–130 with discounts for three-night stays.

www.buylocalfood.com
Site showcasing organic farms, locally made natural foods in and around NMA. Locally Grown, a printed guide, is available around town at food markets and co-ops.

www.explorenorthampton.com
A little chamber-of-commercey, but the “What to Do Here” link has good historical information, restaurant listings by culinary offerings, and a good list of a few of the many masseuses in town.

www.hotelnorthampton.com
The place to stay, centrally located near the happening intersection of Main and King Streets. This elegant hotel has rooms ranging from $165 to $250 and offers residential cottages. One of two onsite places to dine and drink, Wiggins Tavern has been serving up good times since 1786.

www.lookpark.org
Located in Northampton’s suburb of Florence, Look Park is a fabulous, year-round park that features summertime outdoor concerts (Ani DiFranco has played there), hiking paths, and holiday light displays in winter.

www.massmoca.org
Highly recommended is a mid-Northampton visit to fabulous Mass MoCA in North Adams, a little over one hour away along scenic two-lane roads through woodlands, farm country, and small towns. There’s even one exhilarating hairpin turn!

www.noho.com
The official website of Northampton, Massachusetts, with a comprehensive list of restaurants (with links to individual places showing menus, etc.), community calendar of cultural events, and natural attractions.

www.paulandelizabeths.com
Attached to urban mall Thornes, Paul and Elizabeth’s (equal parts seafood and vegetarian) is open every day and serves traditional Sunday brunch. For dessert, there’s Herrell’s Ice Cream (www.herrells.com) down below.

www.ravenusedbooks.com
Northampton has a wealth of bookstores and Raven is an excellent subterranean stop on Old South Street. Their site links to NMA’s other bookstores of all genres.

www.sylvestersrestaurant.com
Historically, this restaurant/bakery/café holds a place in baking trivia as it’s on the site of the home of 19th-century “diet guru” Graham Sylvester. Extensive menu features great breakfasts (omelets are a house specialty), healthful salads, and juicy burgers.

www.thornesmarketplace.com
Well-organized site detailing all the highlights of this not-to-be-missed urban mall on Main Street.

www.valleyadvocate.com
Online and print version of this news and arts weekly gets visitors into the left-of-center political-cultural groove.

—N.J.P.


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