Columnist Sarah la Cour: The charm of Amherst

  • This is an 1995 aerial view of the University of Massachusetts campus in Amherst. AP photo

Friday, March 08, 2019

Amherst is charming. Unique, perhaps eccentric, definitely wacky, but very charming.

Sometimes it’s important to step back and think about Amherst from the outside. To ponder what we look and feel like to others around the Commonwealth, country and world.

Our demographics, our distinguished landscapes, our heritage, our charm. The latter is significant because I think it is what we lose sight of the most.

One year ago, in March 2018, Amherst was rated online as one of the most charming cities in Massachusetts by Culture Trip. We were right up there with Plymouth, Cambridge and Wellesley, which is pretty fine company.

In Amherst, we have cultivated an industry of higher education which has, in turn, created an intellectual, diverse and engaged community.

But it was founded on the long-agrarian heritage of rural New England. Who would have thought that when the Massachusetts Agricultural College was formed that it would one day become the flagship campus of the University of Massachusetts?

Out here in the middle of nowhere back then. Our charm comes from that original farming spirit and toughness enhanced by the enthusiasm and curiosity of the large student population. A thriving, world-class research institution that is still set in a bucolic country setting.

In downtown, you see this continued theme in the dichotomy of one-story New England vernacular structures intermixed with the more dense, urban buildings. This compelling built landscape again speaks to Amherst’s charm quotient.

But then we have three major parks within our downtown limits as well. Many towns in the Commonwealth would love to have vast open spaces like our town common, a maturely-vegetated, passive space like Kendrick Park or even our sweet little Sweetser Park.

Greenspace like that in an urban setting is remarkable and extends the broader green network into and through the commercial core. All adding to our charm. Because it is walkable, comfortable and appealing.

At the southern edge of downtown, Amherst College maintains its prestige among the top liberal arts colleges in the country ideally situated amid the hills and meadows of central Amherst. There you witness the same charming juxtaposition of rural vistas and a dense built environment.

The farming economy of the past right next door to the intellectual sophistication of the present. This magnetically attracts students, faculty and visitors to the warmth and character of our locale.

A word sometimes used to define charm, magnetism seems appropriately unique, vibrant and seductive. Between the geography of our location nestled between the Pelham Hills and the Holyoke Range, the diversity and entrepreneurial spirit of our population, and our niche as one of the premier college towns in the country, we do seduce many to come, and stay, in Amherst.

Throughout the centuries, Amherst has thrived by embracing change and growth while retaining the historic character and fabric of rural Massachusetts. For generation after generation, the charm of this special place has nurtured minds, bodies and spirits and will continue to do so.

Plymouth, Cambridge and Wellesley are awesome and charming towns, but they have nothing on us.

Sarah la Cour, of Amherst, is executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District.