Guest column Lilly Gaev: Valley CDC’s project a benefit to Northampton neighborhood

  • The house at 132 Northampton Road, Amherst, seen from the Amherst College campus. GOOGLE MAPS

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Since 2004, when I purchased and renovated the O’Connell Funeral Home at 94 King St. in Northampton, I have had the good fortune of participating in and enjoying the further development and thriving of a sense of community on the King and Trumbull block of Route 5.

This additional blossoming has been enhanced by Valley Community Development Corporation’s beautiful renovation and development of a stately Victorian into 10 units of studio apartments — five for those out of homelessness, and five for lower income singles. Valley CDC had intended to build a 6 foot high fence, for our privacy, down the middle of the shared lawn that divides our two Northampton properties.

I insisted that not happen because it risked being a shaming statement of “otherness.” We’ve split up lawn and hedge maintenance; we get to admire their attractive landscaping, including flowers, shrubs, and garden path lighting.

Valley CDC’s building renovation displays a high quality of workmanship and commitment to the preservation of the architectural period. If anything, their building has offered a value-enhancing compliment to our King Street block.

I’ve owned the neighboring Queen Ann property at 94 King St. for over 15 years. Its heritage included its first 50 years where a family doctor practiced and raised his family. The O’Connell family followed suit, serving the community next as a funeral home while they too made it their family residence. Now it provides office nests for clinicians, including physicians, psychologists, and massage therapists; from which they nurture the growth and healing of their clients. Around the corner, on Trumbull Road, are single-family homes of the same period, with several that have long ago been attractively converted to two- or three-family homes.

When our plans to renovate the property next to ours in a similar vein required redirection in 2011; we chose to seek out a nonprofit that would benefit from the innately ideal housing potential of 98 King St. It had the unique historical and architectural distinctions of having been built in the Victorian-era as an intentional multifamily home. It was across the street from ServiceNet, on the bus line, and walk to town.

And most importantly, it was located in a thriving, pedestrian active, and increasingly flourishing neighborhood with lovely side streets of historical single and multifamily homes. From here, those of us who have been marginalized through life’s vicissitudes could come out of shame and hiding into the mainstream of community life, saying hi to neighbors, being helpful, and finding jobs.

Route 9 in Amherst and Route 5 in Northampton share many features, in that their neighborhood attributes change along their extended routes. It makes the same community-building sense with the proposed Amherst housing as it has in Northampton — to create affordable living opportunities through mutually respectful, tastefully compatible, and compassionate neighborhood integration.

Amherst is generally liberal thinking and proactive, abutting neighbors now have an opportunity to walk their walk, as generous socially conscientious folks — literally to walk over and get to know someone from another walk of life who deserves every opportunity for healing and life success and who deserves to be seen and respected.

In eight years, not one of my professional tenants, nor any of their clients, have ever received anything less than pleasantness from our studio apartment dwelling neighbors. In contrast, surely every one of us has experienced everything from thoughtless oversights, to blatant rudeness, to raucous teenage house parties, to domestic violence outbursts from our well-heeled and highly valued real estate owning abutters.

And worthy of even more note is that their endeavor gives each of us an opportunity to share the neighborhood’s graces as we rub shoulders with our fellow life travelers; teaching our children to be blind to false distinctions; reaching inward to access and grow our better selves.

In the words of Phil Ochs “There, but For Fortune, go You and I, You and I.”

Lilly Gaev is a licensed social worker and clinical director Therapeutic Associates, PC in Northampton and Longmeadow.