Go There: El Corazón de Holyoke

I’ve never surfed, and probably never will, but the way that sport calls for a combo of confidence, dexterity, and humility; the whole set up of it being a pretty direct engagement with the fundamental forces of the planet, only mediated by a board-width, it’s pretty much my go-to metaphor for everything worth doing: gardening, writing, dates, playing music, grocery shopping, collective meetings.

A small crowd listens to a presentation by El Corazón de Holyoke curator Shey Rivera Rios and Frankie Borerro in front of Borerro's mural Transición de las antepasadas, during a walking tour April 24

Photo by Alana: A small crowd listens to a presentation by El Corazón de Holyoke curator Shey Rivera Rios (background, R) and Frankie Borerro (background, L) in front of Borerro’s mural Transición de las antepasadas, during a walking tour April 24.

You are either riding the wave or taking a bath, right?

A few weekends (Ed.: now a few months) back, we made it out to an actual in-person public event for the first time in forever.  Being around people in public is totally surfing—per this mediocre metaphor I’m surfing—but I’m not here to brag about my middling ability to exist in public and avoid embarrassing myself.

I am here to spread the news about a spot with some killer waves (pretty sure that’s what real surfers call them): El Corazón de Holyoke, an astounding public art/placemaking project consisting of a series of installations along our city’s Main Street corridor.

Photo by Alana: A work from the large-photo collection A Call to our Ancestors by Michelle Falcón Fontánez,  displayed as part of the public art installation project El Corazón de Holyoke on Main Street in South Holyoke.

Sensing that your curiosity is piqued, but that you might be saying to yourself, “Before I put on my wet-suit, lash my board to my roof rack, and boogie on down to South Holyoke, could you provide a description of this public art installation that might reassure me that it’s worthy of this whole wave metaphor?’ I have to admit I cannot. But there is someone who can: whoever described it on the Nueva Esperanza website:

El Corazón de Holyoke rises with the people to bring back hope and activity as we begin to embrace new life post-pandemic. Local artists have created artworks that center the importance of cultural identity as our ancestral technology of survival and resilience through joy, connection to place, connection to community, and link to our ancestors. These are the things that keep us going, that bring us life in moments of hardship. “¡Arriba, corazones!”, as Ruth Fernandez would say. We are here, and we survive. Our stories carry us forward.

The trick to riding this wave, and not taking a bath, IMO, is to ride it with gratitude. The folks behind El Corazón de Holyoke created some beautiful public art. You can totally swim out, catch it, and be carried forward by it for a minute.

We caught one of a few guided tours Nueva Esperanza offered in late April. There is no word right now on whether any more public tours are scheduled, but a printed guide is available for download at https://nuevaofholyoke.org/el-corazon/.

Photo by Alana: “Poco a poco / Paso a paso, “a mixed media collage weaving “a vertical narrative of the city of Holyoke” by Dreamclub, “an ever evolving collective of Trans and Queer people fighting for liberation for all, particularly Black, Indigenous, Trans and Queer People of Color (QTBIPOC).” The collage is on display on Main Street in South Holyoke as part of the public art installation project El Corazón de Holyoke.

* * *

I ended up taking a little bit of a bath recently (Ed.: quite a while ago, now) , on another article I somehow convinced myself I was going to write, about a Holyoke business nimbly adapting its model in response to the Covid-lockdown landscape.

Luckily for me, former Holyoke Planning and Economic Development chief Marcos Marrero generously agreed to an interview, and then took the time to talk through the fundamental flaws in my premise. Helped me avoid a major wipeout! Righteous!

(I don’t know what I was thinking. I am not a real journalist! It was a weird year.)

Anyway, the point is, our conversation touched on El Corazón de Holyoke, and the Main Street corridor. (Marerro has been involved in the project from the beginning, and, as we learned on the tour, he identified and secured the initial public funds that seeded the whole thing.)

In our conversation last Fall, he told me he envisions the corridor potentially evolving into a regional destination for people interested in experiencing Puerto Rican cultural production. The area today is “essentially like a Chinatown,” he said. South Holyoke, the neighborhood centered around the Main Street corridor, is “a cultural enclave in a community that includes one of the highest concentrations of Puerto Ricans anywhere outside the island.”

Marrero acknowledged that reaping the potential economic benefits of cultural placemaking, without undermining the integrity of the local community, is a tricky needle to thread: “It’s about preserving the ownership and belonging of the community that lives there; and about appropriate placemaking to the community that lives there.”

At another point in our conversation, we got into the relationship between public infrastructure, public safety, property values, property taxes, attracting businesses, gentrification, and community stability. I made some throwaway chicken-or-egg comment about how it seemed impossible to know where to start addressing mutually reinforcing challenges.

Marrero jumped right on my hackneyed analogy, and proposed that evolution would be a better metaphor: “You have to do it all at once. It’s [more like] how do you get to the chicken from the dinosaur?”

If we hadn’t already been talking poultry, I am sure there would have been a cooler evolutionary endpoint, like maybe ‘the raptor from the dinosaur.’

Regardless, as we all recall from middle school biology, resilient, sustainable evolutionary adaptation in the long run contributes to the overall balance, harmony, depth, and complexity of the ecosystem that inspires the initial, methodical exercise in variational experimentation. I wholly recommend checking out El Corazón de Holyoke to experience the force and magnitude of that wave pressing up against your soles for a quick stretch.

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