Monday, October 8, 2012

Western Massachusetts Listmania

Western Massachusetts towns and organizations recently made several lists, not all of which you'd want to be on.

To begin with an older item in the good news/bad news mode: although three New England locales made the list of drunkest cities in America in 2011, we can take solace in the knowledge that, despite all the complaints about students' problem drinking here in Amherst, we don't even rate on the national scale: Boston was #1 in the nation, and the Springfield-Holyoke area was # 2. (Yikes.) By contrast, Las Vegas was only #14, easily eclipsed by the hardy Midwesterners of Chicago and Milwaukee (#6 and # 3, respectively). New York didn't even make the cut. Clearly, it's serious business.

What's in a name?

What's in a name? Plenty, apparently. Just ask our poor friends in neighboring Belchertown:
Genealogy web site recently polled thousands of users across seven countries, and Belchertown came in at No. 6 out of the Top 10 most oddly named places in the United States.

For some, the beauty (or ugliness) of the town's name is all in the eye of the beholder.

"A gentleman from France was here and he had a different attitude. He being French, looked upon it as possibly a French name: 'bel' meaning beautiful, and 'cher' meaning dear," says Belchertown town clerk William Barnett.
Sorry: it's a burp. Hard to think of a better example of wishful thinking and dubious logic (though there was that "Wacky Iraqi" Information Minister). Especially because that "oddly named" in the above story is a euphemism or at best a paraphrase (somebody call a media watchdog group).

The contest in fact sought America’s "most embarrassing or unfortunate” town-name—so it's in fact a lot worse than you think (or would have us believe). But soldier on, safe in the knowledge that it could always be worse: Toad Suck, AK was first. Other contenders were also pretty bad: Climax, GA (#2); Roachtown, IL (#7). Huffington Post, with its Beltway perspective, naturally highlighted Assawoman, VA, and Boring, MD. (And the UK may make us all feel better, with its Shitterton, Scratchy Bottom, Brokenwind, Golden Balls, and Piddle Valley.)

Belchertown has, however, made it onto more innocuous-sounding lists. "Unusual, bizarre or humorous names of towns in the U.S." includes Belcher, LA among "Imaginative or fun town names in Louisiana," whereas our own Belchertown shows up among "Delightful or unusual town and city names in Massachusetts."

I do recall that, when we first moved here, my reaction to the name tended toward "embarrassing or unfortunate" rather than "delightful." I was reluctant to live in Belchertown, in part because of the rather unappetizing name as well as the decaying infrastructure and substandard schools. In the meantime, I've gotten used to the name, and the town itself has become a fashionable location for new homes, in part because of larger lots and lower land prices. Things change.

Of course, plenty of people think Amherst an odd or inappropriate name, too. You know: that little plan to use germ warfare against Native Americans and all that. Some loon almost managed to prove the idiotic theory that the extremes of right and left meet when, in the course of the recent flag controversy, he linked our supposed lack of patriotism to the fact that our locale is named after a "genocidal maniac." In at least that one infamous regard, Jeffery Amherst was a morally problematic character, to be sure, though he never set foot in this town. It was named after him as a tribute to a military hero of the Seven Years War, akin to naming a town "Eisenhower" (also, by the way, a master of military logistics) after World War II. Amherst College historian of early America and Native America Kevin Sweeney took care of that issue when he wrote about Jeffery Amherst's career and gave the annual Mabel Loomis Todd lecture for the Amherst Historical Society on the occasion of the Town's 250th anniversary.

Nowadays, as a piece from Mass Moments on Jeffery Amherst points out, Amherst is known primarily as the site of three academic institutions within the Five College Consortium. Some of them, too recently made it onto a few lists.

Making the Rankings

None of our honored institutions made it onto "Mashable's List of "Most Social Colleges." Just as well, for it turns out that that the story's content is as inane as the title is misleading. The piece is not about the sociability of college communities, and rather, about social media, but it can't get even that right. The study does not ask how (or how intelligently) colleges and universities use social media, and rather, looks only at meaningless numerical rankings. Shocker: Harvard has the most likes on Facebook and highest Klout score (though it was somewhat surprising that it came in second in number of Twitter followers, behind: University of Phoenix.)

Amherst College remains parked at a frustrating # 2 behind parent/perennial rival Williams College on the overhyped US News and World Report ranking of liberal arts colleges for 2013. The University of Massachusetts ranked #97 among research universities, and Hampshire College came in at #112 among the colleges (financial and other resources as well as academics are a big factor in these rankings). Still, Hampshire made it onto other lists that our neighbors didn't.

Strategies for Sustainability highlighted Hampshire College's own list of "10 Green Things." Hampshire also made it onto the list of "10 Colleges for Free Spirits," defined as those displaying a "creative atmosphere, flexibility, unusual programs and outdoor living," often emphasizing "social service and environmental responsibility" and "in-depth, independent thinking":
Hampshire College: (Amherst, Mass.) Learning builds on civic involvement, multidisciplinary studies and original research driven by student curiosity. Create an individual program of study working with faculty mentors. Discussion topics could range from mind, brain and information to power, community and social justice. The school offers activities like outdoor leadership, martial arts and yoga, as well as green initiatives like a solar canopy and sustainable farming. You can also take classes at other nearby colleges. About 1,500 students are enrolled, and more than half of all graduating students have completed advanced degrees.
And last, as well as least, Hampshire came out about midway, at #6, on the list of the Top 10 Hipster Colleges (spoiler: Bard was #1). Take that, Amherst. Pretty respectable (or is that a contradiction in terms?) Sometimes, maybe it's square to be too hip.


And finally, "Massshole" has become a term of derision for residents of our Commonwealth, based on our general rudeness and, in particular, our bad driving habits, which also bring out the other ones, such as arrogance and, well, rudeness and foul language. (Does that have anything to do with our colleges and heavy drinking?)

Still, in the information age, one is constantly seeking a more fine-grained analysis. One of my academic urban studies and preservation tweeps (by chance, also a transplanted Midwesterner, from my home town, no less) spotted a t-shirt that did just that. Couched in the language of the Department of Homeland Security alerts, it categorizes the danger level of "Masshole" tourists from highest to lowest:

The description of "Western Mass," which ranks right in the middle, reads:
Elevated risk of simple country folk with very limited access to culture as rich and historic as ours.
It's a lot kinder than anything said about the other regions.

Among Massholes and hipsters alike, sometimes right in the middle is the best place to be.

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