Life and Death of the Skinner Coffee House
The mayor listened intently as Krupczynski’s team retold the story of his city on that December night. They said little that he didn’t already know. A hometown boy, he’d lived through much of the history they talked about. To him, each patch of grass in the Flats was a building he could remember, not just an abstract tragedy.
Sullivan has spent four consecutive terms dealing with Holyoke’s problems on a personal level. He keeps up with former high school sports stars and gives them advice when they’re going through rough times. He attends community theater, and when he turns to you and says, “That was good enough for Broadway,” he does it with an unblinking stare that lets you know he’s not just being cute. He believes in the city’s kids. He believes in Holyoke. “We’re near the top of a lot of bad lists,” he concedes, but he contends that it just means they’re fighting. Holyoke’s “problem,” he points out, “is that it has too much affordable housing. It’s the only place where many working-class families can live in the Pioneer Valley.”
Education, public health, and small-business programs abound in the city. Sullivan recognizes that his citizens don’t always have much, but he fights to make sure they don’t have it taken away. Suffice it to say, he identified with the history of the Skinner Coffee House. In fact, he agreed with most of what the preservationists had to say. But after the final slide had clicked off the screen and all eyes had turned to him, he cleared his voice and explained why he couldn’t help.
Ultimately, the Skinner Coffee House was targeted for demolition because of a plate of half-eaten empanadas. One day early in 2005, Sullivan saw the remains of someone’s meal in the building’s recessed doorway. Next to the plate, where conceivably someone’s head could have been, was a shattered brick that had recently fallen. The liability was his, so he had to act. He tried and failed to sell the structure. He even offered to give it away, but there were no takers. The city couldn’t afford to fix it without cutting some program that serviced the community, so he made the only decision he was left with.
Now Sullivan looked across the conference table and grimaced. “Holyoke is like a huge buffet that has everything you could possibly want on it,” he remarked. Then, making a tiny circle with his thumb and forefinger, he added, “But you only have a plate this big. It can’t get any bigger, so you have to be careful about what you choose.”
Krupczynski’s team was disappointed, but not surprised. They contended that demolition was premature, but aside from that they didn’t disagree on any specific point. They’d had much the same experience as the mayor. Developers, granting agencies, even a few universities considered their plan, only to pass. For all their efforts, they couldn’t generate much grassroots support either. Even then, those who were interested had little to give.
Around that table on that December evening sat a handful of people who loved Holyoke, who believed in what it was and what it could be. They could continue to work late, to skip dinners, to hold meetings, but ultimately their sacrifice couldn’t miraculously produce the two million dollars they needed to keep the building standing.
The Skinner Coffee House had fallen into the impossible situation that so many other cultural treasures have over the past 60 years. As affluent Americans abandoned their cities for suburbia, they left the architectural and historical gems of our urban past to those with the least means to preserve them. Dismissed as slums and ghettos, cities like Holyoke have a hard time attracting the attention of investors and the media. To many, such communities are eyesores to be ignored and forgotten. Unfortunately, in cities suffering from urban blight, when you ignore them, they really do just disappear.
If you drive down Main Street today, you won’t find any remnants of the Skinner Coffee House. The dump trucks carted away the last brick more than a year and a half ago. The tiny meadow that sprang up in its wake has been paved over. Now a handsome wrought-iron fence stands along the old foundation, and the parishioners of the Greek Orthodox church next door use it as a parking lot.
Life in South Holyoke and the Flats goes on. Every morning, Sullivan (now in his fifth term) gets dressed, goes over his schedule in his head, and prepares for another day of confronting the challenges of his city. Krupczynski continues to meet with community and business leaders, trying to locate the next opportunity before it’s too late. Holyoke’s struggle against poverty and neglect continues unabated.
Across New England this fight happens every day. Our mill towns are battling to turn back the tide and improve their present, ensure their future, and preserve their past. But they can’t do it alone. So go ahead and take a trip down Main Street someday — before it’s just a road through a meadow. Maybe you’ll see something worth saving.
See the Skinner renovation drawings and video.
Can these treasures be saved?