Hampden County, Mass. | Traditional Living | Service Worker Centers
For the next year, Ad Age is working with Esri and the Patchwork Nation to examine the impact of demographic and economic change on American consumers. We are tracking 11 households in 11 representative counties to see how their experiences differ. In this piece we introduce one of those households. For more on the project and segments, see http://adage.com/consumer
It wasn't easy to find a family for the Consumer Project in Hampden County, Mass. But then again, it was. I have no connections there, nor did any of my connections elsewhere. My sister went to college nearby, but that was a while ago. She didn't know many families who still lived in the area, which includes Holyoke and Springfield.
I started cold-calling off a targeted mailing list, but that went nowhere. So I reached out to people who might know the kind of folks I was looking for. Churches like our Lady of Guadalupe, real estate agents who specialized in multiunit rentals. Then I tried the Massachusetts Latino Chamber of Commerce. Andrew, the director of the Holyoke branch, returned my message. After I explained the project, he said he'd find some people but also casually volunteered himself. He didn't seem quite what I was looking for, but after hearing a little more about him, I was sold.
Just 23, Andrew is comfortable with a spotlight -- you might even say drawn to it. He wants to represent his people and his community any way he can. He could just wind up as the next, next, next, next president.
Andrew became an almost-elected official when he was still in college. He and his dad ran for the nine-person Charter Commission, set up to rethink the districting and mission of Holyoke's city government. He finished 10th, just two votes shy of being seated and slightly ahead of his father. Andrew decided to save the city the costs of a recount but wound up being appointed to the panel after one of the winners resigned before the first meeting.
Andrew grew up in Holyoke and doesn't even try to contain his love for the city and its residents. That doesn't mean he glosses over its flaws. He just works to fix them.
"We're in a unique situation here in the core city and the state," Andrew said. "The education system is one of the worst in Massachusetts, and we're No. 1 in a lot of negative things. We have such a small community that I'm comfortable we can make a dramatic change in a short period."
It takes a little time to get Andrew -- whose resume reads like that of an older politician -- to stop talking in polished sound bites. He helped expand a nonprofit after-school tutoring program to 180 kids working with 150 tutors from 10 kids and seven tutors. He went to Honduras for a month as a volunteer. And he ran for office while a senior in a local college. Why?
"I can be a role model," Andrew said. "I can be the person that drives down the street , and people look twice if they see me. They see me in the school, they see me in the newspaper, they see me on the news. I'm glad I could be that Latino leader that people don't see a lot."
Hampden is the most urban county in western Massachusetts. The city of Springfield is the county's largest city, followed by Holyoke. In Esri's Tapestry the dominant group is "Traditional Living" -- hardworking, middle-class families with a median age of 38. The Springfield section looks more like that . Holyoke is a closer match to the Patchwork Nation segment: "Service Worker Centers," made up largely of younger, more diverse groups of people in the service industries. The largest employers are the hospital and Holyoke Gas and Electric.
A lot of residents work at Holyoke Mall, one of the largest shopping centers in New England. Though Andrew finds himself shopping at the mall, he's not a big fan in theory.
"It's just killed local businesses and really destroyed the downtown," Andrew said. "Downtown has turned into this unattractive piece of the city. It's where the city hall and all the history is , and so sadly the mall has destroyed economic development for small businesses."
Despite a downturn at such spaces nationally, Andrew said the 30-year-old Holyoke Mall is doing fine. It has also gone upscale, with brands like Banana Republic, Gucci and Apple -- its only store in the area .
"There used to be some kind of regular, middle-class stores that were nice, but it's turned into this fancy, fancy mall that the people in Holyoke -- at least the poor people -- can't even go to," Andrew said. Those who can't afford it are left with the High Street area of downtown or must drive to Springfield for clearance stores or lower-end chains, he added.
Holyoke has one of the largest Puerto Rican populations in the U.S. School students are 90% Latino, but only about 5% of teachers are Hispanic. Andrew would like to see more teaching and other professionals remain in the community instead of leaving for Boston or Hartford.
His civic commitments don't leave Andrew a lot of free time, but what most of what he has he spends with his girlfriend. The live in a two-bedroom rental apartment in a complex on the east side of Holyoke.
A romantic would say their meeting was fate. Needing a summer job, he Googled "summer camp" and found some 300 in the state. He applied to just one that sounded appealing, near Cape Cod, and was offered a spot as a lifeguard. His girlfriend was also a lifeguard.
"She's very understanding. She has been able to accept that 's [public service] is the life I've chosen, but it's tough because she wants to hang out with me."
They do grocery shopping together when they can. If he's too busy, he hands over his credit card. They love Vietnamese food and like to eat out. "It's so healthy," Andrew said. "You can fill up and not feel terrible after."
His girlfriend, slightly older than Andrew, was until a few weeks ago doing what many of her contemporaries are: considering graduate school as a way to deal with a bad, often jobless economy. But she recently landed a full-time position.His girlfriend generally takes care of the cooking if they eat in. "I don't come home and it's all "The Flintstones" or "I Love Lucy," Andrew said. "If food is ready, great; if not, we'll go make something together or grab something."
Like a growing number of couples, they are not of the same ethnic background: His is Puerto Rican, while hers is Italian. "She loves pasta," Andrew said. "I don't know what's up with pasta, but she loves it, so she buys all this pasta sauce. I have acid reflux when the pasta sauce hits my stomach, but she can have what she wants, and that 's fine with me."
She adds meat -- despite not being overly carnivorous herself after an incident with a chicken when she was growing up on a Vermont farm. That makes Andrew happy: trade-offs.
She has a loyalty card at Stop & Shop, but Andrew doesn't like such cards because of the resulting e-mails that clog up his ever-present BlackBerry. Other than that , the couple doesn't do much coupon-shopping, and he professes little brand loyalty.
Instead of trading down brands to save a bit here and there, they trade down an entire store, according to Andrew. "Sometimes when I'm low on cash I'll go to Save-A-Lot. It's like a cheapy store with nothing that 's fresh, so there's all these preservatives. But if you don't got it, you don't got it." On the other hand, when they want to treat themselves, they trade up a notch, to the Big Y. "It's more classy, with a butcher, Andrew explains.
When he wants Latino food, however, it's back to the Save-A-Lot because it caters more to the Latino community.
Though Andrew gets most of his local news online, surfing sites like MassLive on his phone and laptop, he still watches a fair amount of local TV news. "I guess I'm biased, because every other day I'm on 22 News." He likes the NBC affiliate because it covers more positive stories about the Latino community than the ABC and Fox affiliates, which seen to be focused on crime.
Andrew has a sense of humor about his lack of humility and says his girlfriend does a good job keeping him grounded. She's also the negotiator in the family, and he wishes she had been around when he bought his 2009 Chevy Malibu.
When he got back from Honduras he needed a car and wanted something nice. He rushed into a purchase and ended up with a car he's not happy with. It's too large for his needs and not as fuel-efficient as he'd like. He no longer likes the styling, either.
"I can't wait to trade it in," he said. These salespeople, they make sure that you think you have to get it now, and I bought into it. I'm kind of disappointed in myself. I love making small mistakes and big mistakes, so next time I can say, "Andrew, don't impulse-buy.' "