Brendan Ciecko: Would You Let This Kid Save Your Town?
Everywhere Ciecko looks, he sees what should be there. It doesn’t matter if it’s a pop hit, a piece of wood, or his hometown.
He didn’t think much about Holyoke’s past, or future, until he traveled to Europe, first to the south of France with his girlfriend’s family at 17 and later to Hungary and Poland, where he saw in city after depressed city a return to a more lustrous past. So when he came back to Holyoke, he saw it in a new light.
That’s no easy feat. Entering Holyoke from the highway, one passes through a barren canyon of blank or boarded-up windows. The main drag, High Street, is a similarly desolate corridor of bodegas, dive bars, and shuttered storefronts.
And yet these buildings held the promise of what Ciecko had seen in Europe. He began to read up on what had once been in Holyoke, which at one time boasted more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the country—paper-mill magnates who spread their lucre like frosting on the local architecture.
Recently, I met Ciecko downtown for a tour of the city. "This building right here was designed by C. B. Atwood, who was one of the main players during the Chicago World’s Fair," he says, pointing to City Hall, across the street. "There’s another building designed by McKim, Mead, and White," he adds, referring to a firm famous for designing the Newport mansions, the Boston Public Library, and the American Academy in Rome. Ciecko is an autodidact—he dropped out of Hampshire College after a year—who often displays an autodidact’s eagerness to share everything he’s learned. Within a few minutes, he’s name-dropped Mark Twain, William McKinley, and Frank Sinatra. "I joke that I’m a walking Wikipedia," he says.
Ciecko was so taken with what he found out about Holyoke that he’s put his money where his mouse is. Last year he spent $260,000 to buy up some 21,000 square feet of downtown office space. (His business brought in $450,000 in 2008, he says, and he expects revenues to exceed $500,000 this year.) For one of his buildings—actually a 15,000-square-foot, three-story commercial block built in the 1870s—Ciecko has planned restorations that will enhance the original maple floors, the pressed-tin ceilings, and, as he notes on his blog, the "charming façade that brings a smile to the faces of passersby." For the 6,000-square-foot second floor of another building, Ciecko envisions an incubator for like-minded entrepreneurs. His first tenants are a pair of twin brothers who run a highly rated Web-design blog. "My dream initially was to create something like the Factory, but not in New York," he says.
He has other dreams, too. Ciecko would like to see a Harry Houdini museum in town (Houdini performed his first jailbreak here). Spearheading the effort is Ciecko’s girlfriend, Elizabeth Dobrska, a 20-year-old Polish-American beauty queen and Mount Holyoke College undergrad. She’s partnering with a Holyoke native who owns an impressive collection of Houdini memorabilia. Dobrska is still looking for a suitable location for the museum.
Ciecko and Dobrska now spend their weekends driving around once-industrial cities that have recovered from decay (New London, Providence, Brattleboro) and those that haven’t (Albany, Hartford), trying to gather ideas for Holyoke’s renaissance.
Ciecko believes the town’s revival, and maybe its survival, will depend on young creative types—people like himself, in other words. "Have you been following DJ Steve Porter at all?" he asks. Porter, named the second-best DJ in the country by DJ Times this summer, recently bought a 10,000-square-foot building in Holyoke for a fraction of what he’d pay in Manhattan. He’s struck up a friendship with Ciecko, and is just as committed to Holyoke. "This is hot shit. He plays with everybody, Paul Oakenfold, all the big boys," Ciecko gushes. "He lives right over there in this mill complex now. He’s this super, super cool dude."
This idea—that the DJs, Web designers, and artists of the world can be the engine, not just the outcome, of economic vitality—has been around since Ciecko was in elementary school, of course. But it is usually considered as it applies to larger cities, where the "creative class" is simply part of the development puzzle. Ciecko is trying to push that same notion in a city smaller than Pocatello, Idaho, and one that’s among the poorest in the state.