Detroit, Massachusetts

Welcome to Athol, Massachusetts. (Photo by Dougtone / Flickr.)

I recall first hearing the stunning news about artists gobbling up houses in Detroit for as low as $100 about three years ago. The city’s economy and real estate market was in such bad shape that houses could be had for a song. Artists have historically sought out the bargain bin of urban real estate for places to live and work. Often, though certainly not always, the presence of the “creative class” brings neighborhoods back from the brink. For the past 10 years or longer, the trails blazed (and lofts inhabited and renovated) by artists have also attracted tech startups and brain power to previously overlooked or blighted areas. You know the rest of the story: gentrification sets in and the artists get priced out eventually. This had been such a widespread phenomenon that city planners and politicians actively courted artists and other creatives, in attempts to encourage such turn-arounds. See: Lynn, Chelsea, and Pawtucket.

Many of us woke up Wednesday to read a devastating article on gutted real estate market in the Athol and Orange area of Central Massachusetts. The reporter opens with this unfortunate hook, which a colleague of mine read as “flippant:”

How far have home values dropped in this Central Massachusetts town? The answer sounds like the punch line to a joke, but no one is laughing: They’ve eroded so much that you can buy a house for about the cost of a Toyota Camry.

Indeed, it should make most of us wince. The story points out the horrific unemployment and median income numbers. But the thrust is the effect on home sales, a decline of 50 percent in median prices since the peak in 2005, compared to 19 percent statewide, nevermind the micro markets that have actually seen recovery or even increases in median prices and/or sales figures. It puts my post from a couple of weeks ago about the “real estate haves and have nots” in even starker relief. Nevermind comparing Lexington to next-door Waltham; the really scary comparison is Brookline to Athol.

Few artists are likely to colonize Athol or Orange. They are located so far out and there is little in the way of infrastructure, public transportation, or nightlife. And waiting for Superman in the form of artists to save whole cities would be like Waiting for Godot. What’s to be done? As I noted, the article is focused on one — albeit large — effect. The causes are not mentioned beyond the usual vague “unemployment” and “wave of first-time buyers, many of whom borrowed too much money.” Even then, the reporter fails to mention the culpability of the lenders themselves, nevermind going deeper to point out the effects of deregulation policies, the roles of Fannie and Freddie, and so on. I am not looking for a three-part magazine series. But at least some mention of what the main employment bases had been in the area prior to the recession would have provided some context for Boston-area people like me. I am the first to admit that I am woefully ignorant about much of the central part of the state, beyond ill-defined notions of a past era of mills, agriculture, and manufacturing. That’s why I read the paper: for context. I guess this piece was intended as a human interest story, focusing purely on how cheaply houses can be bought there, “for about the price of a Camry.”