How one of America’s youngest mayors leads one of its most troubled cities

At the age of 26, Alex Morse already has four years of experience running Holyoke, a city of 40,000 west of Boston. (Rob Deza)

Alex Morse’s senior year at Brown University was anything but typical. But that can be said for many things about Morse.

While other students were partying or pulling all-nighters studying for exams, Morse was hunkering down in his room trying to figure out how to breathe life back into Holyoke, the struggling Massachusetts city of 40,000 where he grew up. The only option, he thought, was to run for mayor. Morse launched his campaign at the age of 21. When he won, just a few months after graduation, he became one of the youngest mayors the United States has ever known and part of a new generation of young city leaders around the world.

Holyoke, a blighted post-industrial city two hours west of Boston, has all the issues of cities triple its size — crime, poverty and high school-dropout rates — but lacks the large middle class that has buoyed some of its neighbors. It wasn’t always this way. Remnants of more glorious days dot Holyoke’s urban landscape: mills that once housed America’s first paper-making plants, canals that fed the mills, and a walkable downtown where everybody used to shop.

Despite the challenges in his city, Morse, like many Holyoke residents, takes great pride in it. Now 26, he attended the city’s public schools and was the first in his family to go to college. At Brown, one of the top universities in the U. S., he majored in urban studies and became fluent in Spanish. Those skills helped while campaigning in a city with a fast-growing Latino population where the entire community had become divided physically and mentally along social and racial lines.

Morse promised to bring back stores, cafes, restaurants and business to the boarded-up shop fronts. He says all the vacant space downtown represents an exciting opportunity to fill with the treasures of his favorite buzzwords: “technology,” “innovation” and “creative industries.”  Morse started by moving into a loft in the center and now has bought a house in the neighborhood. Nearby, mills are being redesigned into multi-purpose arts spaces with yoga studios and beer gardens.

This fall, Morse will run for a third two-year term as mayor. I spoke with him recently about leadership, urban revitalization and his vision for what makes an inclusive city.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

[Read a 2006 column by Citiscope Editor-in-Chief Neal Peirce on Holyoke’s Nuestras Raices program here.]

Carlin Carr: Why did you decide to run at 21?

Alex Morse: The city, I think, was in dire need of energy and a long-term vision and an infusion of new ideas, new blood. And that’s why we ran. We ran positive campaign — not just from the political sense but we ran a ‘Holyoke positive’ campaign that focused on our inherent assets as a community: strong pride in the city and a great infrastructure in the downtown. We ran a really grassroots campaign, and we won.

Q: What surprises you most about the position of mayors in U. S. cities in this century?

A: Mayors have a unique opportunity and a unique ability to actually get things done. You’re executors of the city but you’re also the closest elected official to your constituents, unlike any other elected official in the country, be it a representative, congressman, U. S. senator.

One of the unique things about this position is that, yes, it’s constituent services — so people come in and they want their potholes filled and their sidewalks fixed and neighborhoods safe, and we have to be really effective at responding to those immediate concerns.

“A great city is where people want to stay, where people want to move to.”

But as mayor, I’m just as concerned, if not more concerned, about where the city’s going to be in ten or 20 years and how the decisions we make today will create a legacy around housing or the economy or public schools. And these things don’t happen overnight. We have to be very deliberate and we have to create an ecosystem where people want to invest, where families want to move in, where businesses want to invest and move in.

Our country’s success really rests on our ability to bring people back to cities, because our government for so many years divested from cities, suburbanizing the nation — really at the expense of urban America. There’s a sense of people wanting to come back to cities and people from all different generations wanting to live in a walkable city, rely on public transportation, enjoy things like parks and public spaces. And that new energy around urban living is happening here in Holyoke. What we want to do is support that.

Q: What makes a great city?

A: A great city is where, number one, people want to stay, where people want to move to. I think that’s a good indicator of a successful city.

I always say Holyoke offers things for everyone: and so we have the urban component downtown, urban parks, safe public spaces, things for people of all ages to do — be it our new senior center, children’s museum, heritage state park.

But I also define success by if it’s a place where young people want to spend their time. Is there a place to get a cup of coffee? A place to get a drink? Are there nice places to live downtown? It wasn’t always that way in Holyoke. And we’re not there yet, but we’re on that path to creating more opportunities in the downtown and making it so that people feel safe living here and walking around.

Q: What do you say to people who say ‘Holyoke has seen its best days’?

A: The city will never be what it once was. And I don’t see that as a negative thing. Cities change. And I think it will be better in the future than it ever was.

So you have people refer to Thursday nights when the shops were packed downtown and the mills were producing. People have a nostalgia for what once was in the city, and I think it’s important for us to respect that and appreciate that.

Our best days are ahead of us, but they will be different.  It will be more diverse than in the past. A big question is how do we create an economy and a community that’s representative of the people who live here now, given that the population is about 47 to 48 percent Latino. How do we build the economy in an inclusive way? The city’s changed, and to me, that’s a positive thing, because we have an opportunity to create a unique community.

Q: How can cities like Holyoke bridge socio-economic divides? What are some of the ideas you’re testing out?

A: It’s been so long that the Latino community has felt excluded from government and has had limited access to elected officials and limited influence in terms of policies that were made in the city. So how do we repair that relationship between the government and the Latino community? I think we’ve done a lot to do that in terms of opening up the doors of City Hall, making sure we have a more representative face of government with more Latinos on public commissions and in positions of authority in the city so that people see themselves developing into leaders in our community.

“Our best days are ahead of us, but they will be different.”

That’s more symbolic, but I do think that in terms of changing those conditions, it’s education. When you look at the public schools, 80 percent of the students in Kindergarten through 12th grade are Latino, and so the success of our schools is going to correlate into the development and success of the Latino community. Education, in my opinion, is the number one pathway out of poverty, and so we need to focus on that.

Latinos are also overrepresented in unemployment. We just got a grant from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston as part of the Working Cities Challenge. Our application was focused around entrepreneurship and what we’re calling “democratizing innovation.” The mission over the next 10 years is to create 300 new businesses in this city with at least 50 percent of them being Latino-owned.

Downtown has been a major focus and investing in even simple things like roads and sidewalks and parks and trees and cleaning up the neighborhood sends a message that this city, this government, cares about them.

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Carlin Carr is an urban development professional interested in innovative ideas for social change. Full bio

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