Iron Man

2.14.2012

By Aaron Hicklin

What does it take for a 22-year-old gay man to be elected mayor of a gritty Massachusetts mill town? (A well-pressed tie for a start.)

We drive slowly down High Street, the city’s main artery. “That’s the San Juan Bakery, which is really cool,” Morse says, pointing to a drab intersection. “And over there is CareerPoint, where I worked for four years, on and off. I helped young people get jobs and make resumes.” Like so many American towns, the heart of this one is deserted on a Saturday afternoon. “That’s the children’s museum,” he says, pointing to a low, boxy building. “We’re also the birthplace of volleyball, so the Volleyball Hall of Fame is there.” Giving the volleyball’s birthplace a loftier home is among the many items on his to-do list.

Morse’s enthusiasm for Holyoke manifested itself in the campaign as an appeal to old-fashioned civic pride that often played like a Frank Capra movie. He knocked on every voter’s door in the city, not only in Highland, where the wealthier (and white) population generally lives, but also in the Flats, where the Latino neighborhoods cluster. Many voters were never going to be won over, but he insisted on meeting them regardless. He spoke English and Spanish. He brought cookies and ice cream to seniors, and distributed “I Love Holyoke” pins to supporters. Throughout it all, he made sure to wear a tie. “I always leave the house dressed up,” he says. “If I go out in shorts and a tee, I look like I’m 22, and voters will say they can’t see me in the mayor’s office.”

Every time I asked his friends to account for Morse’s ardent love for Holyoke, the question would flummox them, as if it was absurd to even ask. “Oh, but Holyoke is a very special place,” they might say. Or: “You have to understand, Holyoke is a wonderful community.” Despite the statistics on teenage pregnancy (the highest in the state) and poverty (the second highest) and violent crime (well above the national average), I heard this repeatedly. Michael Sullivan describes Holyoke’s brand of patriotism as particular to New England’s old mill towns, in which people had put down deep-root systems. “You don’t see it in the suburbs or exurbs of communities,” he says. “But where there’s this working-class bedrock -- this urban grit -- people really cling to it.”

Morse tapped into this fierce local pride, and his extreme youth simply made his hometown passion all the more winning. Older people, especially, liked the charming young man who lapped up their stories of the Paper City in its better days, before the mills began to decline in the 1960s. At some level, all politicians play to their constituents’ nostalgia for the past. But Morse seems genuinely earnest when he describes his vision for regenerating downtown Holyoke, with its network of canals and crumbling redbrick warehouses. In 2010, the first mill built in Holyoke, some 162 years earlier, was converted into loft apartments, artist studios, and offices, collectively known as Open Square -- the first phase of a process that Morse hopes will revitalize an area associated with crime and drugs. To underscore his confidence, he is among the first tenants, renting a spacious $1000-a-month loft that, in New York City, would go for at least eight times that amount. (On his mayor’s salary of $85,000, he should also be able to pay back his student loans).

 

SLIDESHOW: MAYOR MORSE'S HOLYOKE

“I’m excited about the kitchen,” he says as we tour the unfinished space. “I like to bake more than I like to cook.” He waves an arm in one direction -- “There’s going to be an island here” -- and then waves in another -- “I think we’re going to paint this wall chocolate.” For now, there is no one to share his new apartment with. He split with his last boyfriend two years ago and has been single since. “I’m career-focused and goal-oriented,” he says. “What I need is somebody who has their own life -- we meet in the middle.” Later, he admits that dating poses perception issues: “If I’m dating somebody, I can’t be bringing them around to events and dinners unless it’s very serious; if in a few months I’m dating someone else, I’ll give the impression that I’m promiscuous.”

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