could I be happy in the Happy Valley?
April 10, 2010 7:49 AM   Subscribe

Should I live in Amherst, MA? What's it like out there?

This is one of those hypothetical pre-emptive relocation questions. I may be offered a job I am quite excited about in Amherst. I am trying to suss out whether or not I would like living there. In an open-ended fantasy world, I kind of envision myself living in a big city at this point in my life, but maybe I could really enjoy an area like the Pioneer Valley. Here are my imagined pros and cons:

One concern is that I don't drive. This is a biggy, huh? I've mostly lived in cities, so I haven't ever learned. If I moved out there, I'd probably make getting a license a long-term priority, but realistically, I'd be carless for at least a while. And it's not just a matter of not having found the time yet-- I really value a carless lifestyle and am very into walking, biking, public transport. I currently live in a small town and sometimes find it very frustrating that my world is often limited to the small bus plan. Where I live now is probably much less vibrant than Amherst, though. On the job front, my potential workplace seems to be conveniently bus-accessible from the center of town.

I am 23-- I'm wondering how this fits into the social fabric of the area. I'm a little worried that I will be just slightly too old to get involved with the student social scenes, and I don't want all my friends to be twenty years older than me. Is there a healthy amount of twenty-somethings in the area, or just 18-21 year olds?

I want to live where there is a lot going on, culturally...does the presence of the five colleges ensure that there's a lot to do? I have very diverse interests and like to keep myself busy. I also am drawn to places progressive and diverse, of which the first but not the latter seems to be fulfilled.

I love the outdoors! I know there are probably great opportunities for enjoying nature in the area. Is this so?

Northampton would be less convenient, but if it is a much better place to live, I could consider it.

I've only visited Amherst twice briefly, so any information at all on what it's like to live in the area (especially as a young, but non-student person) is extremely welcome. What I wrote is a bit stream-of-consciousness, so don't feel like you have to limit yourself to only the issues I addressed. I know it seems like I have a lot of caveats, but there are also a number of things that appeal to me about the area, they're just not really worth writing.

Thanks in advance!
posted by threeants to Travel & Transportation around Amherst, MA (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I went to college in Amherst a million years ago but I have a friends in the area who I visit [one of whom is a MeFite, I will ping him]. It sounds like it will totally fit your bill. A few specifics.

- There are a lot of post-college-age people around there, so it's not just college kids and ... everyone else.
- The place is more diverse than you'd think. There are a lot of new immigrant populations there in addition to the college student/teacher crowd, so while it's not diverse like a major city it's pretty good for a small one.
- getting around without a car is simple, getting out of town is a little more complicated [i.e. getting to an airport]. I'm always surprised it's not more easy to get to Boston from Amherst than it is.
- nature + outdoors = YES You can be hiking in the middle of noplace pretty simply even from places you can only get to by bus or bike.

does the presence of the five colleges ensure that there's a lot to do?

I live in rural noplace so my idea of "a lot to do" may be totally off, but yes I think there's a lot to do there.
posted by jessamyn at 8:31 AM on April 10, 2010

I lived in Amherst MA during my graduate school days and I was a little bit older than you are (late 20s through early 30s).

Some of the pros (for me) of Amherest, MA:
• Umass had lots of plays, music performances, etc, and things that don’t tour a lot of other places. For example, I saw a great production of Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” or an opera production of “Die Fledermaus” Mind you, these things were not happening all the time but if you kept your eyes peeled, ~ 1 month.
• There is a great biking trail that runs between Northhampton through Amherst
• There were lots of places to hike/walk (we are talking ~5 to 10 miles, not 20 or 30)
• I can’t stress how incredible the fall is in that part of the country especially with those hiking areas. Most incredible foilage/colors that I have seen in my entire life
• Small town made things feel a bit more peaceful
• University lectures (some really interesting researchers/scientists spoke at the universities) – I am not sure if you would know about these, though, unless you had access to a university or college. Actually if this is important to you get on the email list of several departments of the colleges/unis in the area
• Great access to other areas (I used to take a bus from Amherst to NYC to visit a friend)
• The history in the MA area is really interesting (if you have a chance, check out Concord MA or Salem MA)

You could feasibly live there without a car. The central part of Amherst has a few little restaurants, book stores, and the bus stops there frequently. Similarly, the central part of Northhampton is doable for that. I think the hiking trails will not be accessible, though if you want to do that.

There will be people in your age group. First I guarantee that there are lots of undergrads in your age group. Plus there is a grad school population in Umass and any of the other colleges in that area.

You mentioned progressive and diverse. IMO definitely progressive. Depends how you define diverse - I had quite a few friends who were from China and I really appreciate that I got to know them and learn more about their culture (I got more of a chance to do that there than I ever have in larger cities) but it was not as diverse as other parts of the country

Now even though I just said all that it depends on what you are used to and what you desire. I enjoyed my time there as a grad student. Now that I have lived away from Amherst for a while, I don’t think that I would move back (yes the bike trail was fun…but I want one that runs much more than that) or I don’t want 1 play/month I want several plays and production quality plays to pick from.

Feel free to memail me if you have followup questions.

posted by Wolfster at 8:39 AM on April 10, 2010

I lived on the Hampshire College campus, outside of Amherst, for about a year when I was about your age. I was also not a student - but instead was living with someone who worked for the college. This was more than ten years ago now, but based on a recent visit I'd say the area seems pretty similar.

It was definitly accessible for non-students and there are a surprising number of non-students there. There are the faculty and staff people and their families, and many, many former students who stayed on in the area after they finished school.

The whole region is just beautiful. If you like scenery, swimming in gorgeous rivers and reservoirs, and farm-fresh, local food, you'll find a lot to like. There are tons of "cultural" events ranging from bands playing for the college set to art shows, theater, music, etc. The Pioneer Valley seems like the only place left on earth that can support several bookstores in each town. There are several nice coffee shops, some vintage clothing stores, a couple cool pub-type places, etc.

I remember the bus system as being pretty good. I used to hitchhike a lot there too - and always felt very safe. Biking works in the summer. Just keep in mind Hampshire is pretty far from NoHo so it's not all that convenient to get yourself out there for movies, events, etc if you don't have a car. There are definitely more cool things happening in NoHo than Amherst, so I guess weight that in your decision.

Some things I found challenging: though there were lots of people my age, meeting people was a little bit of a challenge. Lots of people even out of college had strong connections they'd made in college, so I didn't necessarily easily fit into their scenes. Part of that probably stemmed from my having trouble relating to the culture there. I'm from urban California, and I found the New Englandyness of the place a little hard to relate to. It's very white out there, and quite homogeneous - and I found that kind of tiresome and hard to connect with.

Overall I'm glad I lived there, but I couldn't have stayed there. I attribute that to just a difference between my personality and the local culture, not to some particularly bad thing about the place.

Good luck!
posted by serazin at 8:45 AM on April 10, 2010

I did my graduate work at UMass Amherst, so I lived there for almost all of my twenties. It's really a lovely area. I mostly agree with what others have said, and would add:

* You can find about lectures, etc., through the Five College Calendar.

* Living in Northampton will be better for restaurants and music. The buses to Amherst leave once an hour, and take roughly 40 min (IIRC) each way. Living in the city of Amherst itself is not bad, but it is noticeably smaller than NoHo.

* Another thing that's great about the area is the proximity to farms. You can get all your milk and organic veg locally. (And ice cream. They take ice cream super seriously in New England.)

* I spent about six months there without a car. It's doable. Getting groceries by bus sucks, though. The bus system is subsidized by UMass, so it's much better than you'd expect in a small town. But it is much nicer to have a car, especially if you want to see things outside the beaten path, e.g., small New England towns, etc.

* The feel is very politically liberal, and very bobo. This is both good and bad.
posted by sesquipedalian at 9:29 AM on April 10, 2010

Your perspective may vary based on where you're coming from. I relocated to the Pioneer Valley from Phoenix AZ two years ago. While this is a much smaller community, I found the culture scene (museums, lectures, live music [of all varieties], restaurants, bookstores, etc.) to surpass what was available in Phoenix. Colleagues who have arrived at the same time from NYC or SF have had a harder time adjusting.

This has seemed, at least to me, a rural area that has enough interesting things going on so as not to be confining.
posted by .kobayashi. at 9:40 AM on April 10, 2010

I live across the river in Northampton (Florence, actually). Amherst is a very nice. Because of the student population, it's fairly well covered by the PVTA lines, as is Northampton. I think Northampton is a little more diverse and has The Calvin and Iron Horse clubs, whereas in Amherst, you'd be heading to UMass or Amherst college for shows. Northampton also has a very active restaurant scene, if you care about that.

The area is well-covered by bike trails and bike lanes and is very easy to navigate by bike.

Because the rentals in both towns are dominated by students, rents are going to be fixed (more or less) to what the schools charge.

Amherst empties out and is dead, dead, dead quiet in the summer - totally different town.

I love this area a great deal. It's urban enough and rural enough, if that makes sense.
posted by plinth at 10:00 AM on April 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I live in Hadley, right next door to Amherst (and across the river from Northampton). I don't have much to add to the excellent answers provided by everyone else, except to say that I lived in NYC for 23 years, and while obviously you don't get that level of cultural concentration here, there's enough going on that I don't feel I'm in the boonies (as I did in Pittsfield). You won't need to drive if you live downtown and are satisfied with the delights of Amherst proper (and the bus routes), but if you want to explore the area, you'll need a car.

Also, it's pronounced Ammerst—don't add the -h- if you don't want to sound like an outsider!
posted by languagehat at 10:30 AM on April 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is a good place to ask but I have also found a lot of "should I move to" discussion at City Data.
posted by cda at 10:41 AM on April 10, 2010

I lived in Northampton for a couple of years in the late 80s and don't have much to add except that it's one place I've lived that I still get really homesick for, especially when it's fall and I want cider doughnuts from Atkins Farm.
posted by rtha at 11:08 AM on April 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

keep in mind that rent in the entire pioneer valley is fairly high. if you want to live by yourself expect to pay a minimum of around $700/month anywhere within 10 minutes of Amherst/Northampton.

23 not too young, plenty of grad students. there aren't a lot of jobs in the pioneer valley for the over-educated so people tend to drift away by their thirties but then once you hit forty the investment-banker types retire, buy 10 acres in one of the hilltowns and try to breed.

think about whether you really want to live in a city or not...
posted by at 12:01 PM on April 10, 2010

My gf and I have lived in the Valley for 6 years, starting in our mid-twenties. There's lots of non-undergrads here. She doesn't drive, but I do, and really, I wouldn't want to live here without a car, but it's doable. Some things will be much harder to get to, but the Amherst-Hadley-Northampton route runs reasonably frequently, especially during the school year, and you can get to a lot of things by it. There's a Stop&Shop, a Big Y, a Trader Joe's, and a Whole Foods all in the same area of Hadley on Rte 9 accessible by bus, for groceries.

There's lots to do here, although it won't approximate a city like New York (I grew up in NJ just outside NYC, and I'm okay). The music scene, between the various Iron Horse, Calvin, Pearl St. shows is good (although the prices are higher than they seem they should be to me. The local art museums are cute, but no substitute for a real museum. NYC isn't actually too far, and you can get there by bus (or train: but very infrequently).

We decided to live in Northampton vs. Amherst because of the greater amount of things to do here, but if you're working daily in Amherst, the bus commute might make you decide in Amherst's favor. The apartments we looked at here in Noho accessible to the bus route were much, much nicer -- and had *many* fewer undergraduates. (There's a lot of ap't complexes on the bus routes in Amherst/Sunderland, but they're not pet friendly and they're full of undergrads.)

Personally, although the area is indeed progressive, I find the lack of ethnic/racial diversity compared to northern New Jersey shocking. Some of the less expensive places in the area -- Chicopee, Holyoke, Springfield, etc. -- have large minority populations, but Amherst/Noho is *really* white. Yes, there are some international students, but that's about it. It's one of the things I like least about the area. OTOH, there's lots of lesbians (both baby ones at the Five Colleges and grown-ups).

I think it's really lovely here (although I do miss NJ)!
posted by lysimache at 12:42 PM on April 10, 2010

I went to school, worked, and lived in Amherst and Northampton for about seven years. It's a fantastic area and I miss it dearly! It also sounds like a good fit for your values and priorities. Some observations:

- Being carless in the Valley is definitely easier than in most rural or small-town areas. As others have mentioned above, the PVTA has excellent, frequent service throughout the area. If you're living in Amherst Center, there are a zillion stops along Pleasant Street that are very handy. Note that some of the college-based bus lines (the 38 and 39) don't run when the schools are out, like during the summer and winter breaks. There are also some terrific bike paths in the area, including the Norwottuck Rail Trail.

- During the school year, the culture of Amherst and Northampton is definitely dominated by student life to some extent, but to me this was a definite positive—it means tons of free lectures, concerts, plays, exhibitions, etc. In the summer, everything gets much quieter, and the weather is usually beautiful (if sometimes a bit muggy).

- Tons of twenty-somethings in the area, many of whom went to one of the colleges or UMass and stuck around to work. I did this for a while and I don't think you will have a hard time finding awesome friends. There's definitely a pretty vibrant townie scene in both towns, although this is more true of Northampton—Amherst social culture is somewhat dominated by UMass (and, to a lesser extent, Amherst and Hampshire Colleges).

- The area is absolutely beautiful and it's very easy to get outside. Amherst in particular is host to a number of easily accessible, woodsy trails. I spent a lot of time on the Robert Frost Trail in my Valley years—it's especially beautiful with a carpet of multihued leaves in the autumn. You'll love Amherst in October.

- In case you do end up moving there, here are some of my Amherst favorites: The Emily Dickinson Museum. Amherst College Museum of Natural History. The pizza at Antonio's, on North Pleasant. Great coffee shops include Rao's and the deli/cafe The Black Sheep. I also terribly miss Fresh Side, a little Pan-Asian bistro across the street from the Amherst Common that makes fantastic tea rolls and stir-fries. People have already mentioned the wonderful cider doughnuts of Atkins Farms Country Market, a definite Valley favorite. Also, if you like movies, the Valley has two pretty good independent theaters, Amherst Cinema and the Pleasant Street Theater in Northampton, as well as a standard multiplex theater at the Hampshire Mall if you want to see Transformers 3 or something.

Send me a MeMail if you have any more specific questions about life in Amherst; I loved it there and would be thrilled to move back someday. I still have a number of friends in the area, as well. Good luck!
posted by cirripede at 4:53 PM on April 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

Nthing many of the replies above. I went to Mount Holyoke and still, a number of years later, have an occasional twinge of homesickness for the area. While having a car would make your life easier, the rather good bus system will enable you to get around without too much of a hassle. It is so very beautiful there, and there are so many fun things to do.

[In the interest of full disclosure, however: I moved away because I wanted a city. When I realized that my job options, were I to decide to jump ship from the single potential employer in my (not terribly over-specialized) area, would be non-existent, I started getting a bit panicky.]
posted by onepot at 5:35 PM on April 10, 2010

The only thing I'll add to what's been said above is that I live in rural Hadley, and while I do have a car, about half my commutes to work (at UMass Amherst) are done on bike. There are days when I've cycled to UMass to teach, then down to Hampshire for a lecture, then to Northampton for a post-lecture dinner, and then home to Hadley. Drivers around here are courteous and careful around cyclists, with only a few exceptions. The Norwottuck Rail Trail is fine if you're going in its direction and can tolerate the usual dog-walkers, unpredictable kids, rollerbladers, etc. who use it during the day, but I often prefer to ride on the roads. If you cycle for recreation as well as transportation, there are great options: go north or south and you stay in the relatively flat Connecticut River Valley, while east or west takes you into hilly territory.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:48 PM on April 10, 2010

I lived, worked, and went to school in the Five College area between 1990 and 1999. Like many others have said already, it's a great place to live, and I still miss it. I just wanted to add that I never had a car the entire time I lived there, even though I lived in Northampton and went to school at UMass. PVTA rocked my world. I also had a bike I rode all over town. It's definitely do-able, although it got a little cold in the winter.
posted by lassie at 8:26 PM on April 11, 2010

I should also add that the PVTA buses have bike racks on them, so your range may be greater by biking to/from bus stops.
posted by plinth at 10:20 AM on April 12, 2010

« Older Can you help entertain my kid?   |   Strong female in Mystery/Suspense Books Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.