A Good Hit: Flat Track Roller Derby Struggles to Retain its Identity

Members of the Quabbin Missile Crisis huddle together, skating slowly around the flat track. Each player takes a turn standing taller than the rest, acknowledging the applause from the crowd as Drew Danger announces their names: Jack A. Lope, Chewbecca, Ro$han Roulette, After Risk, Pink Panzer, and so on. After the introductions, the team retreats to the far side of the track and chooses the five skaters who will compete in round one of their bout against the R.I.P. Tides, who are visiting from Portland.

“How many of you are at your very first roller derby?” Drew Danger asks. I raise my hand. So do a handful of others. “Well,” he continues, “I was just like you eight years ago.”

As the blockers and jammers from each team line up, referees move into position, and non-skating officials (scorekeepers and penalty trackers) take their places. The crowd grows eager with anticipation.

Most of the 120 spectators sit in portable beach or camping chairs that they brought with them. The crowd consists of as many men as women. One mom carries her toddler on her back. Another woman takes out her knitting. A few yards in front of her, a spectator with a partially shaved head wears a T-shirt that reads, “Fuck Authority.”

I’m in a warehouse in the Florence section of Northampton, home turf of the Quabbin Missile Crisis and the other teams from Pioneer Valley Roller Derby: Western Mass Destruction, Florence Fightin’ Gals, and The Dirty Dozen. I have come to determine whether roller derby is more sport or subculture. It exhibits qualities of both.

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World Cup Fever: Searching for Soccer Fanatics in the Valley

When Thomas Muller scored to put Germany up 1-0 over the United States, the lunchtime crowd gathered around the outdoor beer garden bar at the Munich Haus in downtown Chicopee let out a long, audible sigh of disappointment.

“Don’t worry,” a man said to his buddies. “The U.S. can lose and still make it to the next round on goal differential.”

With 30 minutes remaining in the match, I took a final sip from my stein of Spaten Lager, paid the Bavarian-dressed barkeep and headed down Springfield Street to The Rumbleseat Bar and Grille, where the local branch of the U.S. soccer fan club American Outlaws was watching the game.

A week later I would return to the Rumbleseat when the U.S. lost to Belgium 2-1 in extra time, ending America’s World Cup run.

“I remember watching the ‘86 Cup by myself,” a man wearing a red, white and blue wig with matching face paint and the American flag as a cape told me that day, as we eagerly awaited the start of extra time. “Now look at this place.” He motioned to the packed sports bar.

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I was looking for a few dedicated soccer (dare I say football?) fans of international origin who regularly gather together—not just every four years during the World Cup—to follow Italy’s top league Serie A, Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga, or another high-level league. I wanted to speak with them about watching the world’s most popular sport stateside in an America that, despite ESPN’s hyped-up World Cup coverage, often ignores or willfully disparages the so-called “beautiful game.” Given the various ethnic ties we have throughout the Valley, I expected to discover one or two pockets of fan fanaticism. But what I found surprised me.

Games (dare I say matches?) during the final week in June involved Brazil, Mexico, Italy, Portugal, Germany, the United States and other countries. Many fans, of course, would watch from home. Hoping to find a more public gathering, however, I looked for bars and restaurants at which to watch portions of the Mexico-Croatia, Italy-Uruguay and U.S.-Germany contests.

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Too Easy To Be True?

Holyoke plans to demolish and replace Mackenzie Stadium’s historic field house.

The grandstand at Mackenzie Stadium slopes down the hillside from the parking lot at Holyoke High School to the foul line on the first base side. There the field’s green grass stretches serenely to the outfield fence along Beech Street. From the stands, the line of houses facing the park from across the street is easily visible, as is the distant ridge of the Holyoke Range, running across the horizon between left field and right.

At first glance, the field seems like a lovely spot to watch a baseball game. Though with a seating capacity of just over 4,000, the term “stadium” seems a bit generous.

The grounds have been an urban park for well over a century, and were known as Elmwood Park when originally built in the 1890s. The WPA (Works Project Administration) added permanent bleachers and a field house in 1938. A year later, Mackenzie Stadium was dedicated in honor of World War I veteran John Mackenzie.

However, it was not the baseball stadium, but the field house I’d come to find. Holyoke’s Parks and Recreation department is seeking a Parkland Acquisitions and Renovations for Communities (PARC) grant of $400,000 from the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs in order to demolish and rebuild the historic field house, which lies next to the left field foul pole but is rendered inaccessible by the chain link fence that surrounds it.

Walking across the grandstand, I headed toward the field house as a few ballplayers began arriving for a Tri-County League game. The stadium regularly hosts Tri-County games, and is also home to Holyoke High, Elms College, and the Valley Blue Sox—formerly the Holyoke Blue Sox—of the New England Collegiate Baseball League.

One of the players parked his truck—rock music blaring—next to the high school and greeted his teammate with a high five. I asked him about the field house.

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Whately’s Silent Majority Turns Out

A plan to renovate an historic building comes to a crashing halt.

Jonathan Edwards puts his beer down and heads across the street to the Whately Town Hall.

Edwards has been sitting here at the Whately Inn since the polls closed, waiting for election officials to tally the vote. One bar stool over, Paul Fleuriel—decked out in his Stars and Stripes suspenders for voting day—nurses a soft drink, anxious to hear the results.

In a minute or two, Edwards returns.

“They’re still counting,” he announces. “Looks like it’s going to be a while.”

Ten minutes later, he rushes across the street again.

Nearly half of Whately’s registered voters made the trip to the polls, a particularly high turnout for a June election in which all of the candidates for various town offices ran unopposed. The big draw? A ballot question asking voters to authorize the town to borrow $3.9 million to renovate its historic town hall.

“There would only be 100 or so if not for that question,” Town Clerk Lynn Sibley told me earlier that evening, before the polls closed.

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Before waiting it out at the bar, Edwards and Fleuriel had set up camp under a tent in the inn’s parking lot, across the street from the town hall. Edwards, a selectman and chairman of the town’s building committee, and Fleuriel, Whately’s town moderator, are both leading proponents of the plan to update the old building. At a table stacked with brochures, they spoke with voters—few of them first-time acquaintances—occasionally referring to architectural drawings affixed to a posterboard on an easel behind the table. At that point in the evening, Edwards still sounded hopeful that the vote would go his way.

He also said he expected the vote to be tight.

“Do you have a pair of dice?” he asked when I asked him to predict the outcome. Sibley had said the same thing. So had Fleuriel. So had Selectman Paul Newlin, another staunch supporter of the renovation plan.

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Meeting With Holyoke Pride

The White Rose is more than a social justice bookstore.

The White Rose bookstore was empty save for the group of eight meeting together at the circular table at the front of the store. “Oh, sorry,” I stammered, surprised. “I don’t mean to interrupt. I didn’t know you were having a meeting.”

“That’s all right,” said Betty Kaplowitz, walking over to greet me. “This just kind of happened.”

Happy to browse for a bit, I waited a few minutes while those in attendance—two folks from the mayor’s office, the rest community members eager to help plan Holyoke’s upcoming gay pride parade—finished their impromptu discussion.

The books that decorate the storefront window at 284 High St., and the politically progressive titles that line its shelves, indicate that the White Rose is indeed a bookstore. But based on my visit to the downtown Holyoke shop, it is clearly more than just a place to stock up on the latest radical social justice titles.

Art covers the walls at the White Rose, poetry slam events dot its calendar, and a coffee stand offering Dean’s Beans seems to encourage contemplation and conversation. Kaplowitz notes that there is no wireless service in the store. “I want people to talk to each other,” she says.

Over the course of our hour-long, intermittently interrupted conversation, Kaplowitz was visited several times by various community members, all of whom talked about the pride parade and other neighborhood concerns. No one asked about a book. Two attendees from the meeting sat with us while we talked, and were there after I left.

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What the Hack?

Hack for Western Mass. pair civic-minded computer programmers with community organizations.

According to (Springfield’s) Merriam-Webster online dictionary, to hack is to “cut or sever with repeated or unskillful blows,” or “write computer programs for enjoyment” and “gain access to a computer illegally.” None of which sounds particularly helpful.

But Becky Sweger, organizer of the upcoming Hack for Western Mass, has a different take on the term. “Hacking is a form of creative problem solving for some kind of greater good,” she tells the Advocate. Volunteer hackers use technology to help local groups solve a challenge, create a project, or better serve their community.

Hack for Western Mass, she adds, does a great job of connecting technologists with non-profits and the government.

Last year’s hack “used data from the Census Bureau, the FCC and the MA Department of Environmental Protection in its projects,” says Sweger. “Hackathons like ours, that partner with non-profits, can be a way for an organization that doesn’t have a particular skill in-house to borrow some expertise.”

This year’s second annual Hack for Western Mass takes place June 6-8 at Gateway City Arts in Holyoke’s canal district. The event pairs non-profit groups with designers, programmers and community activists of varying technological ability. Sweger stresses that participants need not be super tech-savvy. “Just as a movie needs more than just the actors to be made, a hackathon needs more than just computer programmers,” she says.

The weekend hackathon is part of a larger movement that has been burgeoning for years and received increased notoriety in 2013 when the White House issued a call for a National Day of Civic Hacking. Last year’s inaugural event featured 95 hacking gatherings across the country and involved more than 95,000 people. A national organization, hackforchange.org, was born from the call.

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Sports Fan Winkle: Is intolerance in sports a thing of the past?

A sports fan falling asleep Rip Van Winkle-style in 2004 and waking up in 2014 would have a hard time believing she wasn’t still dreaming.

In the past year, Jason Collins became the first openly gay NBA player. Michael Sam declared his homosexuality, and was drafted into the NFL. Brittany Griner came out, and was picked first in the WNBA draft. Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was banned from the NBA for expressing racist views. Here in the Valley, Derrick Gordon became the first openly gay male basketball player at a Division 1 school.

Intolerance in sports—based on race or sexual orientation—seems like a thing of the past.

The day of Gordon’s announcement, UMass held a media event with not only the sophomore guard, but also men’s basketball coach Derrick Kellogg, Athletic Director John McCutcheon, and Professor Emeritus Pat Griffin—who has been an advocate of LGBTQ sports equality for decades.

“I could have been anywhere and come out,” Gordon told me, “but I just happen to be in Massachusetts, which is great.”

“I’m really proud of UMass,” Griffin added. “The entire athletic department, from McCutcheon on down, has been amazing.”

(Read on at the Valley Advocate.)

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