Friday, October 17, 2008

Small-Town Feel with Great Downtown Near Boston?

Article and photos (top to bottom: Walpole, Newburyport, Walpole and North Attleborough) by Eric H.

I received the following e-mail from a reader interested in moving to a vibrant, small town within an hour to Boston, MA (we'd appreciate your reader feedback on this posting):

I hope you can help. My husband and I love New England and want to call it home. We recently visited Northampton and love the small town feel with the eclectic mix of old and young; however, we need to be a little closer to Boston Airport (within an hour). Can you recommend a small town that has the same feel as Northhampton and would also be suitable for raising a three and six year old and a quaint "Main Street" without the chain restaurants, etc.?

While it's entirely possible to find a small town with character and a quaint Main Street close to Boston, I'm not aware on any suburbs that have the eclectic mix of old and young within a college town setting (Northampton is home to the esteemed Smith College). Northampton also has more affordable housing, if that's an issue, so here are a few suggestions of nice towns within an hour of Boston that won't break the bank (please feel free to respond to our choices or to post your own "best place to live" near Boston):

Newburyport -- A restored historic, coastal North Shore downtown with brick sidewalks and buildings accommodating a great diversity of traditional and modern shops and restaurants. Newburyport features splendid old homes around its downtown and plenty of ranches on the perimeter of this unique-looking community. It's a small city, but has a population of approximately 17,000.

Melrose -- Located about seven miles north of Boston, Melrose is a small city with a population of 28,000 that has the unusual feature of not being touched by any major highways. Yet, it's so close to the "Hub of the Universe!" Melrose has a remarkable concentration of Victorian homes, as well as a thriving semi-quaint Victorian downtown, great parks and recreational fields, and a nexus to the pristine, unspoiled Middlesex Fells Reservation. Melrose has some areas of high density population, but for the most part, you can purchase a home with some space between you and your neighbor. We've heard good things about the schools and the culture in town -- there's even a Melrose Symphony Orchestra!

Arlington -- What was once a town with seemingly just pizza shops and banks has transformed into a restaurant-rich, eclectic community with a great school system and vibrant downtown. Actually, Arlington seems to have three sections that could serve as thriving downtowns -- the town center, Arlington Heights and East Arlington. You'll find grand, old homes in the Jason Heights district near the center, a mix of middle and upper class neighborhoods in Arlington Heights, and more of a working-class two-family home presence in East Arlington. There's also the old-fashioned Capitol Movie Theater in East Arlington, lending a real community feel to this section of Arlington. Although six miles from Boston, the crime rate is very low for a town of 42,000. Scenic Spy Pond completes the landscape in this compact, but densely populated town that is about eight square miles.

Walpole -- The downtown has some empty storefronts, but I woudn't let that sway you from looking at this attractive, quaint- looking town of 23,000 and about 25 miles southwest of downtown Boston. Located right on the commuter rail, Walpole has a close-knit friendly, community-oriented feel, and loads of recreational activities, events and parades for the adults and children. Walpole doesn't feel like a town of 23,000, as the population is spread out within 22 square miles. There's a true suburban, semi-rural feeling to the town where everyone seems to know each other. Regarding the downtown, this could potentially be one of suburban Boston's best as there are three open town common-like parcels: one that hosts concerts during the summer, another with a tree lighting ceremony in December and the other soon to be dedicated to a local fallen Soldier, 1st Lt. Andrew Bacevich. That area will feature a dedication plaque and water fountain. With the spaciousness of the center, a locally-owned drug store, a bakery, two arts and crafts studios, two dance schools, an old-time barber shop, several restaurants (including three Irish pubs) and stores that sell yarn, antiques, home furnishings, flowers, and wedding merchandise, Walpole already has the makings of a great downtown. Common St., right off the center feature some of metro Boston's grandest old homes and North Walpole has a lot of open land. In North Walpole, Adams Farm -- open to the public -- features more than 365 acres of town-owned land, hundreds of conservation land acres adjoining the property, and land owned by the New England Forestry Foundation and the Norfolk County Agricultural School. In East Walpole, Bird Park is a suburban treasure offering 89 acres of walking paths, trails and granite bridges, ponds, streams, tree groves and rolling meadows. East Walpole is a sort of like a village of its own with a variety store, restaurant, bakery, pizza place, hair salons, its own post office and churches.

Schools are fine in Walpole -- especially at the elementary and high school levels -- and offer two choices for high school: Walpole High School and the aforementioned Norfolk County Agricultural School offering students curriculum in animal and marine Science (veterinarian science, canine grooming and obedience, marine science, dairy and livestock management and equine studies), plant and environmental Science (floral design, urban forestry, landscaping, environmental technology, ornamental gardening and natural resources), and diesel and mechanical technology (diesel and heavy equipment operation and repair, construction, welding and small engine repair).

Wakefield -- About 12 miles north of Boston, this community of about 25,000 borders Melrose and features some of its characteristics of small-town life mixed with more densely populated areas. The downtown is OK, but doesn't offer as much variety as Melrose. Still, it's not a bad downtown. What Wakefield does have right off the town center, however, is beautiful Lake Quannapowitt. This beautiful lake features four miles of walking paths, a nice town green and park, a playground and general lake scenery that you just don't find around Boston. Wakefield is in a great location -- not only close to Boston but within a half hour to wonderful North Shore communities like Rockport, Gloucester, Ipswich (home of the great Crane's Beach), Essex, Marblehead, Salem (known for its witch history) and the aforementioned Newburyport.

North Attleborough -- You can have it all in North Attleborough: a quaint active, tree-lined downtown, farm land near the Plainville and Cumberland, RI, borders, shopping galore along Route 1 (featuring the terrific Emerald Square Mall, excellent public schools, a great school sports program, and a well-developed YMCA with just about every recreational activity you could imagine. There's Falls Pond for swimming, and downtown pools free to residents to North Attleborough -- right next to a beautiful town common with gazebo and lots of seasonal events. World War I Memorial Park features playgrounds, picnic tables, plenty of trails for hiking and an animal area with goats, cows, sheep, pigs and llamas. At the Memorial Park, there's "Julia's Playground," dedicated to Julia Cekala who died of hemorrhagic pancreatitis after celebrating her 9th birthday. At the playground, you'll find a beautiful butterfly garden, archway, wishing well, fire tower slide, butterfly fountain, butterfly benches and perennial flower plantings.

North Attleborough -- with a population around 29,000 -- feels like a city in some parts, a small town in others, and a rural destination, but most importantly, it feels like a town with lots of community pride, close-knit neighborhoods and a vision for the future. With the involved North Atttleborough and Plainville Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Associates of North Attleborough helping build a better downtown, and myriad other community organizations, this medium-sized town near the great city of Providence, RI, really seems like the epitome of civic pride. What's most telling is that all the people we've talked with from North Attleborough love their town and wouldn't want to live anywhere else!

We especially love the downtown with Shirley's Fine Chocolates for a great variety of chocolates and Mackie's for a heart breakfast, lunch and dinner -- they also have an ice cream parlor!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the awesome list. I am going to start to research and visit each one, and hopefully by this time next year I will be calling one of them home.
Thank you.


Eric, the New England travel writer said...

You bet, Lisa, glad to help. Best wishes with your search. You are certainly moving to one of the country's great regions -- full of character, historical preservation, culture, travel attractions, endless scenery and plenty of things to do.

Readers, we'd appreciate your feedback in helping Lisa and family find a vibrant Boston area small town with a nice downtown. Thanks!



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