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Eric Nakajima interview, part 1

Last year, Eric Nakajima, senior research manager at UMass’s Donahue Institute—one of the state’s preeminent think tanks—contributed to preparations for the visiting Urban Land Institute panel, among other tasks assembling an executive summary of briefing materials. The summary was intended to give panelists a sense of the city’s identity and well-being without having to read hundreds of pages of information. It covered recent government history; local, regional and state economic conditions; a summary of the downtown and neighborhoods; demographics; and development opportunities (about 20 major projects at the time).

Nakajima was at a breakfast forum this morning hosted by MassHousing in Boston to unveil a report released yesterday by the Donahue Institute, engaged by the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA), called “The Fiscal Impact of Mixed-Income Housing Developments on Massachusetts Municipalities“ (PDF). The report addresses the impact that mixed-income homeownership developments have had on municipal services over time.

Nakajima is now engaged in a study of the city’s minority-owned business economy, with results pending soon. He sat down to talk with me recently about his work, initially covering what draws him to it, and eventually coming around to what he has learned as he has considered Springfield. This is part one of a series capturing our conversation.

Eric Nakajima: I’ve lived in a few places. I grew up here in Amherst. I moved here when I was eight years old, and I’ve lived here off and on since. I’ve lived in Boston; I went to New York for a year, in DC for a year; I lived in a California for a few years.

Typically, when you escape home when you’re young, you don’t always see a place clearly for the virtues that it has. Especially if you’re interested in the world and how it works, and all these exciting things that are going on, your mind goes to Boston, our state capital; it goes to Washington, DC; it goes to exploring things. It’s when I got away, that I’d come back to this area, and I’d see things in it that I loved.

In grad school, one of the first questions asked by our environmental planning professor—a guy named Tim Duane at UC Berkeley—he asked people why they were doing what they were doing, why they were interested in environmental planning; why they were interested in studying the conflicts that arise around community revitalization and environmental preservation which, principally, were the kind of things that we were talking about in that class.

I started describing what had occurred to communities in southern Ohio—where my mother’s family is from, and where we have a family farm—when you saw the steel mills shut down, what happened to the economy there, and what happened not just to home values, but also the rise of drug abuse, and really high levels of poverty, and just seeing people like my mother’s generation move away, let alone the next one. These orphaned colonies of senior citizens there—most of them are gone now—but who I love dearly, but who passed on. If you look at what happened to the economy there, and then growing up here, looking at Holyoke, the bones of the city, watching Springfield decline—which I think is more or less is what it did, because even when I was a kid, we used to go down there and go shopping. We’d go to Johnson’s Bookstore; we’d go to Steiger’s or something like that. So Springfield, even when I was a kid, was actually a destination. You’d go either to downtown Springfield and go shopping, or you’d go out to the Eastfield Mall, or something like that, and go to Lechmere’s, or go to the JC Penney’s or Sears or something like that.

Back in the early or mid-1970s, Northampton was actually a basketcase. I mean, the place was run down, there were empty storefronts, and what I saw as a kid, just growing up, was Northampton go through this process of revitalization, where it went from a community that was as run-down, to the naked eye, as Holyoke, to being a place that actually was very vibrant. If you look at the economy in Northampton now, there are actually a lot of manufacturing jobs; there are a lot of professional services; it’s very diverse, much more diverse than Amherst, in terms of its employment base and the kind of distribution of folks who are able to still live either in the community or in adjacent communities.

I became fascinated: why one community, why not another? What are the struggles that were happening in southern Ohio, where our farm is; why were those things occurring? What could be done to help people out? What could be done to understand this thing, and what role does the state or other people have in making these things become better?

That’s what drove me to what I wanted to study. Articulating that, putting it down on paper, and then coming back here and visiting it, made me realize that if I were going to be engaged in the work I was doing, I wanted to do it here.

Heather Brandon: So you went to UC Berkeley for school.

Yep, for a master’s degree in city planning, and focusing on economic and regional development. Originally, I was going to do environmental planning with that—you know, very Valley, sustainable growth, ecological planning as well as economic development—but, sadly, the professor who was the principal resource went on sabbatical for something like a year and a half, virtually my entire program; an unheard-of sabbatical.

So I took a couple of courses with him the first semester, which I’m grateful I did, because I learned an enormous amount from him; and then I just sort of shrugged my shoulders. Even more importantly, I sat with AnnaLee Saxenian, who is one of the more important or better-regarded regional economic analysts. She studied Silicon Valley’s development very deeply, as well as emerging places, like Bangalore, India. There are places in Taiwan and in China she’s looked at, as well, and their emergence. And she’s from Massachusetts, so she frequently compared them to Route 128.

When I was at school, I took a course with her, and it all of a sudden came flooding back to me, my absolute interest in economic planning, economic development and economic analysis per se. And so while one door essentially closed on the environmental side, this absolute passion opened up on the other, and so I just dove into that.

Did you move on to get a different degree?


Where were you before you had your master’s?

I worked different jobs, nothing particularly special. I ended up moving out to California and working in Silicon Valley for a couple startups just doing market research, because I felt like moving to California, and I thought it was interesting to be in Silicon Valley. I was like a space alien, though, because I was surrounded by people who either were looking to become millionaires, or who were, you know, in finance and marketing, or people who were engineers who ironically often were millionaires, because they had been involved in successful startups before. It was interesting to see what the culture was like, and how they operated.

Before that, I was in the Valley, working at UMass. And before that, I was working in Boston, and actually, my first two jobs were working in the state. I was very active when I was younger, working as an advocate for public higher education. I ended up working briefly for former governor [Michael] Dukakis, a long, long time ago. Then I worked on John Olver’s campaign out here, and then sort of began a point of wandering.

In your 20s?

Yep, in my 20s, exactly. I think when I was 19 or 20 I was probably more ambitious than most people are when they’re 40, and I burnt out on doing that and decided to sort of intellectually, and otherwise, wander.

Where did you go for your bachelor’s? What degree did you get?

Here. Political science.

So that explains some of the political interest right off.

Yeah. In Massachusetts particularly—I don’t know if it’s the structure of our government, the fact that we don’t have county governments, the fact that our regional planning agencies are weak, that we have weak planning regimes in general—if you look at master plans or state planning, there’s no consistency between plans between communities. There isn’t a really big bureaucratic superstructure. People think that way, but in fact, compared to some states, the regulatory structure is actually much larger, much more profound in terms of how a region conceptualizes itself.

Here, most of what we do runs through politically managed agencies. They’re either run by mayors, or boards of selectmen, or they’re state agencies. They can be independent authorities, which, as we all know in this state, still tend to be awfully political, despite the fact that they’re created to be non-political. And then most others are line agencies of the governor.

So when you grow up in this state, and you try to think about how people get things done, it’s natural—I mean, if you’re interested in actually getting things done—it’s natural to think politically. That may be for good or for ill; there may be some virtues to that, and I think there are some virtues to it; there may be other things that could be reformed. But it’s not surprising, if somebody wants to understand the world in Massachusetts, it lends itself to thinking politically.

You mean you tend to think about the person you go to talk to, rather than the entity?

To some extent, but I also mean how power works, and how power flows, and how decisions are actually made. I think personalities—in that sense, you’re right. You tend to understand “agency,” or you tend to understand the idea that matters enormously: who’s in that seat, and who they’re related to, who they’re connected to, in terms of power.

If you circle this back around to talking about something like Springfield, one of the interesting transformations [in the city] over the last few years is a re-emergence, I think, of a conversation—I’m talking as an outsider, obviously; someone who’s deeply involved in this might have a different perspective—about how people matter. Individual initiative matters; the quality of the person in office or a managerial position matters, and that person is going to develop relationships; they’re going to talk to people; they’re going to have some sort of influence.

Those are just endemic to humanity. I’m sure the same was true in Athens a couple thousand years ago. Irrespective of that, in order to have public confidence, and build a healthy polity, there also need to be processes, or systems in place, or methods of engagement, or ways of engaging in conversations about development decisions—investments—that build confidence that the fact that somebody’s in a particular position and has a certain amount of authority, or relationship, isn’t a wall up that excludes somebody from the community from having a fair shot.

The idea is that you can’t have opaque decision-making where between your hew and cry, or whatever you feel you need in your neighborhood, and the eventual distribution of services, or investments, in your town, that you sense or suspect that there are some sort of machinations, or some odd thing going on out there that you’re not aware of. Obviously, it’s an unhealthy dynamic, but you can see where it can lead, too. One, in terms of the possibility that people will actually prey on your town.

The point I’m getting at is that all of this can circle back around to planning and economic development at large. What you think through—here’s where our community is, here’s where the needs are, what do we want to do—does any of that really make a difference in the end, if it doesn’t relate to a structure of conversation within a community, a structure of building confidence, and a structure of making actual decisions and investments that people can then see tangible benefit? That your street actually is cleaned up, or some blighted property that you see actually at some point has to be remediated or put to some good use?

I mean, somebody has to eventually see the change occur, and then ideally, they see the circuit. They understand the plan, they understand the direction, they hopefully participated in developing it, they see how the different investment decisions were made, and then they see the outcome that has some benefit to them, and they understand different points in the process: how to be engaged.

In that case, the politics and the planning really are arrayed along a spectrum, or on a layer. They’re not actually separate activities. They can’t be, if you’re interested in getting anything done.

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