Community Cooking: A Warm Welcome from East Gables

Next to Pratt Field lies East Gables — an affordable housing development that opened last fall. Assistant Features Editor Olivia Law ’27 takes a trip to an East Gables cookout, learning about the building, its residents, and the community they have created.

Community Cooking: A Warm Welcome from East Gables
East Gables hosted an open house in September 2023. Photo courtesy of Housing Navigator.

I spent my last Saturday at a community cookout at East Gables, one of the first affordable housing residential spaces in Western Massachusetts. With an all-electric sustainable design, the energy efficient building works to combat the local housing shortage.

Down the pathway to the back of the building, lined with newly planted trees and flower pots, I was greeted by a tent set up on the patio. There were groups of people barbecuing, sitting in lawn chairs, eating and talking as they bit into their hamburgers around a table.

The patio was filled with a mix of residents, friendly neighbors, and people who had fought in some way to get the building developed.

It was there that I met Timothy Lovett, the residence services coordinator at East Gables, who offered me a tour of the building.

With over 500 applicants for 28 single-occupancy rooms, there wasn’t a vacant apartment to show me. But he took me into the laundry room — new, kept clean and organized — a free service to improve accessibility at East Gables.

Lovett noted that these units are not like regular housing; the best-case scenario “is that [residents] eventually move out. That’s what we want.” Only one person has left so far, but it was due to a personal medical issue.

In the common space, I met Jessica Laflam, a building resident who does arts and crafts events with fellow residents. Her marbled, colorful canvases decorated the room. The East Gables apartments are single-occupancy, meaning residents often eat dinners, hold movie nights, and have other gatherings together when they can.

“I can’t cook for one,” Laflam said. “So I cook for everyone.”

The undeniably strong community that has developed makes it hard to remember that the residents have only been in the building since last October.

East Gables had its open house in mid-September —  a project sponsored by Valley Community Development Corporation (Valley CDC), a Northampton-based nonprofit working against the housing shortage in the Pioneer Valley area.

Raven Millett, a resident I spoke with, had lived in a shelter before moving into East Gables. Open spaces are filled based on a lottery — however, 20 of the 28 spaces are reserved for those previously unhoused. Raven had lived in a Valley CDC complex previously, and it was through that previous connection that he found out about the project.

A lot of people from Valley CDC were present at the cookout, grilling burgers, chatting, and dancing with residents. As many spent years working to get the building developed, they seemed grateful to meet and talk to those who benefited from that labor — a tangible result of their success.

I even got the chance to meet Pat De Angelis, a local councilwoman who fought opposition to get East Gables developed. She told me about all the pushback there was against the project — both from Amherst College and the surrounding area.

The building resides directly next to Amherst College’s Pratt field, something that was a cause for debate and concern from both the neighboring areas and Amherst College before building began in 2022. Notably, nearby residents — including Amherst professors — pushed back against the development in 2019.

After years of opposition, events such as the community cookout are essential.

Fliers had been put up on poles around the area, emails were sent out to residents of the surrounding neighborhoods and the event had also been advertised by the Center for Community Engagement on the Daily Mammoth.

However, there were only a handful of people in attendance who were not directly affiliated with the building, including myself. Despite the close proximity to campus, no Amherst College students were present or interacted with the event (sans 5 a.m. wake-ups from athletes on the field.)

20 out of 28 spaces in East Gables are reserved for the previously unhoused. Photo courtesy of Olivia Law ’27.

Even though I stuck out, the people at the cookout did everything they could to make me feel welcome. By the time I had left, I had been offered an internship, a gardening job, an invite to their movie night, wisdom on relationships, directions for the rail trail, and knowledge of Viking drinking horns. One kind woman even told me that her lacrosse player nephew from the UMass Amherst could offer me a ride if I ever needed one.

In the short time I was there, the presence of a community was clear. Everyone gave what they could, and wanted to do all they could to help and support those around them.  

At one point, De Angelis pulled me up to dance with some of the residents, requesting my  “young blood,” and so I joined. I glanced over at Pratt Field, jumping around with people more than twice my age on a patio at four in the afternoon, and wondered how just a few steps off campus had taken me so far.