"...the best darn small city in the Northeast’’
The art of saving a city
When its biggest employer bolted, the proud old city of Pittsfield slumped and shrank
By David Filipov
July 24, 2010
PITTSFIELD — City of art, city of funk. The SoHo of the Berkshires, the Brooklyn of the Berkshires.
The sobriquets urban planners bestow upon this bygone manufacturing hub speak of their confidence that Pittsfield can become a center of culture and entertainment on par with Lenox and Stockbridge and Williamstown.
Once-vacant buildings in downtown Pittsfield are filling with galleries, theaters, residences, and restaurants. North Street, the city’s long-depressed main drag, now hosts regular street festivals, open houses, and art shows that draw thousands of residents and visitors. People are starting to believe that Pittsfield is an attraction, rather than a moribund pit stop on the way from Tanglewood to Mass MoCA.
“We’re seeing the buzz,’’ said Mayor James M. Ruberto, who since taking office in 2004 has spent millions of dollars under the conviction that the arts will help revive a city devastated by the loss of more than 10,000
Not everyone shares his certitude. Ruberto narrowly won reelection last November over an opponent who decried the strategy of spending lavishly on the arts as a way to bring in jobs. And analysts familiar with the postindustrial odyssey of other small Massachusetts cities caution that the efforts to bring in tourists and entertainment dollars, while a positive step, are only the beginning of an economic reversal.
“To the city’s credit, it realized that it needed to embrace the arts and culture of the creative economy that the Berkshires has been known for,’’ said John R. Schneider, executive vice president of MassINC, a public policy research organization. “Things have bottomed out, and they’re beginning the turnaround, and the rebranding of the city has taken root. The jury’s still out on what the employment prospects will be down the road.’’
Unemployment in Pittsfield in June was 9.3 percent, slightly higher than the statewide rate of 8.8 percent, according to data provided by the city. For the city’s boosters, the more disturbing statistic is the decadelong population slide, from nearly 46,000 in 2000 to around 42,500 in 2009, according to US Census Bureau data.
“We were always told that if GE shut down, Pittsfield would become a ghost town, and it almost did,’’ said Cathy Soules, 65, a lifelong resident who remembers cruising North Street in her boyfriend’s convertible on Thursday nights in the late 1950s, when workers got their paychecks and went out on the town. She also remembers the hard times that began two decades ago, after GE had shuttered most of its plants in Pittsfield.
“Kids started moving out; there was nothing to keep them here,’’ she said. Her son, “a computer geek,’’ got a job closer to Boston. “He would never come back here,’’ she said. “Now it’s dead.’’
Jim Benson, owner of Mission Bar and Tapas on North Street, is used to hearing such things. He used to believe it himself. Now he finds proof that Pittsfield is alive in the spillover crowd of singers, musicians, diners, and those willing to spend $6 on a glass of tempranillo on a Tuesday evening open mike night.
“Ten years ago, I never would have known this crowd existed,’’ Benson shouted over a performer’s rendition of “All Along the Watchtower.’’ “Pittsfield is really starting to pull in customers from surrounding towns.’’
In August, Benson will host Word x Word, a weeklong festival of theater, readings, poetry slams, and songs in a number of venues along North Street. That is in addition to a street festival the city puts on every third Thursday of the month, which attracts 10,000 people, Ruberto said, and attempts to recreate the atmosphere of those old payday nights.
Megan Whilden, who heads the city office of cultural development, compares what is happening in Pittsfield with the transformation of Brooklyn, where the historic but beaten-down New York borough found new life when artists and other creative entrepreneurs moved in.
“We’re the Brooklyn of the Berkshires,’’ she said.
Part of the inspiration for Pittsfield’s renaissance came from Maggie Mailer, a painter who arrived from Brooklyn in 2002, and noticed two dozen empty storefronts on North Street. Mailer, who grew up in the Berkshires, had the idea to persuade landlords to let artists use the empty spaces as studios.
“Every artist I knew was desperate for space,’’ said Mailer, the daughter of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Norman Mailer. “I suspected that it would be really good for the city.’’
The Storefront Artist Project was an early step in connecting creative people with the city. And Mailer will open a show next weekend at the Ferrin Gallery, which moved to Pittsfield from Lenox in 2007. The owner, Leslie Ferrin, was attracted by the excitement of the new Pittsfield, and by the low cost of real estate.
“We were able to translate what we were already paying to rent in tony Lenox into a space that we own,’’ she said.
The cost, and the buzz, and the city’s offer of partnership were the lures that helped bag perhaps the biggest prize of Pittsfield’s cultural revolution: the innovative and award-winning Barrington Stage Company.
“Basically, culture leads the economy here,’’ said Julianne Boyd, artistic director of the company, which moved from Sheffield to Pittsfield after paying $785,000 to purchase an old theater on Union Street. The city helped with the $7 million cost to renovate the building, which opened its doors in 2007.
Boyd says Barrington Stage brings 45,000 people to Pittsfield during the theater season. The company also rents 20 houses for actors and employs 60 to 70 people during its May to December season.
Ruberto sees numbers like those as part of the payoff for the city’s investment in the arts and entertainment, including using $3.5 million drawn from a $10 million payment GE gave the town after it moved out.
But Dan Bianchi, who won nearly half the vote in his failed bid to unseat Ruberto, said the city’s priorities are misplaced.
“It’s great that we attract the arts and support it,’’ he said. “But you can’t point to one significant business that relocated as a result of arts.’’
Bianchi said he did not expect a giant like GE to come back, but that “I’d like to see more mid-sized companies that could employ 75 to 100 people.’’
Civic planners say that the changes are an important step in making the city attractive to prospective employers. Downtown Pittsfield has seen about 20 new businesses open in recent years, said Yvonne Pearson of Downtown Inc., which promotes the revitalization of central Pittsfield.
“Every big company that comes in to look at an area, one of the first places they look is downtown,’’ she said. “If there is a lack of community, they are not interested. When you start bringing the arts and culture, that’s when you bring in the restaurants and niche businesses, and that’s what’s happening now.’’
Richard Stanley, who opened the Beacon Cinema on North Street last November in a building of the former Kresge department store, agrees.
“I want to see life; this is life,’’ said Stanley. “This is what SoHo looks like. Lots of funky buildings, people walking around.’’
He pointed out blocks dotted with new condominiums, restaurants, and stores. One of them, a convenience and souvenir and ice cream store called The New Berry Place, now occupies the former space of a five-and-dime where Joe Mele, who opened the store with his wife, Marie, once ordered ice cream floats and grilled cheese sandwiches.
“Hopefully people will see that, yeah, there is a reason to come here,’’ he said. “I hope this is the real change.’’