This is a powerfully beautiful area. The mountain views up from the river valleys and the views down from Mount Greylock or Route 2 are living paintings, masterpieces of light and color.
But a lot of places have beautiful scenery. We need more than a picture postcard backdrop to build a successful economic future in Central and Northern Berkshire.
Except for the economy which grew up around Williams College, and some very limited regional farming, the entire remaining economic life of Central and Northern Berkshire was directly dependent on the mills in Pittsfield, North Adams, Clarksburg, Williamstown and Adams. From the 1970s until the late 1990s, a time of less than 25 years, almost every one of those mills closed.
Despite those crushing losses, chief of which were the dismantling of General Electric in Pittsfield and Sprague Electric in North Adams, hope remained.
North Adams refused to knuckle under, and under the leadership of former Mayor John Barrett III, good things happened in spite of almost devastating obstacles. I was a member of the City Council for 10 of those years, and it was exciting to see new schools being built, older schools being renovated and new athletic facilities being designed and built. But first and foremost, the Barrett administration oversaw the transformation and reuse of the massive former Sprague Electric site into the campus of the world class Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.
But in both North Adams and Pittsfield, the political torch has been passed. New leaders are trying new solutions. And in both cities, the new leaders need to take some pages out of the books of their predecessors.
Pittsfield has wonderful businesses in its downtown. Besides the Colonial Theatre, with all of its splendid renovations and grand promise, there are numerous coffee shops and restaurants which have been successful in attracting a cheerful upscale clientele on a regular basis. Jean and I don’t hesitate to drive into downtown Pittsfield and enjoy a nice dinner on a warm summer evening on or immediately off North Street.
But the escalating excursions of violence, the knife fights and gun battles and armed robberies, simply have to stop. Period. The level of armed violence is inexcusable in a city as small as Pittsfield, regardless of the cause. There are too many successful zero-tolerance policing policies in place around the country, any one of which Pittsfield could emulate, which have been proven to drastically curtail violent crime.
North Adams doesn’t suffer from the same types and levels of crime as its larger counterpart to the south, but it is suffering from a stalled economic rebirth. When the current administration took control, despite a larger economy that was in tatters, North Adams was moving strongly forward. Now, several years into the new leadership, there hasn’t been one single new major economic or public development that wasn’t already happening when the new mayor took office -- unless you count murals and diagonal parking.
And the difficult thing to understand about the situation in North Adams is that the only thing the current mayor has to do to receive the benefit of former Mayor Barrett’s expertise is ask. Barrett, who remains a widely respected municipal professional, was elected to the North Adams City Council this past election. If asked to help, he clearly would be an invaluable asset to steer North Adams back on track.
Pittsfield and North Adams have wonderful futures because they are wonderful places to live. But it is time for the leaders in both communities to step forward and make some much needed changes, and make them as soon as possible.
Bill Donovan is a columnist for one of the Transcript’s sister papers, The Advocate.