Pittsfield, Once A ‘Speed Bump,’ Now A Destination

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Here in the lush, rolling hills of Berkshire County, this city is the end of the road for Route 9. And that, too, is how Pittsfield has long been seen.

“It truly was a speed bump, because it offered nothing for anyone to be proud of,” said Jim Ruberto, the mayor of Pittsfield. But notice he said was a speed bump. If you haven’t here in awhile, you might be surprised by what you’ll find.

The most vivid sign of new life in Pittsfield is Third Thursday, a monthly arts festival that draws thousands of people onto the city’s main drag, North Street.

It’s a scene that would have been unimaginable 10 years ago, when Ruberto — not yet the mayor — returned here after 31 years away to retire in his beloved home town. What he found was more like a ghost of that town.

“I would say Pittsfield’s storefronts were pretty vacant. And the spirit of the people was unsettling. There was a lot of anger within this community,” Ruberto says.

General Electric, the largest employer in Pittsfield, had left the city by the end of the 1980s. But Ruberto says the company’s leaving was not the main cause of frustration for the community.

“I think really the core isn’t so much that General Electric left the city. It was the fact that when General Electric left, there was no true direction as to where the city should go in terms of trying to identify or brand its future,” he says.

“When I came up to Pittsfield, I counted half-a-dozen empty storefronts and immediately thought, ‘This would be an incredible studio space.’”
– Maggie Mailer, painter

That’s because until then, GE had been Pittsfield’s identity. The company built all its power transformers here, a massive operation. At the height of production, during World War II, GE employed 14,000 people in a city of just about 50,000.

In other words, if your dad didn’t work here, your uncle or your brother did.

“No question, it was the company. It was the town, really,” says Nicholas Boraski, who was vice president of GE. “The economy here rose and fell on how well GE was doing, which was a direct response of the national economy.”

By the time Boraski came to Pittsfield to run the operation, in 1974, demand for transformers had already started to lag.

Over the next few years, the jobs dwindled — down to 10,000, then 7,000, then 6,000. And finally, the company closed its operation altogether, and for the next 20 years, Pittsfield was not much more than the city GE left behind.

Seriously Good Timing

“The city was in such a state that I decided to run for mayor,” Ruberto says.

Ruberto’s decision, as crazy as it might seem for someone planning to retire, was the first important part of this story. The second part involves some seriously good timing.

“When I was running in 2001, Maggie Mailer was starting her Storefront Artists program,” he says.

A painter, Mailer had been living in Brooklyn, but after Sept. 11 she was inspired, like Ruberto, to return to her childhood home in Pittsfield. And where some people saw despair, she saw possibility.

“When I came up to Pittsfield, I counted half-a-dozen empty storefronts and immediately thought, ‘This would be an incredible studio space’,” Mailer says.

Mailer is the daughter of the novelist Norman Mailer.

“This is all being unused, you know, why not — it just seemed so obvious — I thought, ‘How come no one else is thinking of this?’ And I started asking the landlords if they would let artists use the spaces for studios, temporary studios,” she says.

Pittsfield’s Gradual Makeover

Pittsfield's Third Thursday (Jess Bidgood for WBUR)

Pittsfield's Third Thursday (Jess Bidgood for WBUR)

The landlords were quick to embrace any idea that might bring some life back to North Street. And so, slowly, Pittsfield’s empty storefronts started to fill with artists.

Ruberto, who by this time had been elected mayor, noticed this growing scene in the downtown.

“And what fascinated me was the only element in the community that truly seemed energized was the art community. So when you see electricity in a bottle, you ask yourself, ‘How do you make the bottle bigger?’ And you feed it. And when I became mayor, that’s exactly what I did,” Ruberto says.

What had begun as a grassroots movement suddenly gained a powerful ally.

One of Ruberto’s first acts was to invest $1 million to help re-open the Colonial Theatre, a majestic old playhouse and vaudeville theater downtown.

“It was the cornerstone of the entire revitalization. Pittsfield needed a win. They needed a win. Its government needed to show that it could help accomplish something positive,” he says.

“In anticipation of the Colonial opening, the Barrington Stage made the decision to move to this community, because they felt comfortable that this community was moving in the direction of a community that was going to celebrate arts and culture. And I believe that beginning of a critical mass gave an awful lot of comfort to a hopeful community,” Ruberto says.

“You’d have to have been here five years ago even to look at what the downtown looked like versus what it looks like today.”
– Michael Tweed-Kent,
vice president, General Dynamics

Unfamiliar Territory

In the four years since, 10 art galleries have come to Pittsfield. In total, about 12 new businesses have opened up, ranging from a big fancy Asian restaurant to a punk-rock record store.

There’s no question there has been growth in the downtown. But it’s not the kind of growth Pittsfield is used to.

“Historically, the economy of Pittsfield was based on the idea of designing stuff, building stuff, putting it in boxes and shipping it out of here,” says Williams College economics professor Stephen Sheppard.

“And the idea that you could transform and have a major part of your economy built not on doing stuff and shipping it away, but doing stuff here and enticing people to come here and pay to watch it, that’s kind of a strange idea. That’s going to generate controversy,” he says.

It did. Enough controversy that last November, Ruberto almost lost his seat. His challenger, Dan Bianchi, ran a campaign attacking the mayor for an economic strategy centered on the arts in a city where the unemployment rate still nears 10 percent.

“You know, you can’t just have a downtown that caters to the arts and hope that, you know, you’re going to encourage companies to come here,” Bianchi says.

Bianchi came within 209 votes of becoming the new mayor of Pittsfield.

“I think that there’s quite a few people who feel that there has been too much emphasis on the arts and not enough on, for example, bringing in high-tech, small manufacturing, businesses that can support families,” he says.

But Ruberto says that luring small businesses is his goal. But first, he says, you have to give them a reason to come.

If the city has a reputation as a speed bump, it’s hard enough to get people to slow down on their way through, let alone stop.

“You have to break through a certain perception barrier to start a dynamic process of development, of attracting new firms and new industries to a region,” Sheppard says.

“And the development that’s taken place in the cultural sector is a first step to that. It sends the message out that Pittsfield is an interesting city, it’s an attractive place to live and it’s a place where entrepreneurs and people in all sectors of the economy might want to consider coming to or operating in.”

A New Workforce

People like Michael Tweed-Kent, vice president and general manager for the mission integration systems division at General Dynamics.

Michael Tweed-Kent is a vice president at General Dynamics, a defense contractor that employs more than 1,000 people in Pittsfield. (WBUR)

With more than 1,000 workers, General Dynamics is the biggest private employer in Pittsfield. And 700 of those jobs have been added since 2005.

Of course, a defense contractor doesn’t add jobs because of an arts scene. But Tweed-Kent says it has been invaluable in helping him attract and keep the kind of talented people he needs.

“You’d have to have been here five years ago even to look at what the downtown looked like versus what it looks like today. And not only for individuals we’re recruiting but for the employees, the 1,000-plus people who work here, to have that kind of richness and culture to go along with what we have, with Tanglewood and the other arts that are in the area,” Tweed-Kent says.

Nobody pretends that Pittsfield is perfect. But it’s not a speed bump anymore, either. It’s the kind of place where you might want to spend a Thursday evening. And the kind of place you might come back to, to see what happened while you were gone.

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  • Gailanne Reeh

    I am a daily listern of WBUR and can’t image a day without it. This week has been just incredible helping us see the impact the ecomony is having on people, families and towns. I looked forward each morning to hearing about the next place that Bob Oakes would be and to hear the stories of the people. It was a brillent idea and I hope that our candidates for Governor listened other than Charlie Baker. WBUR continues to deliver high quality news with indepth content and in a very creative format. I loved the trip across Route 9. It was brillent reporting. Thank you.

  • James Ranson

    When I entered Pittsfield to take a summer job this past May, I expected it to be a fairly sleepy town with a few tourist attractions and hotels and not much else–an image some other towns in the Berkshires have either intentionally cultivated or naturally fallen into. I was very pleasantly surprised to find Pittsfield a significantly active town, right along the lines of the description in this article. Many businesses on North Street are not old-fashioned or kitschy at all; rather, like the trendy Mission Bar & Tapas or the two-story Beacon Cinema (which includes a wine bar), they embrace their modernity in a way that says for all to hear “Pittsfield is cool!” My first Thursday there fell on a Third Thursday, and I was blown away at the huge turnout for the street festival. During my summer stay, three brand-new restaurants opened downtown, including a franchise of the already-famous Baba Louie’s Pizza. Posters and flyers for art, theatre, and cultural events were everywhere, and excitement was infectious both among tourists and locals. I am very grateful to have seen in Pittsfield a four-month snapshot of a town on its way up, and I can say without a doubt that it is “the kind of place I might come back to, to see what happened while I was gone.” I commend Mayor Ruberto, Ms. Mailer, Mr. Tweed-Kent and everyone in Pittsfield for their contributions in making it so.

  • http://finelinelenox.com Lee Everett

    This is a very nicely crafted piece on the rebirth of Pittsfield. In the 80′s, I had a photography/graphic design/video studio on North Street, at that time a small community of artists used to meet regularly at local restaurants, pubs and coffee shops and talk of the ideal artistic enviorment that would bring Pittsfield to life. It involved much of what is now becoming a reality, clubs, bars, restaurants, entertainment venues, galleries, etc. We did have the ‘Artabout’ which was an art and performance festival and the Ethnic Fairs and the birth of the Cultural Council, the Litchenstein Center, The Berkshire Public Theater and the first public murals. There were good beginnings, but somehow they never had the momentum we are seeing today. I am very enthusiastic about the potential of Pittsfield and its arts and cultural community in the years to come and hope to remain a small part of it.

  • M L

    Interesting article. Nice summary of the past 20 years. As a former Pittsfield resident, I wish it touched on the brain drain problem that is impacting so many similar communities… No advanced education in the area… BCC is only a 2-year school and Williams college & MCLA are too small. Most talented students leave for college to UMAss (1 hour away) or even Boston and never come back due to lack of white collar jobs. I agree that the arts are important but the town is already way too centered on tourism – summer/fall. This town needs more specialized jobs. Still too many crack heads roaming around Pittsfield.

  • Patrick

    Growing up in Pittsfield in the 70s-80s I can tell you what it used to be in regards to life and the city overall will never be achieved again, which is sad. I remember all the great parades on Halloween, and July 4th. So many people would come out that there wouldn’t be parking for blocks! The Pittsfield Mets were a fantastic draw as well along with the fantastic North Street retail sector with England Brothers, Besse Clark, Pittsfield Sporting Goods, even JJ Newburys!
    When GE fled in the 80’s (thanks Neutron Jack!) it left a wound too big to heal. I am very glad to hear all the artsy things happening but a punk record store or yet another restaurant (already too many in the city) does not make a comeback, at least for the people born there. When they get older their goal is to leave Pittsfield and never come back…and until the migration of young people and young families is stopped you will continue to see more and more older people complaining about their taxes because they will make up a disproportionate percentage of the population.
    I always like coming home to see friends but I always feel sad when you go to the West side of North Street or just east of North Street. I grew up just east of North Street and you could still have kids outside back when I was a kid, now, I would not let my kids venture beyond the property. The schools are not doing well and the opportunities for non-artists usually mean tourist jobs…which do not pay enough to raise a family. I wish all those in Pittsfield the best, I hope your renewal includes more jobs in other sectors!

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  • J Browning

    My grandfather, Nicholas Boraski, loves the community of Pittsfield. Whenever I visit him I am struck by the beauty of the brooks, main streets, and small farms dotting the city. I have friends who to this day consider south county to be the destination for good restaurants,art gallery’s, etc. However, when trying to find an old pattern fly for fishing the deerfield or westfield rivers, Pittsfield’s blue collar roots make it a gem in Massachusetts. When I finally get the chance to move back to MA, it is going to be a hard choice between Pittsfield and Greenfield.

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