Preface: This post continues to get comments years after it was first published. I suspect it is perhaps too well indexed in Google for searches on Pittsfield. This was a personal reflection on a cold March day, and reflects how I was feeling that particular day about the city. I would note that I’ve lived in the Berkshires now for 24 years, and in Lanesboro, just north of Pittsfield, for 14 years. My goal in this post wasn’t to trash the town, but to reflect on some of the difficult realities facing Pittsfield. It wasn’t meant to be the last word on the subject, and I’m sorry my words have hurt people’s feelings.
Pittsfield is changing, and for the better. North Street is coming back to life, and the barrier between “the cultural Berkshires” and “the milltown Berkshires” is dropping. But I leave this post here, though it generates some angry comments, as the personal reflection on what I was thinking, feeling and photographing that cold winter day.
– Ethan Zuckerman, May 14, 2013
Coming home from college for vacations, I took a bus that ran from Williamstown, MA to New York City. The day college let out for the semester, the bus would be full of fellow students heading south. I sat with Dennis, a year ahead of me in school, a chainsmoking, fast-talking New Yorker. We passed through Pittsfield, MA, 20 miles south of the college and he said, “My nightmare is that I’ll end up in one of these little, godforsaken, end of the earth towns and get stuck here forever. Can you imagine?”
I could. I remember thinking that it wouldn’t be that bad. I grew up on a dirt road in a town without sidewalks. Any town where you could walk to the library seemed cosmopolitan in comparison. But it didn’t seem cool to disagree with him, so I smiled and nodded as we drove south.
Seventeen years later, I live just north of Pittsfield, just south of the town where we went to college. I’ve lived in this house for eight years, and I still don’t know Pittsfield well. I get my mail in Williamstown, drink my coffee there and know many of the people by face, if not by name. While I pass through Pittsfield every third day, I know only a few places: the hospital, North Street, the ballpark.
There are two kinds of towns in the Berkshires – mill towns and orchid towns. The orchid towns – Lenox, Stockbridge, Great Barrington – are in the culture business, delivering picturesque food and lodging to tourists who come to see the theatre and hear the symphony. The mill towns, for the most part, are no longer in business.
In North Adams, the business was electronics – capacitors, built by Sprague Electric. In Pittsfield, it was transformers, then plastics, built by GE. At its peak, GE employed 13,000 people at the Pittsfield plant. By the time I moved to the area, it employed less than a thousand, and had left enough PCBs in the soil and nearby waterways to turn much of the city into a brownfield.
North Adams is transforming, slowly. The Sprague plant now hosts the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Decaying houses on River Street have been rebuilt into a high-end hotel. There are plans to redevelop Pittsfield, but no one’s holding their breath, especially for the area near the GE plant. The city is huge in comparison to North Adams, far too big for its current population. The bright spots of the city, the businesses we try to patronize – an African grocery store, a burrito shop, a pan-Mediterranian restaurant – are too far from one another to feel like there’s a neighborhood with the potential to transform.
I came into this part of Pittsfield again a few years ago by train. There’s a single train a day from Boston, and it was the logical way home at the end of a long trip. We arrived in late afternoon, passing through dense, green forests and the shadows of hills. Out of the green, we suddenly pulled past industrial parks, decaying warehouses, scrapped cars. For a moment, I thought, “Tough town. I wonder where we are?” And then I realized I was home.
Photos from March 24, 2007, taken near the GE Plastics Plant, Tyler Street, Pittsfield. Full set here.