Pittsfield, MA

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?”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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54 Responses to Pittsfield, MA

  1. Kate says:

    I disagree. With the Friday night arts walk, lobster fests and resilient downtown nightlife- I am all about Pittsfield Massachusetts’ blue collar spirit

  2. Mark F. Vinette, MD says:

    I was born and raised in Pittsfield, graduated from PHS in 1971. I left around 1980 and moved to Florida, back to Providence R.I. and then back to Florida. My father worked at GE (who didn’t) for 45 years. I was in Pittsfield last July (2012) and loved seeing it again. I was saddened by the loss of all of the jobs at GE but the city looked like it had stood still. I really enjoyed my time there and even saw the old pop corn wagon near Park Square. The whole Berkshire area is beautiful and I will be returning this August for another visit.

  3. Shelby says:

    While reading all of these I feel like I could really relate. Unlike the rest of you however, I am currently growing up in Pittsfield. Unfortunately I don’t have a lot of good things to say about it. It’s so strange for me to look at some of these comments saying that Pittsfield used to be a wonderful place. To me, there seems to be a lot of drug use and sex among young kids. When he was just 13, one of my good friends nearly died from alcohol poisoning, he was in a coma and had to be air-lifted to Bay-State. The alcohol abuse didn’t come from living in a bad home or anything like that, his mother is supportive and responsible. I feel like it came from the people around him. I wouldn’t say the location is bad at all, but the true problem with Pittsfield is the people in it. I remember in 9th grade I met a kid who had done almost every drug imaginable, not just weed but heroin, Ritalin, shrooms, Vicodin, cocaine, meth, acid, and ecstasy. I also remember in 9th grade knowing 2 girls who were pregnant, and another with chlamydia… I could go on, by my point is, still being in highschool, I see all of this first hand. I’m exposed to what a lot of adults don’t see, and all I can say is I truly can not wait to leave this city.

  4. paul says:

    Came across this tonight. August 6,2014 the buildings are all down and gone. You can see across the city from kellogg st. To the other side and see bousquet mountain. The city did make a come back . Barrington stage. Berksbire museum. Jobs , shopping, great schools. Allendale elementary is one of many. There is jobs. There is money to be made.there are dozens of parks even with all new equipment. There is the pittsfield suns at historic waconah park. There is hundreds of miles of trails .two lakes, state forest, theatre, dancing. Bars. Great restaurants.not much has changed since i was a kid thats for sure. Except peoples wants and needs and expectations . We expect so much but give so little. Wake up . Walk around. Visit north street next time you shop. There is even a really cool movie theatre there now.the 27 or 29 acres are still empty at g,e. But most all the buildings are gone and so are the memories. So get out and create some new ones.

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