"Welcome to Pity City!" Colonial Theatre assistant artistic director Noah Weiss says with a smile. He's standing in the spacious lobby, and there's a definite load of irony in his words. Beyond the usual ticket windows and the like, that tricked-out space sports a bank of gigantic windows and an impressive stage, and above it hangs an old neon sign from the theater's past days of glory. Word is there's an even bigger one somewhere in the bowels of the place, one so big it could grace the side of the building. Even in the middle of the day, the Colonial feels primed for action, as if a big show is about to open.
The theater's renovation transformed what had been, for a while, an arts supply store back into a glittering theatrical palace. Above what had been the store's drop ceiling, two balconies look down at the stage, adorned with intricate gilt carvings and pastel colors. The place is something of a metaphor for what's happened in Pittsfield in recent years.
After the city's huge GE plant shut down in the '80s, Pittsfield struggled mightily. Empty storefronts were commonplace; the cultural organizations that fill the Berkshires were close by, but none had a presence in town. It seemed to have been left to sink. Pity City indeed.
Megan Whilden, director of cultural development for Pittsfield, says, "I had a friend who said they heard the sound of Pittsfield hitting bottom, like a ship landing on the bottom. It can be helpful to be in a difficult space, because you want to get out of that space. If a community is relatively happy, healthy and successful, it doesn't have the impetus to do something different."
Then, around 2001, Maggie Mailer had an interesting idea. Whilden explains. "It began with the Storefront Artists Project. Maggie Mailer came back to the Berkshires, where she grew up, from NYC. She walked down North Street, which had pretty much hit its nadir. Some of the storefronts had been empty for as long as a couple of decades—there was economic devastation after GE left and took 10,000 jobs with it. She thought, 'What lovely space—wouldn't that make great space for studios?'
"She also saw it as a giant art project," says Whilden. "Studio space is very isolated space. That's good in some ways. But she was interested in having some semi-permeable membrane where people could see into the world of artists. You could see people at work, see signs of life.
"What this did—this was really homesteading downtown Pittsfield, so the artists had it to themselves. The artist were from all over the Berkshires," Whilden says. "They liked being around other artists, and they also liked that this was a somewhat gritty, somewhat urban area, at least for Western Mass. The agreement was that the space would be provided for free until space was rented.
"It started getting some buzz, and people would say, 'I can't believe I'm in Pittsfield!' I'd say, 'Well, you are in Pittsfield. Get used to it!'"
A few years later, Mayor Jim Ruberto saw promise in the idea of using art and culture as a revitalizer of a city in tough shape. He went all in on that notion.
"Ruberto was seeing the effect this had on downtown," explains Whilden. "He decided that, given that Pittsfield was the center and the largest city in the Berkshires and the rest of the Berkshires were being successful in highlighting their cultural assets and attracting tourists and second home owners, he decided that was the direction for Pittsfield to go. He was directly inspired by Storefront Artists Project.
"I have a strong feeling that economic development should come from the bottom up, and that should have great side effects," says Whilden. "That's hard for left-brained people to understand."
"Ruberto came into office in 2004. A month after he was inaugurated, Richard Florida [author of several volumes about the rise of the "creative class" as an economic driver] spoke at Williams College. He talks about the idea that cities that are welcoming to immigrants, artists, and the LGBT community are more likely to succeed. He provided the academic grounding."
Ruberto, who grew up in Pittsfield and had been a plastics salesman, made some bold moves. Whilden explains that about a third of a $10 million settlement from GE was put into fueling the creative economy. Ruberto also created the office Whilden holds, director of cultural development.
Whilden points to Third Thursdays, evenings that are equal parts arts walk, performance and street party, as one of her chief accomplishments, one she says won over even some of the contingent who opposed the creation and funding of her job. Though her position certainly makes Whilden a biased observer, it's hard to argue with the results—Third Thursdays bring out as many as 10,000 Pittsfield residents.
In the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts, there's a photo, taken from several stories up, of Pittsfield's North Street, taken during a Third Thursday (see previous page). It looks more like Mardi Gras than a sleepy weeknight in the Berkshires. Arts Walks and the like may be old news in Hampshire County, but they're clearly a vital draw in Pittsfield.
For Whilden, that points out a key difference between towns like Northampton and Amherst and Pittsfield. "In terms of arts and culture, it's like Pittsfield is a teenager, and Northampton and Amherst are middle-aged," she says.
It turns out, Whilden says, that reviving Thursday nights in the town brought back some of the best of the past for Pittsfield's longtime residents. Thursday was, she says, the day GE's paychecks went out.
Walk the streets of Pittsfield now, and you'll see a mix of old and new. It's still a city that's rough around the edges—some buildings look worse for wear, and here and there you'll find a stretch that exudes a ghost-town energy. But North Street in particular is a lively place. It's got some quirky businesses with old-school charm, from an entirely British and Irish grocery store to a burger joint straight out of a film noir set. But since the beginning of Pittsfield's arts renaissance, the spaces between the old businesses have filled up anew. Whilden puts the count of new businesses and restaurants at more than 50.
In a sense, it's jarring to move from the wide boulevard and concrete environs of old-school North Street to a hip interior like that of Mission Bar and Tapas. Jarring, too, to order Spanish food in Pittsfield. But Mission Bar is typical of new businesses here. Not only does it have international flavors and the kind of menu that lists prices in whole dollars, it's got a stage up front. Performance space seems to be sprouting all over town, from smaller spots like Mission to the overwhelming grandeur of the Colonial. It's testament to just how clearly Pittsfield's business owners have latched onto the importance of incorporating the arts.
Mission's owner, Jim Benson, like many a newcomer to Pittsfield, has taken pleasure in being on the vanguard of the town's cultural surge. In 2009, he founded the WordXWord festival. "The concept has always been performance-based—words written, spoken, and sung," says Benson.
Pittsfield seems to take its events pretty seriously—the 2011 WXW festival saw 60-plus performers offering poetry, theater and music at 18 venues. Benson is aiming to expand his festival's reach year-round (its official run is Aug. 11-18 this year). Right now, poets from as far away as Guatemala have entered the WXW 30 poems in 30 days challenge. Rather than let the poems reside in a drawer for later revision, Benson pushes the notion of new words hitting the page for all to see as soon as possible.
"What WXW tries to emphasize is new works," he says. "Whether you're a 'page poet' or a performance poet, we're asking you not to dust off your stuff from high school."
Poetry and Pittsfield may not necessarily seem like an intuitive match, but Benson puts a finger on a central, intriguing phenomenon that's key to the Pittsfield resurgence. In talking to Pittsfield residents, it comes up repeatedly, and is a subject of carefully worded speculation by old and new residents alike. How does a town known for its blue collar sensibilities come to embrace the kind of renaissance that mixes in a heavy dose of bohemia? How do the neighbors get along so well?
Benson offers a plainspoken answer: "I think around here people are starting to get that writing and performing can be like skiing or going for a jog—it's just something to do."
Maybe he's right. Something is going on in this unlikely new hot spot. Whilden says that this February's 10x10 arts festival, another sprawling group of performances all over town, came together sometime between fall and February, a sudden inspiration that came to successful fruition because of the ready reserve of energy that's percolating just beneath the surface.
Again and again, the superlatives pour out. Ken Green, owner of Museum Facsimiles outlet store on North Street, says the change in Pittsfield's fortunes is "remarkable. Thanks to Third Thursdays, we don't even have to advertise."
Lesley Ann Beck, director of communications at the Berkshire Museum, says it's "amazing."
Others chime in with equally over-the-top terms. In every case, there's a head-shaking sense of disbelief, a sort of smiling, thousand-yard stare.
"I was somebody who didn't have any business or need to come downtown for the first several years I lived here," says Jim Benson. "Now I almost never leave downtown. Everything that I need is here. I spend all day, seven days a week, on North Street. When I look out the window, I see people having conversations, waving across the street, going for coffee. It feels like a place to come and see what's happening—you don't need a specific reason to come anymore."
When you drive into Pittsfield on Route 9, you see an imposing sight: the old GE plant. It's all aglare in the sunlight, its gigantic white walls looking like the sails of a foundered ship. It really did hit bottom, and Pittsfield seemed destined to go down with it.
But keep driving, and you get to the new downtown. The signs may not be in your face—new facades are peppered in, art shows up in windows, and here and there an unexpected art-fueled tableau greets you. Still, it's quite clear that the town is changing.
The strength of Pittsfield's commitment to the arts brought Barrington Stage into town. The Berkshire International Film Festival expanded its offerings to the renovated Beacon Theater on North Street. The gorgeous, revamped Colonial brings big acts to town regularly.
In a major sign of the times, the Massachusetts Cultural Council just bestowed the moniker "cultural district" on five places in the state. The only one in all of western Mass. was not Main Street in Northampton, not North Pleasant Street in Amherst, but the scrappy newcomer, North Street in Pittsfield (dubbed "The Upstreet Cultural District").
It's no wonder there's a sense of disbelief when you talk to giddy residents of Pittsfield. They were used to being "Pity City." Now, it seems, they'll need a new nickname.