I remember my first visit to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1992. I was newly arrived in Berkshire County from London, in England, where I had worked for nearly a decade after college.
I’d landed in a little New England town called Great Barrington. My head was full of utopian ideas. I’d been reading an American writer called Lewis Mumford, who didn’t like big cities much but was in favor of smaller regional cities. Like Pittsfield, I thought, a city big enough to have a research library and a theater and maybe an orchestra. The benefits of a city without the urban problems I’d grown tired of in London.
Pittsfield was, to put it mildly, a disappointment. I had had no idea of the extent to which smaller cities like Pittsfield had been declining, and decaying, for decades after big employers left for warmer, cheaper regions.
Later, I started a publishing company and became involved in several economic development initiatives. One was a county-wide group of technology companies, before the dot-com crash of 2000. There was a lot going on in North County then, and we had a contingent of entrepreneurs in South County.
I was on the leadership council and we met in Pittsfield one day. The discussion was about the challenge of getting people together for events, given the distance between north and south where the most interesting things were happening. “If only,” mulled one of my colleagues, “Pittsfield wasn’t in the way.”
In the years since, there has been a lot of activity and in Pittsfield: Barrington Stage moved there (a loss to us in the south!), the Colonial Theater opened, and there are a lot more restaurants. But it still is a long way from being the regional city I had in mind after reading Lewis Mumford.
With East-West Rail and the Housatonic Line on my current project list, I’ve been thinking about what a small city like Pittsfield could be, in the twenty-first century. It has heft, good bones: substantial buildings, a wide central avenue. It’s set in the middle of lovely rolling hills, surrounded by smaller towns and villages and beloved, world-renowned cultural venues.
If you’ve seen old films, you can probably remember some set in cities that were not New York or Chicago or Los Angeles, but cities nonetheless: with banks and department stores, restaurants and boutiques, substantial schools and crowded sidewalks. They had theaters and cinemas, and maybe even that orchestra I was envisioning.
All that activity depended on jobs, jobs that went away and that have never been replaced by tourism. Service jobs will never replace those lost jobs in quantity, or quality. And I’m not just talking about wages, but about hours.
When people are doing the “Berkshire shuffle,” working several jobs, or working weekends and evenings, it’s much much hard to be involved in the PTA or Little League, serve on town boards, participate in community activities, or just go out in the evening.
But imagine a city like Pittsfield with regular year-round passenger train service to New York City, Boston, and Albany, in a world where living outside really big cities is looking more appealing, and where professional people with city jobs are learning to do more of their work remotely.
I talked to someone yesterday who has for years been working in New York and spending every weekend in Great Barrington. She was pondering what it would be like to reverse that balance, to be based here and spend two days a week in New York. A very attractive prospect for many like her, I suspect, and a prospect that would change, for the better, our communities.
I’m imagining Pittsfield humming with night life, a destination for young couples who want to be able to go canoeing or climbing at weekends, who don’t want a car, and don’t want to deal with the high prices and long commutes of Boston or New York. But they want to stay on a career track, to have the kind of challenging jobs a big city offers. Pittsfield could be a perfect compromise, and they would have the job markets of Boston, New York, and Albany as possibilities – a huge professional advantage in itself, especially for a working couple.
There’s no reason a city with the physical infrastructure of Pittsfield couldn’t offer some of the urban vibrancy that many of us love in New York, but with a host of other benefits.
And I’ll put in a word for Great Barrington, a smaller place than Pittsfield but big enough to have shops, restaurants, cinema, and a dynamic civic life. My urban friends joke about how the sidewalks are rolled up at 9pm, but with the Housatonic Line restored, people would be getting off the train from New York every week night and stopping for a meal or a beer. And we’d all benefit from a more diverse community, human and intellectual capital, and some of the economic vitality that has been too much centralized in major metro areas.
This is part of the vision behind the Train Campaign. Please join us and make it happen.
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