The `downtown of the Berkshires,' regilded and zoned for the arts

Email|Print| Text size + By Christina Tree
Globe Correspondent / July 23, 2006

Mayors are paid to be upbeat about their towns. This one sounds like he believes it.

``Pittsfield was, and will be, the downtown of the Berkshires," said James M. Ruberto, in his third year in office. But the new downtown will differ from the old. ``Its history was retail, but its future is entertainment."

Mayor Ruberto and others envision a downtown that offers a ``complete urban experience" with a mix of restaurants, theaters, shops, offices and creative enterprises, and sidewalks busy with people of all ages, many of them residents of upper-floor apartments and condominiums.

Far from a pipe dream, this scenario is unfolding day by day, Ruberto asserted, thanks in part to a 2005 zoning change that created a downtown arts district encompassing the city's commercial core and neighboring streets. Residential units are now permitted in previously commercial-only buildings. Entertainment-related and creative uses are encouraged by city officials.

Of course , it's taken more than a zoning change to jump-start a company town that lost its company .

In the 1950s some 15,000 General Electric Co. employees worked in Pittsfield; today it's one-tenth that number in a population of 46,000. There is, however, a silver lining to GE's legacy of toxic waste and deflated property values. It's a $250 million settlement in a class-action suit that includes $1 million a year for 10 years to be used at the discretion of the mayor and City Council. Today, a healthy percentage of that discretionary fund is being used to seed cultural projects.

``I think Pittsfield is going to surprise everybody , " said Julianne Boyd, founding artistic director of the Barrington Stage Company. The group recently moved here from the South Berkshire s , restoring an octagonal house as offices and a neighboring 1912 music hall as the new Barrington Stage. The gala opening is set for Aug. 10.

The Colonial Theatre , the once-and-future pride of Pittsfield, has been a prime recipient of the GE fund. Built in 1903, the playhouse in its heyday hosted a dazzling array of performers, from the Barrymores and Sarah Bernhardt to Will Rogers. Eventually refitted for movies, it closed in 1949 and for a half century was maintained as a warehouse by the Miller Supply Co.

In 1998 Hillary Clinton declared the Colonial ``a national treasure," which spearheaded initial efforts at reclaiming its faded glory. But it wasn't until 2004, with an infusion from the GE fund, that restoration shifted into high gear. On Aug. 29, the 810-seat Colonial will reopen, with its lobby expanded and its elaborate detailing painstakingly restored. The inaugural performance will be a production of ``Rent."

Low rents and affordable real estate have played a big part in Pittsfield's revival. Gilded Era mansions that would fetch millions elsewhere in Berkshire County sell here for under $300,000.

``You couldn't sell a home in Pittsfield in the 1980s and '90s , " said Rebecca Smith, president of the Pittsfield Historic Commission . During those years, she explains, GE transferred thousands of well-paying jobs elsewhere.

BERKSHIRES REVIVAL

See a photo gallery of Pittsfield at explorenewengland.com and while you're there, visit the message board and tell us your favorite place in the area.

In 2001, Smith bought a dilapidated 30-room apartment house for $200,000, then spent years restoring the mansion. It is now the Thaddeus Clapp House, a luxurious bed- and- breakfast, named for the local mill owner who built it in 1871.

The most visible signs of change are along historic North Street in the downtown area.

Four years ago, Berkshire artist Maggie Mailer counted 20 empty storefronts along the street, prompting her to found the Storefront Artist Project, which helped transform the storefronts into temporary artist studios. Today, five empty storefronts remain, but the space in which Mailer worked is now Spice, North Street's newest, hippest restaurant.

In 1998, Joyce Bernstein and her partner Larry Rosenthal came to the Berkshires, looking for a place to relocate their business. Pittsfield wasn't their first choice, but the price of a former department store was irresistible.

``This started as my own version of Starbucks but then I guess I went crazy," said Bernstein, surveying Spice's sleek dining room, which seats 135 . Chef Douglas Luf, formerly of the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, describes his menu as ``familiar food with a twist."

This summer, the entire city is an art space. Added to big murals on downtown walls are dozens of sculptures, along with more than 100 multicolored banners depicting city-based opera, drama, music, exhibits, and events.

``We've always had a lot going on here, but no one has put it together before," said Megan Whilden, director of the city's recently created Office of Cultural Development. ``At long last, Pittsfield is celebrating itself."

Take, for example, the more than 80 outsized baseball gloves (big enough for a small child to sit in) decorated by local students and scattered throughout the city. There are also dozens of other baseball-related sculptures and themed window displays, all part of ``Art of the Game, " a two-year public art and baseball project.

The city's baseball mania dates to at least 1791 when a bylaw was passed prohibiting the playing of the game within 80 yards of the new meeting house ``for preservation of the windows." In 1859, Pittsfield was home to the country's first inter collegiate baseball game , in which Amherst defeated Williams. Wahconah Park was built in 1892 and was the scene of many memorable games by big-name players, including Lou Gehrig , who in 1924 hit a home run into the Housatonic River while playing for the minor-league Hartford Senators . The park will host another big name when Bob Dylan performs there Aug. 26 .

Gehrig's baseball cap and the ball he hit are part of the current exhibit of Yankee and Red Sox memorabilia, along with outstanding photos of their games by David Levinthal, on display at the Berkshire Museum .

Founded in 1903 as a ``window on the world" for Pittsfield residents by local philanthropist Zenus Crane, the museum offers 18 galleries, with exhibits ranging from contemporary art and Hudson River landscapes to a 2,000-year-old Egyptian mummy. It also offers plenty for children, including an excellent small aquarium.

Arrowhead -- the house in which Herman Melville penned ``Moby-Dick ," and the headquarters of the Berkshire Historical Society -- is less than a mile south of the city's Park Square. It's worth a visit for its evocation of Melville and of Pittsfield, past and future.

``Becoming Pittsfield: The Gilded Age," a special society exhibit, offers a clue to the city's revival, explaining why its downtown buildings, both commercial and residential, are so splendidly constructed. Most date from 1870-1903, years during which the population grew from 11,000 to 40,000. This boom was sparked by local inventors such as William Stanley, who developed the electrical transformer and employed 5,000 people before General Electric bought him out in 1903.

This summer, downtown Pittsfield is changing weekly -- one recent arrival is Gallery Boreas, fresh from Brooklyn's edgy Williamsburg section -- and the mix of old and new is engaging.

A recent stroll down North Street netted a pair of sandals from Jim's House of Shoes and a striking chiffon skirt from USBluesware, a small, recently opened shop showcasing designer clothing and accessories it sells worldwide over the Internet.

``I grew up here through the industry boom years and then the depressed years and I'm watching the city come alive again , " said Beverly Dubiski, co-owner of North Street's Bellissimo Dolce Café. Today the cafe is a popular spot for old-timers, newcomers , and -- Dubiski noted -- a growing number of tourists.

Contact Christina Tree, co-author of ``The Berkshire Hills & Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts, An Explorer's Guide," at ctree@traveltree.net.

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