I remember standing with my father
many years ago,
his hand on my shoulder,
as we watched the old buildings
across the street
disappear into dust.
-from Old-Timers, a poem by Joe Manning
For my new book, Disappearing Into North Adams, I have been pouring over the documents for the south side urban renewal project that took place from 1968 to 1974. I have learned a lot, but it has not been a happy experience. I had no idea what North Adams looked like before the demolition started, because my first visit here was in 1996. All I knew was what the old-timers told me. It’s been hard to get a picture in my mind of the city, when all those historic buildings and beloved stores and restaurants filled the space now used mostly by cars, pigeons, and stray shopping carts.
The more I have talked to people, and the more I have walked around the city, the greater sense I have been able to make of it. I remember running into my friend Tony Talarico on Eagle Street at the 1998 Downtown Celebration just as I was ready to head home. Like always, my car was parked in the Kmart lot about 200 feet south of Main Street, probably near where the old North Adams Transcript building once stood. Tony said, “I’ll walk you to the car. Where is it?” Without thinking, I said, “I parked it on Bank Street.”
The urban renewal records are mostly a collection of maps showing the demolition and redevelopment plans, and the appraisals done by the city on each parcel that was to be taken by eminent domain. Since property owners were entitled to fair compensation, the city had to come up with an estimated market value for each parcel. The appraisals contain graphic and detailed descriptions of each building and its contents, and black and white photos taken from several angles. I have been examining these documents periodically for more than a year. I usually pick out several folders, each containing records of one parcel, and look through them for about an hour.
The photos and descriptions of the buildings have given me the opportunity to finally get to know pre-urban renewal North Adams, even if I didn’t grow up with it. It makes me sad to see what I missed out on. There’s a striking photo of the St. John’s Parsonage on Summer Street, just west of the church. It was a beautiful building with a big curved window facing the street and a stone façade similar to the church.
It is described in the appraisal as “a 2 ½ story and basement, granite and stucco structure containing a total of 8 rooms and three baths. The first floor contains 4 rooms and a powder room.” Like all the other 100 or so buildings described, the St. John’s Parsonage is buried inside a row of file cabinets in City Hall, its epitaph in a manila folder.
I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, and I’ve come to the conclusion that we need to store away our regrets, file them under “memories,” and embrace the positive things that are happening in North Adams.
I stood in the Kmart lot the other day on the spot where Bank Street and Summer Street intersected, and I looked across Main Street at Newberry’s. There are several well-known Randy Trabold photos in the Transcript files of that view. Of course, in those photos, you peer at Newberry’s through the narrow alley that is Bank Street, bordered on both sides by tall brick and stone buildings. It looks quaint, but so claustrophobic. Newberry’s appears to be at the other end of a train tunnel.
I wish I could have had the opportunity to walk down that street. I would have stopped in front of the Transcript and watched the papers run off the presses. Across the way, I might have popped into Pat’s Lunch (later Tony’s) for a donut and coffee, and then I could have headed over to State Street through one of those forbidding alleys. Only in my dreams, I guess.
In another month, the landscapers will be sprucing up the median strip on Main Street. I try to think of those little things when I’m faced with another day of urban renewal files. Each document and photo remind me again of what is gone, and that I never got a chance to see it. With my eyes, my ears, my pen, and my camera, I will continue to enjoy and record the blessings and beauty of this place. Someday, today’s memories may be stashed away in a row of file cabinets in City Hall.