Several weeks ago, a most welcome announcement was made. That row of beautiful but deteriorating houses on River Street, across from Mass MoCA, will be saved and turned into an inn. The renovations will preserve the historic architecture. Mass MoCA Director Joe Thompson explained that the idea for the project began in the summer of 1999, when he and Jack Wadsworth, a Williams College trustee and contributor to Mass MoCA, were looking at the houses from the windows of Building 5.
Jack said, “It’s too bad those porches are falling off. Can’t MoCA do something about it?” Joe answered, “Why don’t you do something about it?”
It so happens that Jack did. He bought them. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do with them, but he wanted to save them from being torn down. At the same time, the famous Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, was looking to take on a new project, possibly in the North Adams area. Owner Nancy Fitzpatrick is on the Mass MoCA Board of Directors. She saw the houses and fell in love with them. So Joe hooked her up with Wadsworth this January, and an agreement was made for the Red Lion Inn to lease the houses for a bed & breakfast inn.
Joe commented to me the other day: “The houses are going to look great when they’re done. I’m looking forward to staying in one of those rooms myself. It’ll be fun.”
Plans are to open in the summer of 2001 in four of the five houses, with 37 units being available by that time. The fifth house, with an additional dozen units, will be ready the following summer. Like Mass MoCA, this promising project is the opposite of urban renewal 30 years ago. Instead of tearing down buildings, they are restoring them and reusing them. Thanks to Joe and some creative and thoughtful entrepreneurs, River Street may be saved after all.
The announcement has given rise to more rumors and some valid concerns among the homeowners and other residents of River Street who will have to be relocated to make way for this and other projects in the vicinity, which are sure to come.
A short distance away on Holden Street, the elegant Blackinton Block is about to undergo renovations. The owner plans to convert the long-vacant space into 17 two-bedroom apartments. He wants to provide desirable downtown housing for new workers and their families who are coming to the city in large numbers, due to the recent arrival of Internet-based companies that are locating at Mass MoCA and other sites in the area.
The Blackinton Block project is likely to encourage similar developments, such as the conversion of apartments at the Dowlin Block at 103 Main Street into middle-class housing, and the upgrading of retail space at the New Kimbell Building at 85 Main.
This is still another way that the museum is changing the economic and social dynamics in the city faster than anyone anticipated. Since urban renewal and the demise of Sprague Electric, North Adams has faced one challenge after another. Suddenly it is faced with perhaps its greatest challenge: success.
For every step forward North Adams takes, there will be some people who will take another step backward. In our hurry to hop the gravy train, we must not forget to look over our shoulders to see if our neighbors are keeping up with us. Al Bashevkin, Executive Director of the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, is optimistic:
“Anytime a city realizes such quick economic success, there’s a danger that some people will be left out of the solutions and eventually be pushed out of the area. However, I think the city leaders care about the people who have lived here for generations. My hope is that they are going to be included in some of the solutions. The money coming into the area is not necessarily local money. Some of it comes from agencies that don’t know about those people. But the mayor and other elected officials here do know those people.”
“I hope that our role here at the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition is to continue to help people to have a voice. Our role is not to get involved with development or even to block it; but if the neighbors have concerns, we have to help them get those concerns out there, so that they can advocate for themselves and continue to be part of this community. We have a responsibility to raise the issues. I hope we can help the decision makers to look at all sides of an issue and be sensitive to all the people who live here.”
“With success around the corner, everybody wants to paint the beautiful picture, and it’s hard to look at the other side. We know, because we hear the stories about the people living in the area where Mass MoCA is. People who have lived there a long time worry about what it’s going to do to their property taxes. If it becomes unaffordable for them to get housing here, I hope that we can continue to offer assistance, so they can stay.”
“Part of what’s great about this place is that it’s a diverse community. There are a lot of different cultures and subcultures, and a lot of unique individuals and street people that enrich the city. They are all part of the family.”
“The essence of this community is that we take care of our own. I hope we can maintain that ethic. As new people move here and the neighborhoods change, I hope we won’t lose the diversity that makes North Adams what it is. That’s a challenge that all communities face. We have to develop relationships with the new people and help them learn what this city is about, so they can become part of the culture here. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out.”