“Success can be a dangerous thing. Fortunately, I haven’t had to deal with it.” -Kaare Bolgen
In the past year, North Adams and the entire North County area have experienced a sudden growth in jobs and tourism mostly as a result of Mass MoCA, the explosion of Internet companies, and the overall national economy. Since the decline of Sprague Electric beginning in the 1970s, the area has faced one challenge after another. Suddenly it is faced with perhaps its greatest challenge: success.
A recent news item on CNN Headline News stated that Connecticut, which borders Massachusetts to the south, has the highest per capita income among the 50 states, but ranks 30th in charitable contributions. This is not as surprising as it seems. In fact, concern for our neighbors is highest during poor economic times and lowest during times of prosperity.
For every step forward North Adams and vicinity takes, there will be some people who take another step backward. In our hurry to hop the gravy train, we must not forget to look over our shoulder to see if our neighbors are keeping up with us.
About 25 miles east of North Adams, there are two bridges over the Deerfield River that connect the beautiful villages of Shelburne Falls and Buckland. They are the Iron Bridge and the Bridge of Flowers. Both villages boast a variety of quaint shops, restaurants, and art galleries. Most of the day-to-day services such as banks, food markets and drug stores are on the Shelburne Falls side.
Last October my wife and I spent the better part of a Saturday walking around, shopping and hanging out. We wound up the day with a nice dinner at 10 Bridge Street, a restaurant popular with the locals.
We must have walked across the two bridges four or five times. After all, it’s only about four blocks from one end of the Shelburne Falls business district to the opposite end of the Buckland business district. Since we were just wandering around and following our impulses, the bridges always seemed to be between us and our next destination.
We were not the only ones walking across the bridges. There was an endless stream of bridge walkers all day. Many stopped and talked to those coming the other direction, or at least waved. Even though the river divides the two villages, it is not an obstacle; it is an opportunity. The bridges serve as unique public spaces that keep people connected, just like the general store, the diner, or the newsstand.
For more than a century in North Adams, what connected our many generations of residents were a common economic struggle, ethnic and religious ties, and tight neighborhoods. In the last quarter-century, life in North Berkshire has seen wider differences in income and expectations, fading ethnic and religious traditions, and a greater demand for privacy.
In North Adams, there is an imaginary line that keeps us from connecting with our neighbors. It is like the river that divides Shelburne Falls and Buckland. Fortunately, we also have a bridge: the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition.
The following was written by Sister Natalie C. Cain SSJ, of the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition:
“Far too many of our families and children don’t have neighbors whom they can trust and turn to for advice or assistance. Many of us live such busy lives, that we don’t have time to notice those around us who are home during the day tending to a sick spouse, or caring for a newborn baby, or just being alone. The natural instinct to care for a neighbor is often overshadowed by fear of the stranger. And so the isolation, the loneliness, the depression, and the desperation of many neighbors in our midst go unnoticed.”
“I see both sides: the wonderful community-building efforts that are happening, and the continued isolation of so many. I still believe that in our community, there are no strangers, but only friends we have not met yet.”
“I’ve wondered about the fear of reaching out, and found a key in the writings of Martin Luther King Jr., who said: ‘People fail to get along because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other. They don’t know each other because they have not properly communicated with each other.’”
“I believe we are developing a new sense of community, but we have a way to go in making the stranger into a neighbor. It is my prayer that as a community, we will make an effort to contribute by making as many strangers into neighbors as we can.”
The following is from an interview with Coalition Director Al Bashevkin:
“Today, there is much more of a sense of hope economically, because there are good-paying jobs coming into the area. We’re looking at a very different economy. However, I think that there is a subculture of people that is always unfazed by whatever happens, because their lives are such that they are never able to enter the economy. There are a lot of people who have lived here for generations who still aren’t making it. We see a lot of those people in the neighborhoods. For them, today is not that much different than before. It’s just new players, different speech, same game. Their lives are going on day to day, and the issues they are facing are the same issues they faced 15 years ago.”
“We can identify those people better now, because we are in the neighborhoods. When we started, we were more of a professional organization. Today we are also a grassroots organization. It’s the grassroots part that can tell us who those families are that are struggling. There are some that are struggling so much, that we still have been unable to have any impact on them. Those people are more scared today. Before, there was an entitlement system that gave them welfare. There wasn’t a fear that they were going to lose it. Today, welfare is short term and time limited. That’s a real challenge for us to see that they can get by.”
“The biggest thing we’ve been able to do is to engage the Northern Berkshire communities in a dialogue on how this can be a better community, and how the disenfranchised can have a voice in that. We’ve done that through the neighborhood groups and the things that the city has done at the request of the neighborhood leaders. I think that people in this area recognize that we are the single point of entry that connects them to community services.”
“Because of us, the agencies that are here are much better organized. They know each other; they meet and talk and plan. That makes our services much more accessible and efficient. Maybe I’m being naïve, but nothing ever seems insurmountable to me. I look at the problem and suggest solutions. I feel like I have some answers, if people are willing to listen.”
The following is from an interview with Kathy Keeser, Program Director, Northern Berkshire Neighbors (Northern Berkshire Community Coalition):
“Here in North Adams, it’s so much more like where I grew up in St. Charles, Missouri. New England attitudes are a lot like St. Charles attitudes. It’s like that Missouri attitude of ‘Show me.’ And there’s a lot of pride here, like, ‘I don’t want anything given to me. No handouts.’ There are a lot of people who will never move away and whose families have lived here for a long time. North Adams is a city, but it’s like a small town. People know each other here, just like St. Charles.”
“But there are also people who haven’t been here that long and don’t have any grounding in their life. Those people never feel connected, and they don’t stay. There’s a Puerto Rican lady here who came from Boston, where she had been living in shelters. She needed to get connected in some way when she came here. We were able to find a Latino lady with a similar situation, so that she had a friend right away. Now she wants to stay.”
“The problem is that there aren’t many of the old institutions here anymore, except for the churches, that people can get connected to. In the old days, with the local store and the local school, you would run into the same faces every day, and that helped a lot. At the Mohawk Forest and Greylock housing communities, the people live close together, so they can get to know each other sooner. But other areas of the city are relatively isolated. People who move in from the big cities are not eager to get to know their neighbors. They are much more suspicious.”
“I’ve learned a lot here. I’ve learned about local politics and how to handle things diplomatically. I’ve learned how to deal with landlord situations, which I never had to do much of before. I’ve gotten to know the business community. I’ve learned a lot just by watching Al handle big issues at Coalition meetings. I had never done any of that either.”
“Al compliments you on the things you do right, and we have a real supportive board of directors. You learn a lot more, because you have the support to do a lot more. I’ve never had this much support in anything I’ve done over the years. If you trip, you have someone who will gently help you up and say, ‘Maybe you should think that through next time.’ It’s great to work with many agencies at one time in order to solve a problem. That collaboration is so much better than anywhere I’ve experienced.”
“The Coalition has accomplished a lot over the past few years, but it’s hard to reach everyone. A lot of people here are still down and isolated, especially young mothers. Some of us were talking about that the other day. Sometimes we forget that we need to build something around their needs, not what we think they need.”
In June, I attended the Coalition’s Spring Community Recognition Awards event at the Mary Spitzer Center. Nearly 100 people were recommended by their friends and neighbors for their voluntary contributions to the community. There was a standing-room-only crowd that applauded generously as each award winner was introduced one by one, until all 100 people had taken their turn. Mayor Barrett was on hand to give out each award, which he did with an admiring smile and handshake.
The crowd was diverse in every respect. Norm the Barber was there to cheer on a relative. Teacher Janet Tremblay received an award, much to the delight of her daughter Emily. Young Kelly Miller shared the spotlight with MCLA professor Steve Green.
Someone remarked, “Some of these awards are for just little things.” Therein lies a lesson. The “little things” are the ones that count the most. The Community Recognition Awards are an acknowledgment that everyone is part of the team, and each one deserves to get his or her name in the box score. Like little flowers on a hillside, these caring volunteers color the landscape and lift our spirits.