The Golden Cross, poem by Joe Manning
Gramma used to tell me about the floods.
She said that when she saw the store
floatin’ down the river,
it was time to get out.
So she moved to Rand Street,
’cause it was way up on the hill.
My parents lived on Front Street
when I was born,
So I was walkin’ over to Gramma’s
by the time I was five.
When the war came,
Dad went away
and Mom got a job at Sprague’s.
So we moved to 231 River Street
where Gramma used to live,
and then she moved in with us.
When they put in the flood control, Gramma said,
“There’s not gonna be any excitement ’round here anymore,
but I guess that’s good.”
We used to sit on the porch,
and I was always lookin’ at that golden cross
on top of St. Francis
that peeked over Sprague’s.
I would stare at it
and count how many times the clock tower rang
and listen for the train.
My friend Bertie took me over last week
to the grand opening of the Porches Inn.
She said, “I walked by there on my way to work for thirty years,
so I just gotta see it.”
We sat on the porch,
and I stared at the golden cross, and Bertie said,
“No matter what they do,
River Street is still River Street.”
All I know is –
I can’t believe that someone is paying 300 bucks
to sleep in my bedroom.
SITTING ON THE PORCH (August 2001)
A few days after the grand opening of the Porches Inn on River Street, I walked over there and sat for an hour in a rocking chair on the porch. Two elderly ladies struggled up the steps and asked me if it was okay to go in and look around. I said, “I did, so I guess you can, too.” So they headed in and came out about 15 minutes later. One said, “We saw one of the rooms, and I wonder why anyone would pay all that money to look out their window at the car wash.”
I wonder about that, too. What will out-of-town guests think when they sit on that porch and look at North Adams? It will certainly be an experience far different from that of the many families who occupied those old houses in the 20th century. On a nice summer weekend, tourists will be able to pretend that they are factory workers sitting in the shadow of the mill, except of course for the DVD players and the heated pool. Will they appreciate the irony? Will they feel the history? Or will they just go to Mass MoCA and the Clark Institute and Tanglewood and return home with some pictures of the upside-down trees?
I watched the cars go by and thought about it. If I walk out on the porch after a good night’s sleep and a healthy breakfast, where might my curiosity take me?
A three-minute stroll west on River Street brings me to the Brown Street bridge. Looking back, I can see the arching gas pipe and the Hoosic River dividing into two branches on either side of the narrow end of the longest of the Sprague buildings. With the mountains rising up behind in the east, it is a haunting sight, evoking the essence of New England mill towns. For tourists, this scene will be either spectacular or just drab and old looking.
Will the tourists recognize that the concrete walls on either side of the river are flood control chutes? The first time I came to North Adams, I thought I was looking at a canal. Several annoyed residents set me straight on that quick. Residents of this area were ravaged by floods for several centuries, but these tourists will be inconvenienced only if they try to cross River Street during drive time.
Turning around, I see the Commonwealth Sprague brick mill and the strangely beautiful building in front of it. Most tourists will have no idea that this is where Sprague once made gas masks for the war, or that the mill is slated to be demolished in the next several years.
Stopping under the railroad bridge, I wonder if tourists will be lucky to encounter a freight train as they walk through. That’s happened to me several times, and I found it exciting. If the train comes, will they feel the same way? And will they be tempted to climb up to the top of Hill Side Cemetery when they look to their right? I have been up there many times.
Coming down West Main, I stop at the bridge and look back at the Haggerty Block, that reddish-brown flatiron-shaped tenement that overlooks the railroad track. I think it’s the most spectacular structure in North Adams. But tourists will probably be wondering how they are going to cross Route 2 without getting killed. They won’t know what I know; that there is a dirt path under Route 2 near K-M Toyota that gets me safely on the road downtown.
Once they get across, will they notice the footbridge over to Western Gateway Heritage Park? And will the great view of the steeples and the Mass MoCA banners lure them downtown, or will they turn left at the bottom of the hill and head back to the inn?
Back at Porches, I start going east and follow River Street all the way to the end and turn right toward the downtown block of Eagle Street. Most tourists will probably make a U-turn when they get to Sun Cleaners. The faded look of this area is not likely to attract even the most curious; but those who stick it out might be rewarded if they look up at Chase Hill or North Holden Street, or see the multi-colored Victorian house on Bracewell Avenue at the top of Freeman Avenue.
If not, their curiosity will have to guide them to Eagle Street by another route. That will be a shame. They will miss that amazing view of the Flatiron Block. It looks like a ship carrying church steeples.
Who is going to tell the tourists about these commonplace, but beautiful scenes that are in such abundance in North Adams? Last summer, I was hired by a tour bus company to take a group of Mass MoCA visitors on a walk downtown. I showed them as much of Main Street, Eagle Street, Church Street and Holden Street as I could cram into an hour and a half.
I talked about the history of the city and about the positive things that are happening here now. They were fascinated and asked countless questions. When they got their first glimpse of Eagle Street around the corner from the Mohawk Theater, several persons gasped. One said, “I haven’t seen a street that looks like this since I was in New Orleans.” It was clearly the highlight of the tour.
This summer I have been a presenter to Elderhostel groups who are visiting the area. These traveling seniors come from all over the country. After a short lecture, I open it up for questions. Their response reveals an intense interest in the city. It does not surprise me. After all, many of these visitors have seen Stockbridge and Lenox and Williamstown, and they are ready to see something different. Those three popular New England villages are certainly beautiful, but they look like they are expecting company. The furniture is dusted, the windows are washed, and the dirty dishes are stuck hastily in the dishwasher.
North Adams is a little gritty, but it has a lived-in look that endears me to it, and it will endear others as well. Let’s give them the opportunity. When they are sitting on that porch on River Street, instead of thinking about the Monet or Seiji Ozawa, they just might be wondering: “Who used to live in this house?” “Did they have floods?” Could they see that golden cross back then?”