A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail from Dave Hamer, a North Adams native who lives in New Hampshire. After graduating from Drury High School in 1958, he attended the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and then joined the United States Air Force in 1962. Though he gets back to his hometown only occasionally these days, Dave has never forgotten what life in the city was like when he was growing up. In his e-mail, he says:
“I recall one very common thread about life in North Adams. Virtually everyone in town was anchored by place, family and social links. When a name was mentioned in casual conversation, I recall someone (mother, father, aunt, uncle, neighbor, etc.) would first try to place that person, to establish him or her as a legitimate face in the town. It would go something like this:
‘Oh yeah, now I remember. Her mother was a Marino from down on Ashland Street.’
‘I worked with his brother at Sprague’s.’
‘We went to school together at Johnson.’
‘She married a Chesbro from Adams and they bought a house up on High Street.’
“This kind of thing went on all the time, and it probably still does with the lifelong residents. Maybe it was just a byproduct of life in an isolated mill town, but we knew each other well, and that sense of belonging has stayed with many of us all our lives.”
I have been working on a history project for the past month. My task is to photograph about 50 present-day scenes of North Adams from the same spots where a collection of old photos were taken in the period from 1890 to around 1970. It has been an interesting adventure, resulting in a number of extended walks around the city. With the leaves off the trees now, one can see all the houses that hide behind the foliage every summer.
Walking past those houses in the many tightly-packed neighborhoods illuminates once again for me that North Adams typifies an ideal New England village, a place where most of its residential areas form a circle around the downtown commercial district. Add to that the fact that the thousands who worked at Sprague Electric and Arnold Print Works represented more than half of the city’s adult population, and it is no wonder that residents shared that sense of belonging that Dave Hamer describes.
November’s annual Neighborhood EXPO at the Masonic Temple was a reminder that this sense of belonging is shared not only by the city’s lifelong residents, but is also a significant part of the daily lives of its newer residents and young people. In a session I facilitated called “Dreaming Along With the Bricks/Looking at the Community from Downside Up,” a panel of students from ages 11 to 19 talked about how they see their community in ways that might be different from their elders.
One sixth-grader commented that she loves living in North Adams, because she knows most of her neighbors and has many friends. For her, the community still provides the small-town comforts of familiarity. But a Drury High School freshman cautioned that the new culture and tourism economy could threaten those comforts. She wondered if new residents will change the community to suit their own needs, and that they will not respect the qualities that its older and longer residents value so highly.
However, the panelists for another session at the EXPO, “Eye on the Future/Our Newer Neighbors Look Ahead,” provided the hope that many of the people who have moved to North Adams recently also appreciate a sense of belonging and are active in trying to preserve that quality. In fact, many of those attending and participating in the EXPO were the new people, as well as some that have recently moved back to their hometown.
Still, one has to worry that the passing of the older generations and the influx of newcomers will somehow steer us away from the traditions that have made North Adams a special place in which to live. One of those traditions is volunteerism. The city is blessed with so many dedicated volunteers, but many of them are retirees, adults whose children have grown up, and under-employed people with time on their hands. Musician Eric Buddington, who moved to the city five years ago, talked about that in my interview with him for Disappearing Into North Adams back in 1998.
“The things we do in our spare time are probably going to make more of a difference in the long run than the things we do professionally. For that reason, I have mixed feelings about the possibility of a growing economy here. One of the side effects of people being relatively poor and not being in full-time jobs is that they have a lot of spare time.”
“A booming economy is not necessarily a bad thing. It depends on how much North Adams becomes a commodity; how much it becomes something to be marketed. If it doesn’t make us happy and make our lives better, I don’t think we want it. I don’t think that an improved economy is something you can just do to people. There’s so much talk about productivity; but there is so little talk about how well it’s distributed, which is more of the real issue as far as whether people are generally happy.”
“I see a successful town coming with people taking control. We don’t have a system that guarantees democracy. The system doesn’t force people to get involved, but they have the opportunity. It’s really there for the taking. If people get involved, there’s a lot they can do. There’s certainly a lot of room for new things here, but it has to be a group effort. It has to be everybody chipping in just a little bit.”
As North Adams moves forward, as it must, we need to sustain the spirit of volunteerism by encouraging the involvement of both our young people and our newer residents. And as we hurry into the future, we should stop once in a while and think about Dave Hamer’s thoughtful words: “We knew each other well, and that sense of belonging has stayed with many of us all our lives.” Let us hope that in the days ahead, no one who moves to our city will be a stranger for very long.