It was just a summer day trip to the Berkshires that Joe Manning and his wife were planning to take from their home in Torrington, Connecticut. A longtime caseworker, and an aspiring songwriter and poet, Joe had seen an article in his hometown newspaper about plans to install a contemporary art museum in a large complex of abandoned factory buildings in North Adams, Massachusetts, a city he had never visited. The developing project, called the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA), was holding a fundraising event highlighted by an exhibition of photographs by rock musician David Byrne, formerly of The Talking Heads.
That two-hour drive up rural Route 8 on July 21, 1996, led Manning to what he would later call, “my spiritual home,” a fading mill town with an uncertain future that ultimately inspired a new career for him as an author, freelance journalist, historian and genealogist, poet, photographer and community activist.
Haunted by the strange beauty of this city tucked in the soft mountains near the southern Vermont border, Manning decided to return alone to gather information for poems he wanted to write. The brick factories, the Romanesque facades on Main Street, and the Victorian houses in the hills circling the city reminded him of the paintings of Edward Hopper.
On August 14, he left for North Adams before dawn and arrived just in time to observe groups of old-timers chatting nostalgically about the good old days, as they sipped coffee at the Appalachian Bean Café. Called the “Bean” by the locals, the popular hangout had opened two months earlier in a space once occupied by one of the city’s most popular department stores.
With a camera and notepad in hand, Manning roamed the city all day on foot, and took home a few pages of musings and several rolls of film ready for processing. A couple of visits later, he met a 97-year-old woman at an elderly housing complex, and wound up interviewing her for two hours. Thrilled with the results, Manning impulsively walked into the local newspaper office and announced that he was going to write a book about the city and donate some of the proceeds to the public library. A year later at that same library, hundreds of people showed up to buy a signed copy of the self-published Steeples: Sketches of North Adams, a collection of oral histories, photographs, essays and poetry.
Shortly after, he was invited to be the keynote speaker at the North Adams Historical Society’s annual meeting. In his speech, Manning suggested that the public schools encourage students to conduct oral histories of their elderly relatives as a way of teaching local history, and improving verbal and social skills. When no one answered the call, Manning created a program and took it to Deborah Bullett, a seventh-grade social studies teacher, who agreed to implement it. Then he obtained a sizeable grant to fund it. Manning continued the program until 2008, when Ms. Bullett retired. In addition, he has given dozens of walking tours of North Adams for area schoolchildren.
By the spring of 1998, Manning was already working on a new and more ambitious book about the city, a book that would begin with a failed urban renewal program in 1960s and 1970s, and end with the opening of Mass MoCA in the spring of 1999. Meanwhile, he was making many friends and hanging out at least one morning a week with the old-timers at the Bean. His frequent visits were depleting his vacation time at work, and he was thinking about an early retirement.
Manning’s involvement in the community continued to grow. He volunteered for events sponsored by the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition. In November 1998, he helped plan and run their annual Neighborhood EXPO, an interactive celebration of community. He continued to do that every year until the EXPO was phased out in 2010. In January 1999, he was asked to write a monthly column about the city for a new community website. In September 2001, the column began appearing also in The Advocate Weekly, a local newspaper.
In April 1999, Manning and his wife sold their house and moved to the Florence section of Northampton, Massachusetts, where one of their daughters had attended Smith College. Several months later, Manning retired to devote all of his time to his writing career. Only an hour from North Adams, his visits increased to two or three times a week. In May 2001, he published Disappearing Into North Adams, a book that has received much acclaim.
Manning was the subject of a full-length article in the October 2001 issue of Yankee Magazine, and that led to several appearances on New England Cable News. In the summer of 2001, North Adams Mayor John Barrett III awarded him the key to the city. And in June 2002, the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition honored him as Northern Berkshire Hero.
In the fall of 2002, the North Adams Museum of History and Science hired Manning to take more than 50 photographs from the exact locations where a collection of historical photographs of North Adams were once taken, some as far back as 1890. The “Then and Now” exhibit opened in January 2003. Since his first visit in 1996, Manning has taken several thousand photographs of the city.
In December 2001, MASS MoCA invited Manning to moderate a discussion about the issues covered in Disappearing Into North Adams at the museum’s theater. The presentation played to a full house. In June of 2002, a multi-media show at the museum called The Dream Life of Bricks, produced by famed New York choreographer Martha Bowers, included a dramatization of an interview that appeared in Steeples.
In 2005, author Elizabeth Winthrop asked Manning to search for the descendants of Addie Card, a 12-year-old girl photographed in a Vermont cotton mill in 1910, by famous child labor investigator Lewis Hine. Winthrop had written a novel for children that was inspired by the photograph. He found Addie’s grandchildren and was able to write a long story about Addie’s life. A few months later, he created the Lewis Hine Project. As of 2015, he has tracked down the lives of more than 350 child laborers photographed by Hine.
Manning continues to visit in North Adams frequently, where he remains involved with the community.