In my little town
I grew up believing
God keeps his eye on us all
And he used to lean upon me
As I pledged allegiance to the wall
Lord I recall my little town
Coming home after school
Riding my bike past the gates of the factories
My mom doing the laundry
Hanging out shirts in the dirty breeze
And after it rains there’s a rainbow
And all of the colors are black
It’s not that the colors aren’t there
It’s just imagination they lack
Everything’s the same back in my little town
Paul Simon “My Little Town”
My home town, North Adams, Massachusetts has experienced many highs and lows in its 270-year history. At various times, the city was a leader in the manufacture of fabrics, leather and electronic capacitors. Over time, the manufacturers left the skilled workforce behind, drawn by the lure of cheaper transportation and labor and the more temperate climate in the South. North Adams grew from a town with 1,100 inhabitants in 1830 to a population of 24,200 in 1900. Today, the population is approximately 15,000.
Out of necessity, North Adams has transformed itself from an industrial center to a provider of education and tourism. But the remembrances of the past – the buildings – remain behind. It is remarkable how much we rely on buildings for our identity and sense of history. In downtown North Adams, you see the old thriving town on the left side of Main Street through its professional and retail buildings and movie theater. On the right hand side of Main Street, you see a K-Mart and a bank. The Sprague Electric building has been transformed from an old dark electronics manufacturing center into one of the best modern art museums. The creators of MassMOCA saw that the large wide-open spaces where capacitors were slapped onto racks for burn-in could hold large scale multimedia and cast iron exhibits. There was no shortage of imagination involved in this transformation.
The opening of MassMOCA in 1999 revitalized the town. The influx of modern art aficionados showed that they appreciated the college environment of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and the availability of the recreational activities: skiing, golf and hiking. But the travel and tourism industry is highly dependent upon the economy.
The Great Recession has brought hard times to the city once again. Like so many mill towns in Massachusetts, the fate of its citizens are controlled by the forces of modernity beyond its control. Most recently, these forces has provided two body-blows to the remaining proud citizens.
As you drive into downtown North Adams from the Mohawk Trail on Route 2, the first thing you see are the steeples.
North Adams is known as “The Steeple City”. Joe Manning, author of “Steeples,” writes:
“In the past year, I have made the two-hour drive from Connecticut more than 60 times, and I have walked more than 300 miles on the streets of North Adams. What I have found are warm and trusting people full of hope and community spirit, who live in a place rich in history and tradition. I have experienced the excitement of watching a nearly forgotten factory town struggle toward rebirth, spurred on by the creative arts. Amid the faded brick mills that sit deep in the shadows of the mountains, the old houses that look down from the hills, and the magnificent church steeples that fill the skyline, I see a remarkable little city that is haunting and strangely beautiful.”
Now, even the beauty of North Adams’ skyline is threatened. Like many cities and towns throughout Massachusetts, churches are closed or being put up for sale. St Francis Church, the steeple on the far right of the book cover, has been closed for four years. The retail chain, Consumer Value Stores (CVS), has expressed interest in buying the land at the bottom of the Mohawk Trail’s entrance into downtown North Adams. Many, including friends and relatives of mine, have mounted a protest to the razing, even if the steeple is saved. CVS has subsequently renounced interest in acquiring the land, and St. Francis Church remains empty. All the memories of weddings, baptisms, confirmations and weekly sermons of years past remain inside.
Last week, the second and more painful body blow occurred. North Adams Regional Hospital, the area’s largest employer filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Unless a miraculous event occurs, finding a buyer or the Massachusetts government can come up with long-term financing, NARH will shut its doors for good.
Governmental leaders, as well as Berkshire Medical Center, must do all within their power to reopen North Adams Regional Hospital. It is not an exaggeration to state the obvious: Lives depend on it.
The small city of North Adams is geographically isolated, particularly in the winter.
Snowfall in Northern Berkshire County is much heavier than in other parts of Western Massachusetts making ground travel slow, dangerous and sometimes nearly impossible.
The closest hospital is in Pittsfield, 40 minutes away by ambulance when driving conditions are ideal.
The thriving city needed a hospital, and in 1885, the 12-bed North Adams Regional Hospital (NARM) was first opened. In its 129-year history, babies were born, illnesses were treated, life-threatening emergencies were handled, and critical care patients found respite. The changing demographics of the citizenry, more aged and lower income, combined with the reductions in Medicare and state health care financing, made the continued operation of the hospital no longer feasible. North Adams is not unique in having a hospital closed. But in combination with the proposed razing of St. Francis Church, the residents, many who are my friends and relatives, have become despondent. NARH has become one of the approximately 60 hospitals that have closed since 1980. Efforts to keep NARH open continue, but the outlook is bleak.
But North Adams is resilient. It always has been. As Robert Campanile’s excellent pictorial book, “North Adams – Images of America”, states:
“The history of North Adams is a portrait of survival and a celebration of diversity, which is not only expressed in its citizens and their ancestry but also in the many faces that the city and its environment have taken on through the years. From the isolated military outpost that fought a dramatic battle in the mid-1700s, through the roller-coaster ride of prosperity and economic depression endured by its citizens, North Adams exemplifies the strength that is a trademark of New England. North Adams contains an unusual collection of rare photographs that celebrate every aspect of the city. The book exemplifies how the population is a mosaic of cultures that sought a better life and wove an atmosphere of acceptance and sharing.”
Many things have changed in my little town. I refuse to believe that there’s nothing but the dead and dying there. The memories of what North Adams once was make me, and others, believe that it will survive and thrive again.