In western Massachusetts, three hours inland from Boston and New York, lies Berkshire County, the most beloved intersection of idyllic countryside and high culture in the US. The Berkshires – plural in reference to the region’s famously good-looking hills – have never been a secret to upper-crust urbanites. Edith Wharton welcomed guests including Henry James to The Mount, the Lenox estate that she designed. In nearby Stockbridge stands Naumkeag, the mansion of reform-minded lawyer Joseph Choate, America’s fin-de-siècle ambassador to the Court of St James’s. Andrew Carnegie, the leading industrialist of the 19th century, was born in Fife but died at Shadowbrook, his Berkshire pile that was briefly America’s largest home.
Gilded Age glitterati were drawn by the scenery and its elevation – literal and otherwise – above the crowds and steamy summers of the coastal metropolises. Today, the Berkshires are known for world-class cultural institutions such as Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the Clark Art Institute.
In a region of farms and villages forming the exception to an almost unbroken carpet of forested hills, there is one small town: Pittsfield (population 45,000). Though geographically at the heart of the Berkshires, it has long been mostly exempt from the area’s upscale tourism and ownership of second homes. Indeed, for much of the past two centuries the town had little need for either: its fortunes flowed from a prosperous main-street economy and a strong industrial base. This was once the heart of America’s wool industry and the transformer would be developed here by a forerunner of General Electric.
Pittsfield’s literary credentials rest on the shoulders of Herman Melville, who wrote Moby Dick while living at Arrowhead, his home and now a museum. Yet in a region long associated with fine arts, the town is perhaps most distinguished by its ties to popular culture. With the nation’s first written reference to baseball (1791), it has as good a claim as any to be the birthplace of the US’s national sport.
North Street, its downtown thoroughfare, came to symbolise American main streets in a less fortunate sense. By the 1970s, Pittsfield’s industry and town centre, like those of so many small US and British towns, had fallen into decline. Its townscape, emblematic of loss and of the post-industrial US, would catch the lens of renowned photographers such as Gregory Crewdson. But visitors (not to mention many residents) could be forgiven for looking away.
Now, though, Pittsfield is getting plenty of second glances. City planners, abandoning decades of efforts to lure a new generation of industrial jobs, have focused on an arts-driven renaissance. Cultural institutions, new and refurbished, are being joined downtown by new, locally owned restaurants and merchants – and by that endangered species, the American pedestrian.
Jim Ciullo, a writer who returned to Pittsfield after living in Spain and Venezuela, has been amazed by the change. “After many years of malaise the city’s leadership has gotten serious about the downtown, where arts and entertainment are beginning to flourish and a sense of community has been reintroduced,” he says.
A highlight is the Colonial Theatre, one of the last surviving works of JB McElfatrick, architect of hundreds of US theatres. In its 1920s heyday the Colonial featured performances by Rachmaninov and the Ziegfeld Follies before closing during the Depression. It reopened in 2006 after Hillary Clinton came to Pittsfield to personally champion its renovation.
The clearest votes of confidence have come from institutions choosing to move in from ritzier areas of the county. Barrington Stage, a Tony Award-winning theatre company, arrived in 2006. The following year Ferrin Gallery, one of New England’s leading spaces for contemporary ceramics and paintings, left upscale Lenox for North Street. This summer the Berkshire International Film Festival expanded to downtown Pittsfield, where the Beacon – a new, independent cinema – has been wrought from the historic remains of a “five-and-dime” store, vintage tin ceilings and all.
It is no small irony that the vitality brought by these artists, working in the wreckage of economic collapse, has become the main inducement for many new businesses to settle downtown. George Whaling, one of the town’s leading developers, sounds as surprised as anyone that his vision of Pittsfield’s potential is coming to pass: “It’s now a hip city-village with all the amenities – a neighbourhood market, a yoga studio, live theatre, bustling cafés.”
Longtime resident David Burbank says that for the first time since the 1980s, “Pittsfield has become our favourite venue for dining and entertainment. Last Saturday we spent hours simply walking up and down North Street, stopping in at new stores, chatting with people we hadn’t bumped into in ages.”
Ingrid MacGillis, a translator who moved from Germany 36 years ago, has similarly witnessed the full arc of Pittsfield’s recent fortunes. “It was the perfect place to raise a family but after GE pulled out it was the saddest thing to witness the steep decline.” For MacGillis, the truest measure of Pittsfield’s revival was the discovery of a beloved Silvaner from her German hometown at Brix, a popular downtown bistro.
Happily, the town carries on a long tradition of warmly welcoming expatriates. The latest influx of executives is from Saudi Arabia, reflecting the new ownership of the former GE Plastics.
While suburban neighbourhoods remained well-kept during the decline, downtown became a no-go area. Now, though, developers are restoring the elegance of the town’s former prosperity. At 440 North Street rental apartments with prewar fireplaces and high ceilings in a refurbished 1901 building are catching the eye of young professionals. In the past two years, there has been 98 per cent occupancy.
By the standards set during its long decline, occupancies and prices in Pittsfield are healthy – but bargains are still to be had. At the other end of downtown stands the red-brick Clock Tower, an abandoned 19th-century mill converted into upmarket, environmentally friendly condominiums. Their views of green hills are definitively Berkshires, while the town-centre location and prices – one-bedroom apartments from $151,404 – could only be Pittsfield.
Local councillor Mike Ward credits Pittsfield’s great outdoors with bringing him back after college. Inside its city limits are lakes, and a state forest notable for its hiking trails, fields of blueberries and the Berry Pond, Massachusetts’ highest body of water. Pittsfield even has its own ski resort, Bousquet.
Perhaps the most amusing mark of Pittsfield’s resurgence is references to it as the “Brooklyn of the Berkshires”. The idea is that its up-and-coming neighbourhoods and innovative arts programmes are to the Berkshires’ more upmarket towns as a certain outer borough is to Manhattan.
Tucker Associates, relocation and estate agents, tel: +1 413 499 4760, www.tuckerassoc.com
Pricoa, relocation agents, tel: +44 (0)20 8996 1271 or +1 480 778 7830, www.pricoarelocation.com