Crowds stroll up and down North Street during the Third Thursday celebration in downtown Pittsfield in June 2012.
Crowds stroll up and down North Street during the Third Thursday celebration in downtown Pittsfield in June 2012. (Eagle file)

Two cities linked by their industrial pasts and economic downturns have shared a relatively recent phenomenon -- the emergence of a cultural economy fueled by the arts.

For the entrepreneurs, artists, locals and visitors involved, the transformation of communities reeling from economic fatigue to places with re-energized downtowns has been both frustrating and exciting.

Pittsfield, following General Electric's withdrawal, has struggled to find a new role as the county's economic anchor. In North Adams, the loss of the Sprague Electric Co. left a giant hole in the city's economic infrastructure.

"The city is still struggling, but I feel that all of the members of the arts community feel like we are building another segment of the town," said Martha Flood, owner of Martha Flood Design in North Adams.

Flood, who offers custom fabric pattern designs, has had her own shop on Eagle Street since 2010.

"You know what? It's funny, I don't remember what the downtown was like before all of this," she said.

It's a feeling that some of her Pittsfield counterparts share.

"Pittsfield has totally changed," said Nicki Wilson, the artistic director of New Stage Performing Arts, a small nonprofit theater company formerly based in a space above the Beacon Cinema on North Street.

Wilson's theater opened in 2010, and for three years she observed Pittsfield's downtown renaissance firsthand.

"I remember years ago noticing people's hunger for theater in downtown Pittsfield and thinking, ‘something is happening here,' " Wilson said.

Both women are independent artists running small businesses in cities that a decade ago they would never have seen as hubs for creativity.

Welcome to the changing faces of North Adams and Pittsfield.

'A sense of community'

"The past five to 10 years have been a very exciting period of time for Pittsfield," said Megan Whilden, the director of cultural development for the city.

She shared a study by Americans for the Arts, a national organization, on the economic impact that nonprofit arts programs had on Pittsfield between 2005 and 2010. The study found that attendance at city arts events increased by 169 percent.

That this increase occurred around the inception of Whilden's office at City Hall is no coincidence. Former Mayor James Ruberto created Whilden's position as a community organizer for the arts in 2004.

"When GE left Pittsfield, they left the city with a $10 million economic development fund, and Mayor Ruberto decided to invest a third of that into the arts and culture in the city," Whilden said.

Some of that money was invested in the $20 million renovation of the Colonial Theatre, a Gilded Age theater that had suffered from years of neglect. Whilden said that Ruberto also invested in Barrington Stage Company and the renovation of the Berkshire Museum, as well as in Hancock Shaker Village.

"All of this was controversial, and it created a lot of conversation and debate. When something is new and untried there is definitely hesitancy, with the point of view that maybe it isn't worth it," Whilden said.

Downtown theaters brought a revival of large-scale events like the Third Thursday festival and the Pittsfield Ethnic Fair, the opening of Beacon Cinema and the institution of the WordXWord and the Pittsfield City Jazz festivals.

All of this led a swath of Pittsfield's downtown to be re-christened the "Upstreet Cultural District" -- one of the first four cultural districts designated by the Massachusetts Cultural Council in 2011.

"There is a real sense of pride in the city of Pittsfield," said Jim Benson, a local restaurateur who founded the annual WordXWord Festival, a weeklong event in August celebrating spoken word performance.

"The cool thing about this from a business standpoint is that spoken word really has a draw in downtown Pittsfield," Benson said. "Bring one of these poets to a Tuesday night in March at Ybar and you have a full house for poetry."

A city on the way back up

North Adams' downtown area has experienced its own renaissance over the past decade.

When Mass MoCA opened in 1999, filling the massive factory spaces left over by Sprague Electric to become one of the largest contemporary art museum in North America, it brought something completely new to the small city -- a world-class modern art center.

Watching the museum gradually alter the face of the former mill community has been exciting, said Jonathan Secor, director for special programs at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

Secor came out to the city in the late 1990s to serve as a consultant for Mass MoCa and help the museum institute its performing arts programs.

"I witnessed the city go down when Sprague left and then have been watching the city make its way back up," he said.

Though North Adams has done a lot to spur economic growth and open up pathways for artists to make a living in the city, there is still a lot of work to do, Secor said.

"As with Pittsfield, we both can't say ‘we made it' yet without lying," Secor said. "North Adams has a lot of issues that all real cities have. I've really come to believe that our new slogan should be ‘slow and steady wins the race,' and we are sticking to it."

Secor said it is remarkable to imagine just how rapidly the city's Main Street has changed. From completely empty storefronts to restaurants, small shops and gallery spaces, the downtown is more lively than it has been in decades.

One of the city's highest profile events is Solid Sound, the band Wilco's music and arts festival, which has drawn huge crowds to downtown North Adams. This year the festival will run from June 21 to 23.

Some challenges come with hosting a music festival in the Berkshires, said Wilco's manager, Tony Margherita, who organizes Solid Sound. But hosting the event in North Adams makes it distinct from any other festival, he said.

"There's a lot to be said for urban settings," he said. "But there is a particular feeling about performing at Mass MoCA that is a huge part of what makes this different from any other festival we have been at in other parts of the world."

While Pittsfield has seen many organizations come together, North Adams' metamorphosis over the past 10 years has almost solely come from Mass MoCA.

The museum attracts more than 100,000 visitors annually, and Secor said North Adams' main challenge now is to try to ensure that those people who come just for the art stick around and enjoy the city.

"Mass MoCA could be like Disneyland, in that you enter the gates, say hi to Mickey, and then leave. We have to find a way to avoid that," Secor said.

Artists have expanded away from the museum and scattered around the city. The Eclipse Mill houses a series of artist lofts in a former textile mill. Murals in the downtown, gallery spaces and public art events like the monthly Downstreet arts festival have helped restaurants and small businesses on Main Street.

Looking forward

Not all news is good news. According to figures released by the state's Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, the unadjusted jobless rates for Pittsfield and North Adams in March 2013 were 7.8 and 9.1 percent, respectively -- higher than the state's 6.8 unemployment rate.

Whilden and Secor agree that there is more work to do.

"The arts are catalysts and are not the end point," Secor said. "Naysayers say, ‘we'd rather have a factory,' and while I don't disagree, I don't see that happening. Not in North Adams, and especially not in North America."

For Whilden, the growth of the arts in the cities makes the Berkshires more attractive to businesses. Two major hotel chains, Marriott and Hilton, have plans to build new branches in Pittsfield, and she said rumblings about a train service between Pittsfield and New York City would be a great boon to the county's economy.

She has more good news for the immediate future -- her office has just won a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to support "Art + Industry," a new initiative to explore the city's industrial past through artwork.

"The city is still a work in progress," she said, "and I can't wait to look back and say ‘look at how far we've come from 10 years ago.' "

"It's just a very dynamic time to be in the Berkshires," Secor said. "Change is evident."