Our Opinion: Pittsfield's divisions are cultural and tangible
Pittsfield's urban renewal efforts of half a century ago did damage beyond the destruction of defining buildings like the train station. As Dennis Powell, the head of the Berkshire president of the NAACP, observed Sunday at a forum on the city's divisions, urban renewal was an "incubator for institutional racism." Unattractive and isolating public housing projects were built in the poorest neighborhoods and the young people growing up there went to the three city elementary schools in those neighborhoods. As a result, as Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant, executive director of Multicultural BRIDGE, said at the forum, schools have been "resegregated," a discouraging outcome decades after the civil rights movement sought to assure the integration of schools.
All this makes it easy to scapegoat the WestSide for Pittsfield's problems of crime and drugs, problems that exist in many sections of the city. The distinct challenges facing the WestSide, however, are products of failed urban strategies and economic realities, and that section of Pittsfield is afflicted by them, not the cause of them.
If there was a simple solution it would have been found by now — in Pittsfield and in any number of American communities facing the same dilemma. The basis for whatever progress will be made begins with communication, and Sunday's forum, "Healing Pittsfield: A Conversation About What Divides Us," sponsored by the Pittsfield Area Council of Congregations and held at the First Baptist Church, is part of that process. As Mr. Powell pointed out it is a conversation that must include many from across the city, including city councilors, business owners, the police department and professionals.
Hope going forward comes largely from the city's young people, who aren't as likely to be burdened by deep-rooted and paralyzing attitudes and beliefs as are their elders. The key is getting them involved and keeping them here in the city. Panelist John Bissell, the president and CEO of Greylock Federal Credit Union, has a high school-age son and said Sunday that the conversation about racial issues among young people makes him optimistic. The fourth panelist, Rabbi Josh Breindel from Tample Anshe Amunim, added that young people must be given the opportunity to be heard and then taken seriously or they will conclude that their efforts to affect change are fruitless.
If they give up and move to greener pastures never to return, the city loses the agents of change it needs to close those persistent divides and move forward. Some of those divides are as rooted in the earth as a school building or housing projects, but some are products of attitudes, perspectives and prejudices. And those can be changed. That begins with dialogue, all across the city.
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