PITTSFIELD — On the map, this bit of Pittsfield high ground, home to the Powell and Hamilton families, is inked in red.
“Hazardous,” a label says.
The hazard isn’t crime, including the arson that destroyed the house at Robbins Avenue and Division Street, next to where Courtney R. Hamilton is raising four kids.
The hazard isn’t all of the people going in and out of drug houses, some of whom drive recklessly through this neighborhood and have struck children, spurring parents to holler “Car!” to children playing outside.
The old map, prepared by a federal government agency in 1936, protected people who didn’t live here. It fashioned these once refined Circular Avenue blocks into a kind of bull’s eye, advising bankers where not to invest. It marked three red zones in Pittsfield, along with sprawling areas in yellow designated as “Definitely Declining.”
Nearly a century later, it’s plain that decades of intentional disinvestment rubbed this place raw.
A new report, “Redlining in Pittsfield: A case study,” is about to lay bare the decades-long bad deal dealt to residents of the West Side, practices that stymied homeownership and deprived Black families of the ability to build wealth. Around its red zones, the 1936 Homeowners Loan Corp. map colored other Pittsfield streets green and blue, labeling them “Best” and “Still Desirable.”
Today, the West Side has some of the city’s lowest rates of homeownership — as well as lower life expectancy and income.
Roderick Powell, 44, answered a knock on his door at 22-24 Robbins Ave. this week and studied a copy of the 1936 map. His family’s house sits near the center of the red zone. Powell, who works in construction, was asked: “If we say ‘hard time getting a loan,’ does that resonate with you?”
“My father was on a police officer’s salary. And my mother worked for the city. And for the longest time, back in the ‘80s, they wasn’t able to get our house,” he said.
Those parents, Walter J. Powell and Sabrina Powell, eventually bought the house on Robbins Avenue. His dad, who now lives in North Carolina, had worked as a cop in both North Adams and Pittsfield. His son still wonders why it took his father so long to become a homeowner.
“When my younger sister went off to college, that’s when my father was able to buy his first house,” Powell said. Land records show his father taking out a mortgage in 2006, and then modifying the loan in 2008, when he owed $71,255.
Roderick Powell said he hasn’t attempted to buy a home, but was aware over the years that guys he worked with in the trades seemed able to secure mortgages.
“It’s crazy. When I was in the laborers union, I worked with white guys that were young and had houses, you know what I’m saying? Guys that worked at gas stations and was able to purchase houses.”
Today, Powell, who is raising two young sons, Chance and Bentlee, sees his future elsewhere. One brother may remain connected with the family property on Robbins Avenue, but he is considering a move, perhaps to North Carolina.
“I’m gonna get my family out of here. I think there’s a better chance of being able to do better in life if we get out of this area. Pittsfield is dying,” he said.
From Powell’s front porch, the view south is more open these days, after the fire took the house at 11 Robbins Ave., beside where Courtney Hamilton, 45, lives at 31 Division St. Across Robbins Avenue, a blighted home recently came down.
Hamilton bought the lot that held the burned building and has fenced it in to create a safer place for children to play.
The Hamilton family has a long history here. It includes owning homes — and losing them.
The house Courtney bought in 2007 from Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity had once belonged to her grandparents, Rodney and Shirley Hamilton. Courtney celebrated her first birthday here, 44 years ago.
Today, she is the Hamilton carrying on the tradition — and an exception, as a Black homeowner. She said her family had lost the house before she was able to buy it, for $60,000, according to property records, through Habitat.
“I’ve been here for 14 years, I own the house. I think I have six more years until it’s completely paid off,” she said.
“I would love to see more people owning, more African Americans, owning property, and given chances,” she said in a visit on her front steps, as she braided her hair.
Researchers associated with the local NAACP chapter have determined that Black residents of Pittsfield own homes at less than half the rate of the city as a whole. The disparity has grown in the last half century.
If home ownership could increase among West Side residents, Hamilton is asked, how would this neighborhood change?
“I think it would be amazing,” she said. But it feels a bit like a dream.
“It is what it is, you know,” Hamilton said.
A few blocks north, at 28-30 Daniels Ave., the group West Side Legends is rehabbing a home that will be sold to a local buyer. The project offers, one home at a time, a solution to a century of financial institution neglect.
On Thursday, Thomas Moody was inside the house, continuing work to strip it to its frame, ahead of a full reconstruction. He has done construction for years in the neighborhood — and seen barriers to improvement.
“Anything on the West Side you try to do, it gets blocked,” Moody said. “Most people rent on the West Side.”
What’s keeping the neighborhood down? he is asked.
“They need to let you build more. They just need to open it up. Maybe it’s just a lack of money in Pittsfield,” he said.
Moody sees the West Side Legends project as a way for families who haven’t owned homes to build equity. “They can get into these houses for decent money. And if they get tired of it, they can go out and [sell and] make $15,000 on their own house, and then go across the street, or wherever they want to go, and buy a bigger house.”
Separately a few programs have been showing love for the West Side. Mayor Linda Tyer’s administration has been knocking down blighted properties. The city also set up forgivable loans for home improvements.
‘Children at play’
When applying years ago to Habitat, Hamilton wrote a letter explaining how much it would mean to have the property back in her family — and to be able to raise her children here. When the property was renovated, she asked that its old floors be retained, because nicks and scratches are part of the Hamilton story.
“And now I have four kids here, and it’s home,” she said.
From her front stoop, Hamilton is a one-woman neighborhood watch.
Two nearby houses are destinations for drug activity, she says.
“I take pictures, and I write down license plates, and I send everything to the cops. And 14 years later, it’s still a crack house, you know, that’s been going on for 14 years,” Hamilton said. “Yesterday I found a needle. The neighborhood isn’t the greatest.”
Both of her grandmothers, Shirley Hamilton and Barbara Hanger, were known to speak up when things bothered them. That hasn’t changed in this family.
“I get fed up; I get mad,” Hamilton said, who works as a sexual and reproductive health counselor for Tapestry Health. “I’ve reached out to the City Council, you know, to my ward people, but nothing is done.”
“I put a ‘Children at Play’ sign out and somebody stole it. We’ve seen at least four kids get hit by cars up here. It doesn’t just take three neighbors to do improvements. We need a lot of people to do improvements,” she said.
Hamilton is determined to stay, but may want a different life for her children, who are 10, 12, 18 and 20. One daughter attends North Carolina A&T State University.
“I don’t want her to come back here. I don’t want to leave this house to her. How many shootings or how many killings has there been this year? And it’s not even summertime yet?”
She remembers another West Side. “When I grew up, you know, we could ride our bikes around the block. We played outside. We were just outside playing as kids. Had no worries in the world.”
“And now, I always tell my kids, ‘Be careful. Don’t horseplay. There could be needles here. No, you can’t go to the park because I’m not there to check the slides to see if there’s needles,’” she said.
“I think drugs have definitely taken over. And not that there wasn’t drugs back in the day, but it’s taken over and it’s getting so bad. Most people just want to get the hell out of here.”