NORTH ADAMS — Joe Manning, who observed, wrote about and cherished the city of North Adams for more than two decades, has died.
Manning chronicled the people and places of North Adams with a fascination for the city’s history and an eagle-eyed view of its future. He called North Adams “his spiritual home” and involved himself deeply with the community, with endless curiosity for a place he loved but never lived in.
Drawing on hours of interviews, he wrote about the city’s transformation in two books, “Steeples: Sketches of North Adams” and “Disappearing Into North Adams,” and excerpts of his writings and oral histories he collected from residents are on display at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.
Manning died peacefully Tuesday, according to Mark Rondeau, an editor at the Bennington (Vt.) Banner and a longtime friend.
“He was a special man, a dear friend to many of us,” Rondeau wrote on Facebook. “A social worker turned author. A man who visited and fell in love with and wrote about and boosted North Adams at a time when it was still fashionable to bash it. A brilliant, kind and gentle man.”
Manning, an author, historian, genealogist, freelance journalist, poet, photographer and songwriter, grew up in Maryland, served in the U.S. Air Force as a medical corpsman and worked as a caseworker for the Connecticut Department of Social Services from 1970 until his retirement in 1999.
Manning and his wife first visited North Adams in July 1996, after he heard about plans to build a contemporary art museum in the complex of the former Sprague Electric Co. He immediately was taken by the former mill town and its “uncertain future,” as he wrote on his website.
“Haunted by the strange beauty of this city tucked in the soft mountains near the southern Vermont border, Manning decided to return alone to gather information for poems he wanted to write,” his bio reads. “The brick factories, the Romanesque facades on Main Street, and the Victorian houses in the hills circling the city reminded him of the paintings of Edward Hopper.”
State Rep. John Barrett III, then the city’s mayor, was one of the first people Manning met in North Adams.
“He was a gentle, kind man who fell in love with this city,” Barrett said. “He was seeing a North Adams that was being reborn, and he learned about the city that had fallen into a deep despair when all the manufacturing businesses left. He wrote about that, and he wrote about how the city regained its pride.”
Manning would roam North Adams on foot, soon a familiar face downtown, racking up thousands of miles walking the city’s hills, Barrett said. At the time of his first visit, Manning lived in Connecticut, but after he retired and moved to Florence, Mass., the frequency of his trips increased, and he would make the winding drive up to the city two or three times a week.
Barrett’s staff turned over city records, as Manning sought to retrieve and tell the stories of 20th-century North Adams. In Barrett’s view, Manning could see what the city had been, and what it would become.
“He discovered, in the people who lived here, a resiliency,” Barrett said. “He wrote about it, he captured it, in a way very few have.”
From 1998 to 2007, Manning created oral history programs for North Adams Public Schools students, and he gave dozens of walking tours of the city to schoolchildren. He also helped plan and run Neighborhood EXPO, a celebration of North Adams history sponsored by the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition.
Barrett awarded Manning a key to the city in 2001, and the next year the NBCC named him a Northern Berkshire Hero. His work was featured in newspapers, magazines and TV broadcasts.
Early on, Manning fell in love with the Appalachian Bean Cafe, where he would stop for coffee and stories after his pre-dawn drive up to the city, until it closed in 2004. At The Bean, he often would order plain pancakes, said Kate Merrigan, who worked there at the time and later collaborated with Manning at the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition.
“No syrup,” she said. “I never understood it. He had his routines, and that was one of them.”
Deeply curious about other people’s lives, Manning would ask Merrigan and everyone at the cafe questions about their families, and his background as a social worker shone through in his conversations.
“He was one of those people who had a real strength in focusing his attention on the people around him,” Merrigan said. “That was a gift.”
His care and concern for the people of the city lasted until the very end of his life. When Merrigan’s father died in November, Manning sent a letter, even though they largely had fallen out of touch.
“It’s touching me in a tender spot,” she said. “He reached out to me in a moment when that connection meant a lot.”
Al Bashevkin, the former longtime head of the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, called Manning a “coach,” who always would encourage the coalition’s projects and give his feedback.
“He’d come to our monthly forums; he’d encourage us about building community,” Bashevkin said. “He loved the organization, and he was the kind of guy you really want around.”
Manning, the kind of guy who would show up to a fancy fundraiser in jeans, felt comfortable around the city’s blue collar families, whose lives he tracked and recorded.
“He dressed like the people,” Bashevkin said. “We’d have our annual meetings, I’d be in a tie and a jacket, and Joe would come in a flannel shirt and bluejeans. But, he fit right in. It didn’t matter. It was Joe.”
Rondeau, the Banner editor, first met Manning in 1996. Manning came to interview him about growing up in the city, and the two hit it off immediately.
“He was a true gentleman,” Rondeau said. “Very well-educated and thoughtful. Loved music, loved baseball ... a very astute observer of politics.”
Despite his decades-long love affair with North Adams, Manning never moved to the city. People who knew him said they believed he wanted to remain an outsider in some ways, that he cherished the drive and the space with which he could view the city’s transformation.
“I think he liked to retain a certain artistic distance,” Rondeau said.
In his retirement, Manning also created the Lewis Hine Project to search for descendants of the child laborers captured in Hine’s photographs from the early 20th century. The project began when author Elizabeth Winthrop asked Manning to track down descendants of Addie Card, a 12-year-old girl photographed in a Vermont cotton mill in 1910.
His goal was to unspool the history of ordinary people, a lifelong fascination, and he succeeded, uncovering the lives of more than 350 children.
“The children and families depicted in the child labor photographs of Lewis Hine were unwittingly caught in the act of making history, but we know almost nothing about them,” he wrote on his website. “By finding out what happened to some of them … we are dignifying their lives, and the lives of everyone that history has forgotten.”
His chronicles about North Adams seemed to come out of a similar place of love and preservation, a desire to reveal and record the past amid the shifting ground of the present.
His writings make it clear that he saw not only the promise of Mass MoCA, but the consequences of overhauling a city, the inevitable change and loss that would come as the Steeple City pushed into the 21st century.
“Mass MoCA is giving North Adams something it hasn’t had for a long time — an identity,” he wrote in 1999. “But like the people and buildings that were swept away by the force of urban renewal almost two generations ago, what will happen to the familiar and the mundane that we will cherish only after they are gone? What will the force of Mass MoCA sweep away?”