NORTH ADAMS — Eagle Street is often dark and dormant after the sun goes down. But on a recent Friday evening, this historic part of the city was buzzing with activity.
A long table for a picnic sat in the middle of the street, which was closed to vehicle traffic. A DJ was playing music, and people of all ages were hanging out, chatting and playing lawn games like corn hole.
Several new businesses, like a tea shop and game store, had recently opened. I waved to a few people I knew while walking with a friend in the warm early September evening light.
It wasn't a typical evening downtown — it was First Friday, an event that encourages businesses to stay open late the first Friday of the month — but it still felt like there was a new energy here.
That led me to wonder: Is downtown making a comeback?
Late last fall, we took the pulse of the downtown economy and found a place that — as one business owner put it — was in the middle of an identity crisis. Though a few businesses have closed since then, like the Capitol Restaurant, overall there's been an increase in shops.
At least half a dozen businesses have opened or expanded on Main and Eagle Streets this year, and Holden Street storefronts have remained full. That's been encouraging for many in the business community. Still, downtown has a number of vacant storefronts, some blighted, and it continues to face challenges like a lack of foot traffic.
Earlier this month, I did a walking tour to retake the pulse of downtown. Here's what I found:
Last fall: At least seven storefronts remain vacant. The Tower and Porter Block, which occupies a massive presence on the street, has been empty for years.
Now: The street is filling in more, with a new tea shop, game store and a developer working to renovate the property on the corner of Eagle and Main.
Still, several storefronts have been vacant for years. One building an investor bought years ago and planned to fix up still sits empty with a for sale sign in the window.
The Tower and Porter building, 34-36 Eagle St., is planned to become apartments. The developer, Veselko Buntic, has started construction and was restoring brick parts of the building this summer.
One yellow storefront on the street has hours posted on the door but it's been empty the past year. Nearly a dozen chairs and stools sit in the window of 13 Eagle St., where Persnickety Toys operated until it closed in late 2019.
Christopher Schroeder has lived in other formerly industrial towns. “North Adams is doing pretty good. It’s not the best I’ve seen and it’s not the worst,” he said standing behind the register of his recently opened game shop, Berkshire Adventurers’ Guild. “If I thought it was really bad, I wouldn't have come.”
The space at 40 Eagle St. has changed hands a few times over the past year. After Birdsong Gallery closed, an arts and wellness shop, Solace, had a short stint there. Now, a glass case holds Magic: The Gathering cards and Dungeons & Dragons dice are displayed on the counter.
Schroeder found the city helpful when starting the business, noting that he has lived in places where the city is hostile or indifferent to business. “The city wants businesses in town,” he said.
Events like the Eagle Street Beach Party, First Fridays and the Downtown Celebration also help. “There’s a lot of blood sweat and tears going into making downtown a place to be,” he said.
Despite the hard work, downtown's future remains unclear, he said. “I think we will know more in a year."
Jack's Hot Dog Stand
It saddens Jeff Levanos to walk down Eagle Street and not cross paths with a single person. “The street seems empty to me,” he said, sitting on a barstool at Jack’s Hot Dog Stand on a recent morning with the grill sizzling and the radio playing in the background.
In its more than 100 years, the no-frills restaurant has weathered a lot of city history.
Growing up, downtown is where you went to shop. “Everything you needed was here,” Levanos said. “It’s hard to see the city this way.”
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, when there was “even a hint someone was going out of business,” he said, people would be eager to rent the storefront and it was often claimed before the shop closed.
That's not the case anymore.
“I’d love to see the town come back,” he said. “I know it’s never going to come back in full.”
While North Adams may never return to its glory days, the opening of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in 1999 has helped significantly, Levanos said. “I think MoCA is doing everything it can. You have to have something to draw them to.”
It’s encouraging to see new businesses open on his street, but Levanos has watched so many others come and go. And slower months lie ahead. “It’s rough to make the rent in the winter here," he said.
Tea and coffee
Last fall: Dusty odds and ends are visible through the window at 15 Eagle St., which sits vacant.
Now: The dust is gone, and Beau Barela sits at a window seat in Hearts Pace, a tea shop and healing arts lounge he opened in early August.
“It’s really exciting to see new businesses opening on the street,” Barela said, pointing to the game store across the street. “Time will obviously tell about how viable it is to do business here."
A plant hangs from the ceiling and soft jazzy music plays as a customer comes into the shop and Barela serves them cold brew coffee. Colorful art from a Greenfield artist hangs on the walls and there’s a display of handmade pottery from a North Adams ceramicist on one counter.
The shop’s first month exceeded expectations, but Barela knows there tends to be extra buzz when a business first opens. Events like the downtown celebration and First Fridays boost have helped, he said.
With Kristy Edmunds taking over as the new director of Mass MoCA, Barela is hopeful that there are plans to encourage visitors to explore downtown. But it's incumbent on businesses, too, to market themselves.
“It’s just as important that they enjoy their time here and have a reason to come back,” he said.
Art in vacant storefronts
Last fall: The windows of the Tower and Porter Block, a large building on Eagle Street, are empty.
Now: Several bright canvases cover large windows, bringing color to the street.
It’s part of an initiative to put art on vacant storefront windows. Art on Main and Eagle streets was refreshed recently in a project organized by Arthur DeBow, Anna Farrington, Andrew Fitch and Nicholas Rigger, and that involved the city and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.
“I think it's awesome we get to showcase these local artists' work in these empty storefronts,” said Farrington, who started First Fridays and owns Installation Space on Eagle Street.
At the same time, she said, “I think it's sort of covering up the bigger issue, which is the empty storefront itself.”
Some days, 15 people make purchases at Secret Stash, an adult novelty, gift and sex shop, while other days, just one person will browse and leave empty handed. “We’re doing OK,” owner Shana Snow said while standing at the register on a recent morning. “I’m not going to say we’re doing great.”
To make ends meet, Snow works other jobs, like bartending. Amid the pandemic, she changed her business from Jeepers Creepers, a kids’ party store, to Secret Stash. The checkout counter is lined with lip balm, CBD products, watches, candles and sex toys and a sign saying “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere” hangs overhead.
Snow would like to see the city put up signage pointing people to businesses. Mass MoCA should also play roll in promoting local businesses and encouraging visitors to explore the city beyond the museum’s campus, she said.
“Personally, I feel like Mass MoCA is all about themselves."
Corner of Eagle and Main streets
Last fall: A prominent building at the corner of Eagle and Main streets sits empty.
Now: Development of the property is underway. What's in store?
“You’re not going to get the full story yet,” said Fitch, who bought the property late last year.
Fitch has said that he plans to open a commercial space on the first floor and residential on the second. Designs are nearly complete and construction could start this fall or winter.
In the meantime, the windows are full of art, like pastel and oil landscape paintings by North Adams artist Diane Reed Sawyer, and a Black Lives Matter flag hangs on the second floor window. He wants to see more art in vacant storefronts until they are filled, hoping that will help attract people.
“I have come to the realization and understanding that downtown North Adams is a difficult nut to crack,” said Fitch, who moved here around a year ago. “I think we’re starting to get there. There is some secret sauce that’s missing.”
Breadcrumbs and the Emporium
Brian Lefebvre recently opened BPL Sports Cards and Collectibles in a corner of Berkshire Emporium & Antiques, a gift and antique store that also rents smaller spaces to other vendors.
With a full-time job elsewhere, Lefebvre is usually in the shop on weekends, but on a recent weekday, he happened to be standing behind the glass counter that holds sports cards. Bobbleheads sat on a shelf on one wall behind him and Boston Bruins pendants and football jerseys hung on another.
“My goal is to get this as big as I possibly can and maybe move to Main Street,” Lefebvre said. That worked for Savvy Hive, a thrift store that started in a space at the Emporium and recently moved to Main Street. For now, it’s his “side hustle,” he said.
The new sports mini-shop is doing “a heck of a lot better than I expected,” said Emporium owner Keith Bona, who has run the business for 18 years. “He’s one of the top vendors of all the spaces.”
Nearby on Eagle Street, Bona has noticed more businesses opening, but he still sees downtown as “Swiss cheesed,” meaning retail businesses are spread too far apart.
He worries visitors wandering down Main Street might not make it to Eagle Street. “They need those breadcrumbs to draw them to Eagle,” he said. He was not thrilled, for example, to see a law office fill an empty space on the corner of Main and Marshall streets.
“A visitor isn’t going to say, ‘I need a lawyer,’” he said.
TD Bank Building
Last fall: The former TD Bank building sits empty, bearing a sign on the dusty door saying it closed.
Now: At dusk, thousands of globes of light in the windows flicker in the floor-to-ceiling windows.
It’s not clear what the new owners, who purchased the property late last year, will do with the building in the long term, but through winter it will be lit up at night with the art installation that can be seen from the sidewalk.
WallaSauce & Conscientious Cloth
Here you’ll find the “beginning and end of cloth’s life,” Conscientious Cloth owner and artist Megan Karlen told a man who was browsing one morning at her shop on Main Street.
She teamed up with WallaSauce Co-owners Andrew “Kirby” Casteel and Sarah DeFusco, who have been selling clothing and other handmade, upcycled items for several years, to open a pop-up shop this summer with grant funding from a 1Berkshire business pilot program.
The previously empty storefront that was used as a mayoral campaign headquarters last fall is now home to the two businesses. It’s filled with colorful embroidered T-shirts, handmade rugs made of recycled materials, patches from fabric scraps, and handwoven fabrics and scarves.
The pop-up was originally set for at least a few months, but the trio has extended their lease through December and hope to stay longer. “We’re curious to see how the winter goes,” DeFusco said. “We’re here in the prime right now.”
Vacancies on Main
A lock hangs on the doors of the Dowlin Block, 101-107 Main Street. Buntic has owned this property for a few years, and said he wants to turn it into a hotel.
Just down the street, the future of the long-empty Mohawk Theater is still unclear, after no one submitted bids to a request for proposals for the space by July’s deadline. During North Adams Mayor Jennifer Mackey’s campaign last fall, she emphasized the redevelopment of the theater as key for downtown.
Macksey, who came into office last January, said her administration has undertaken projects to support downtown. They include putting flowers in the Main Street median, refreshing peeling light post paint and strategizing with Mass MoCA.
But there are some factors holding back economic development that are out of her control.
"I can't tell people what to charge for rent," she said.
Like others, Macksey is excited to see new stores open and others expand, but notes there are still vacant storefronts.
"The work can't stop," she said.
She's regrouping after no bids were submitted for the Mohawk and talked to three developers who toured it but did not submit proposals. She plans to put out another call for proposal, and in the meantime, the marquee will undergo restoration.
"It's going to glow," she said.
With more than 100,000 visitors each year, Mass MoCA is a massive driver of traffic to the city.
“From my point of view the museum definitely has an important role in economic development for [North] Adams, the region, and the arts and culture sector writ large,” Edmunds, the museum’s director, wrote in an email to The Eagle.
She took the helm as director of Mass MoCA last October, and says the museum, along with other civic groups, can be catalysts for growth downtown. Edmunds said she is exploring economic development efforts and "once these concepts are ready for prime time I'll be able to be more specific."
Still, she said, it’s difficult to overcome some physical barriers, such as the overpass system that separates the museum from much of downtown.
“MASS MoCA has its own physical layout and scale and it sits on the 'other' side of that overpass,” she wrote.
Even though she's still somewhat new to town, Edmunds said she's not oblivious to Mass MoCA's role in shaping the future of North Adams.
It's "not a one-way street," she said. "We are interdependent with what the town seeks, wants and has capacity to aim toward and generate together."