Joe Manning never made North Adams his permanent home, yet he was one of its fondest admirers and most enduring champions.
For more than 25 years, Mr. Manning’s faith and optimism in North Adams never wavered.
NORTH ADAMS — Joe Manning, who observed, wrote about and cherished the city of North Adams for more than two decades, has died.
While Mr. Manning, of Florence, never lived in North Adams, he knew as much, if not more, about this city — from its people to its history to what makes North Adams “North Adams” — than any lifelong resident. Last week, Mr. Manning died. He was 79.
Mr. Manning first came to visit North Adams in 1996, lured by its realities and possibilities as an up-and-coming and revitalized community. He befriended the city at a time when its proud history and promising future were learning to become allies. And he quickly embraced both: He saw North Adams’ steeple-filled skyline and its horizon amid the development stages of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.
Mr. Manning was intrigued by North Adams’ transformation from the mill city it had been into its new identity as a resurgent, Mass MoCA-led creative community. Over the years, he visited North Adams, arriving at dawn and leaving it well after dusk in order to explore it, befriend its people, to soak up its personality and character.
Along the way, he got involved and helped in the community as if it was his own.
Mr. Manning’s many skills — author, historian, genealogist, poet, photographer, songwriter —made him a polymath perfectly primed for street-level sociology and history hunting, and when he visited North Adams in the ’90s, shortly before retiring, a city’s worth of inspiration grabbed him and never let go. Over the years, his undying affection for the city produced a treasure-trove of transcribed local lore — some of which would not be readily accessible if not for his tireless efforts.
He authored two books on the city, “Steeples: Sketches of North Adams” and “Disappearing Into North Adams,” in addition to countless articles and commentaries. As part of the “Joe Manning: Looking at North Adams” exhibit, excerpts of his writings adorn the old mill walls that have been transformed into the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, his words helping to bridge the city’s past, present and future.
For nearly a decade, he created oral history programs for the city’s public schools. The curriculum encouraged kids to interview their elderly relatives, giving youths a window to the past and spotlighting the oft-overlooked role of everyday people in shaping our communities’ history. And he secured a grant to help fund the programs.
Intentionally, Mr. Manning chose not to make his home in North Adams. He sought to preserve a bit of an outsider’s perspective, a documentarian’s distance as a lens through which to capture the whole of a city that had captured his heart. He even cherished driving into the city through the Berkshire mountains just as much as he did the endless hours he spent traversing the city’s sidewalks and hilly terrain.
Those who do reside in North Adams know more about their home’s history because of Mr. Manning. Author Elizabeth Winthrop had asked Mr. Manning to track down descendants of a 12-year-old girl in a 1910 photograph taken in a Vermont cotton mill. Naturally, he ambitiously expanded the endeavor into his Lewis Hine Project, seeing it as an opportunity to retrace the often-invisible lines between early 20th-century child laborers and their descendants who make up our modern communities.
On his website, Mr. Manning described his motivation: “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. By finding out what happened to some of them … we are dignifying their lives, and the lives of everyone that history has forgotten.”
No stone left unturned. No soul left forgotten. That was Joe’s MO.
In a March 2000 article, Mr. Manning wrote about preserving pieces of the past for the future to hold, presciently reflecting his own legacy: “With my eyes, my ears, my pen, and my camera, I will continue to enjoy and record the blessings and beauty of this place. Someday, today’s memories may be stashed away in a row of file cabinets in City Hall.”
Thanks to Joe Manning, those memories also live on in the hearts and minds of North Adams. It’s a legacy that will, fittingly, go down in local history.