John Dickson: Pittsfield's neighborhoods intersect through time
PITTSFIELD — One of the only computer games I ever played was called Sim City. This is the game where players build a city by adding residences, businesses, roads, buildings and react to the consequences of each of their moves. Too many houses results in traffic congestion and resident unrest, quelled only when the player adds roads and public transport or starts building in a new area. Too many roads put a city's fiscal situation in dire straits, so the player needs to figure out how to attract more businesses that could end up putting a strain on the city's utilities. And so on.
This game came to mind during the research and preparation of the exhibit "Intersections, A History of Pittsfield's Neighborhoods," on display at the Berkshire Athenaeum in conjunction with the 10x10 Upstreet Arts Festival in Pittsfield. 10x10 Intersections is a collaborative project between the Athenaeum, the Berkshire County Historical Society and Miss Hall's School.
Take the neighborhood called Lakeside, or as some have referred to it, Little Italy. This covers the area east of Park Square, down Fenn Street all the way to East Street, with the lake in its name being Silver Lake. When the first buildings sprouted up around Park Square, this area was most likely forested and then turned into farm or grazing land. The first lots were sold to English, French and African-American settlers so they could walk to work in the center of town or to church. One early resident was Samuel Harrison, a 34-year-old preacher, who paid $50 for a lot on Third Street in 1852, two years after moving to Pittsfield to take up his duties at the Second Congregational Church. Later, John Crosby bought a home in this neighborhood when he moved to the town to take up his duties as county sheriff in 1868.
The real impetus to growth in this area came from the Robbins and Kellogg Shoe Company that built a four-story factory on Fourth Street and immediately offered employment for up to 450 people. The company built homes and tenements to house its workers. Making shoes turned out to be a major draw for early immigrants from Italy who began to take up positions in the company. They, in turn, pulled relatives and neighbors to the area as vegetable and fruit peddlers. Another immigrant, Charles Genovese, saw a business opportunity as his neighbors had difficulty securing bank loans so he opened Banc Italia in the front of his residence on Fenn Street.
CEMENTED IN PLACE
The influx of Italians then spawned enthusiasm in the community for their own church, and launched a 20-year campaign to build Mt. Carmel. The first mass was held in 1924 and the church grew to include a parochial school, a parish house and a rectory. The church held the residents in place, even after the shoe company closed in 1900, but by then, new jobs were available, still in walking distance, in the new Stanley Manufacturing and then General Electric plants.
New lots, houses and then multi-family units, shops and businesses, new arrivals, churches, schools, community centers. These are the cement that hold together the neighborhoods in the city and propel the transitions through the city's history.
Several characteristics became apparent during the course of the research. First, for the most part, the city's ethnic communities intermingled in these neighborhoods. Kevin O'Hara, in his wonderful book "Lucky Irish Lad," describes Halloween trick-or-treating in his Wahconah neighborhood, past the homes belonging to the Callahans and Horrigans, on to the Gagliardis, Douillets, Marinaros and Walczyks.
In addition, we were able to find and relay the stories of nationally accomplished residents tucked away in these neighborhoods, including our well-known figures Oliver Wendell Holmes and Herman Melville over on Holmes Road, but also those who should be more well known, such as Carolyn Claiborne Park, a BCC teacher whose book, "The Siege," changed the way people view autism or Alfreda Withington, who lived on South Street and was the first female member of the Massachusetts Medical Society. The acclaimed nature photographer Edwin Hale Lincoln took up duties as a caretaker on Allendale Farm and raised his family there.
Further, we unearthed stories about places that surprised even some current local residents. I had a hard time finding people who lived near Fort Hill Avenue who knew there had been an actual colonial fort at the road's intersection with West Street. Or that there were once 17 billiards parlors in the city. Or that the site of Wal-mart and Home Depot was once a thriving lumber yard.
Finally, it also became apparent that the story of transition is not complete. Evidence of new arrivals still seeking to build new lives in Pittsfield shows up in Spanish-language masses at St. Mark's Church on West Street or West African stores on Tyler Street. The long tradition of welcome and recognition of hard-earned livelihoods continues to contribute to the rich mosaic that sets this city apart and offers it a future.
John Dickson is a local historian and occasional Eagle contributor.
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