Judy Waters: City's growing pains led to new visions, values

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LUNENBURG — How did Pittsfield solve its growing problem of town versus city? It took resolve and vision.

Pittsfield prepared for a critical vote in February 1890. People were divided. One side supported keeping town meeting government, the other advocated for a city charter. A crucial decision would dictate how Pittsfield would govern on future issues.

This town controversy, as chronicled by historian Edward Boltwood ("History of Pittsfield, Massachusetts 1876-1916") started with distinguished resident Thomas F. Plunkett. He said in 1872, that a board of "three selectmen" was no longer viable. Decisions needed to be faster and better. However, for many, a city charter was risky. For a decade, the town wavered; two drafts sent to Boston were unsuccessful.

Quickly a narrative took hold; it was based on a fear that Pittsfield would lose its familiar character. Like other U.S. cities it might fall into corruption. Also, "old systems were practical." Town meeting allowed for individuals to express opinion and vote directly. And the town of Pittsfield was filled with history, literary arts, business and culture.

An inertia took over Pittsfield. People were weary. But in 1885 the tide was turned. An "elaborately informative report" on town finances, said Boltwood, was issued. For residents, reading the report was an epiphany. By 1888 a new city charter draft was sent to Boston; it came back in need of revision. The charter offered "checks and balances familiar to the minds of every American" according to Boltwood.

It was a concrete move, finally.

With charter revisions made, on February 11, 1890, voters went to the polls. Results were close, 932-786 in favor of city charter. Emotions were strong: would the town of Pittsfield be lost? Only half of eligible voters turned out, which made for subdued victory, but change was on tap.

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April, 1890 — Pittsfield said farewell to town meeting. The city's first mayor, elected Dec. 2, 1890, was Charles E. Hibbard. An inaugural celebration was held at the Academy of Music on North Street. The city was divided into seven wards. It was a turning point 18 years in the making.

Becoming a city meant growth and new values. In 1892 the U.S. began processing immigrants at Ellis Island. From 1895 to 1920 Pittsfield's population doubled; immigrants represented a quarter of the city's residents. New schools were built. Did newcomers feel welcomed? "Social observers" said Boltwood, referring to 1915, started to hear the phrase "your city" as opposed to "our city." City Hall took initiative to support naturalization and civic awareness. Pittsfield now had a Y.M.C.A., a Boys' Club, a Working Girls' and Business Women's Clubs. For both immigrants and long-term residents, these were organizations that helped bring a sense of shared connection; they enabled enabled inclusiveness and community.

From its 1752 origins at Pontoosuc Plantation, Pittsfield has always been a place of transition. The loss of GE by the late 1980s took a significant toll. Well into the post-industrial era, today North Street increasingly is turning a corner. For decades, women have held city offices including that of mayor (no women were included in the city's early committees on city charter). Pittsfield is upholding support for LGBTQ residents and for new immigrants. Pittsfield's long-held strengths, its natural beauty, rural surroundings, arts and culture, are vibrant.

Post-industrial life is a new reality. Whereas Berkshire populations once surged, across rural and western Mass., they are shifting, declining. Some school committees are tackling mergers. Gateway Cities, including Pittsfield, face issues of crime, poverty and public transportation. But exploration into east-west rail is positive. There is a major new state school funding formula awaiting that could help target economic barriers to education, though outcomes await. In Pittsfield, residents are committed to their neighborhood surroundings and quality of life, even while tackling issues. In 2019, people are looking for creative ideas to many 21st century problems.

Practicality has always defined Pittsfield. It's a strength but so are vision and values of equality. In 1890 Pittsfield took a chance, grew and changed. Past or present, it has always been the resiliency and problem solving of the people of Pittsfield that made a difference, despite disagreement. Throughout Berkshire history, Pittsfield has often been on the cusp of change.

Judy Waters is a Pittsfield native and former Richmond resident.


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