The Berkshire bubble: A landscape of possibilities?


Photo Gallery | Yo-Yo Ma, The Eagle convene Berkshire creatives at Seranak

LENOX — A high-profile conclave of arts, business and media leaders billed as a discussion of the area's creative economy turned instead into a tale of two Berkshires.

One is a vibrant, picture-postcard South County paradise garden in "a bubble" with a wall to the north, in stark contrast to the economically stressed, drug-afflicted city of Pittsfield and points north cited by several speakers, notably Berkshire County NAACP President Dennis Powell.

"I'm saying, take down the wall that I think is constructed at the Guido's line," he said, referring to Guido's Fresh Marketplace, just inside the city line on Routes 7 and 20. "Past Guido's, there's non-existence, and there's a community there. It's a young community and it's a hurting community."

Powell urged the hushed audience: "We've got to give our young people hope, we've got to give them the same opportunity that all of you have had. Because it's opportunity that makes us achieve."

Seranak backdrop

The incongruous setting was a sun-dappled late-afternoon cocktail party Thursday on the scenic grounds of Seranak off Richmond Mountain Road, with a million-dollar view overlooking Stockbridge Bowl and hills to the south.

Seranak, former summer home of Serge Koussevitzky, the Boston Symphony's music director from 1924-49 and founder of Tanglewood, was purchased by the BSO in 1978 after the death of his widow, Olga, for donor events and housing for guides, interns and important visitors.

The discussion was organized by The Berkshire Eagle's new local-ownership team in collaboration with Boston Symphony management.

It was moderated by superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma, whose second home is in Tyringham, and Gerard McBurney, the British composer, arranger, broadcaster, teacher and writer whose father, Charles McBurney, a noted archaeologist, lived in Stockbridge until he was 14.

'Better, stronger'

As Eagle co-owner and Stockbridge resident Hans Morris pointed out, "The combination of all the local attractions we have here, the arts institutions, create something unique. How can we as a community make that even better and stronger?"

"What makes us absolutely unique is Tanglewood," said BSO Managing Director Mark Volpe. "There's nothing like it, and nothing like the Berkshires."

He cited a "critical mass" of cultural institutions such as Jacob's Pillow, theater companies and museums. "We've been able to partner with them on educational initiatives and economic development," Volpe said. "It's a cultural phenomenon here, we're mutually supportive."

Introduced by Morris as "the house cellist of the Boston Symphony," Ma described his chats with Tanglewood Music Center and Boston University Tanglewood Institute students who are "hyped-up to do things that matter. A lot of their questions were about what happens when you feel despair and how do you connect what you do to what's happening around the world."

McBurney remembered growing up in Cambridge, England, surrounded by paintings and photos of the Berkshires collected by his father, "for whom Stockbridge and the Berkshires were home."

Emphasizing the beauty and impact of the landscape, he acknowledged that "anything I say about this place is stupendously impertinent, because I know less about it in some way than everybody else here."

What's your wish?

Ma asked several of the nearly 100 guests to suggest that "if you had one wish that you could change something in this community that you know and love so well, what would that wish be?"

Norman Rockwell Museum Director/CEO Laurie Norton Moffatt asked "Why is this a place of such opportunity for all of our visitors and those who really enjoy and partake of the cultural offerings here, and yet why is it a place that so few of our young people perceive having an opportunity and a future ahead of them?"

"If I could change something," Norton Moffatt added, "it would be how to create a land of possibility to our young people so everyone could get on board with the beauty, the enrichment and the real joy that I think we all feel living and working here that is not universally shared."

Red Lion Inn owner and philanthropist Nancy Fitzpatrick emphasized that "right now, I'm fixated on Pittsfield because I think it's our city, the center of our county and I really feel it needs to be a fabulous little city. All of us, all of the cultural organizations would benefit from it."

"It's a place where a lot of our disadvantaged people live," she said. "The people who come to the Berkshires to enjoy our cultural attractions and have resources to support things, I just wish they would be more aware of the hurt, suffering and needs in our potentially wonderful small city."

Berkshire 'bubble'

As a leader of the investment group that purchased New England Newspapers Inc., and its flagship, The Eagle, on May 2, Robert G. Wilmers told the gathering that he has been spending time in the Berkshires for nearly 50 years, "for all the reasons we've talked about, including the beauty that's here."

"But in another way, we live in a bubble and when I'm not here, I spend most of my time in Buffalo, N.Y., the third poorest city in the United States," he said. "When you wander around Pittsfield, there are a lot of similarities. Like most other cities, there are two different worlds and they don't intersect very much."

Wilmers described the major issues confronting Pittsfield, the Berkshires and beyond as "the problems of the youth, not knowing what to do, where they're going, what their ambitions are, of opioids, rampant in small villages and Pittsfield, and the difference between them and us. We see that played out on a national stage, these are big problems and I don't think any of us have the answers. If we had the answers, we'd be doing something about it."

Educator Philip Deely, of Stockbridge, a descendant of the Sedgwick family rooted in the area since the 18th century, urged less emphasis "on this phenomenon of parochialism, regionalism of south South County and north South County, south of Stockbridge and north of Stockbridge. If you go right up the county, up to North Adams and the hilltowns, there is this difficulty of coordinating and communicating that seems peculiar in this day and age of tremendous technological resources."

'So many care'

Representing younger guests at the soiree, 31-year-old architects Chris Parkinson and Tessa Kelly of the Pittsfield firm CPTK, both county natives, offered an upbeat view.

Parkinson suggested that "if we were in New York, nobody would care about what we're doing, but we come to the Berkshires and so many people care. We could improve transportation, the infrastructure, the schools but the single most powerful thing the Berkshires has is everybody that's sitting here, and your opportunity to connect with someone like us and tell us, 'You can do this, here is a place where that opportunity lives.' "

Kelly described a National Endowment for the Arts grant to make Pittsfield residents more aware of the area's literary legacy — including Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes — by designing and building five mobile writers' studios to be located throughout the city next July for a new writers-in-residence program.

"The grander idea is to figure out a way that the important and often celebrated history of the Berkshires can create something new for young people to come back and continue that creative production here," Kelly said.

Catalyst for change

Concluding on an optimistic note, Eagle President Fredric D. Rutberg declared that "I firmly believe there's magic in these mountains, and a lot of what we've heard tonight are ways to sort of unlock this magic."

"I've done a few things in my life that I'm proud of and a lot I'm not," he said. "But starting the ball rolling on the purchase of The Berkshire Eagle is something I'm very proud of right now. I think we can help and be a catalyst to be connectors, that's what this event was about, what makes the Berkshires a special place for creativity."

The retired Berkshire District Court judge voiced the firm belief "that a community newspaper can be that kind of catalyst, to begin to take care of some of the issues that have torn this community apart. This is a great, great place, we're so fortunate that we're here, but it is a bubble, there is a wall, all these things are true.

"Nothing is insurmountable because there is a community that is fantastic," he said, "and our job as journalists is to tell those stories, to try to make this a lot better place to live."

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.


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